Juvenilia, by Ken Chen. Yale University Press. 78 pp., $18.00.
The first person in American poetry has become a marked man, a “person of interest” in the criminal sense. All he ever wanted was to be a metaphor for something. We tried to keep him sober and productive. But in his epiphanic moments, we could no longer ignore his untrustworthiness. Sensing a shift in our toleration, he toned things down even to flatness. But we understood him all too well. “Don’t make yourself so small,” we taunted him. “You’re not that big.”
Formerly unique first persons now take cover in reduced circumstances. Huddled together in the ghetto, they recognize how lamentably similar they are. They begin to reassess their fragile position in a world whose events have overtaken them and everyone else. Are they even “themselves” anymore?
Meanwhile, the past hundred years have insisted on training the reader for receptivity to imaginary provocations voiced by unconventional beings. Voices more loyal to the distortions we suffer and savor. When I recite such a poem, my body (out of which the voice issues) is freed from events encroaching via commandeered language. In this way, I develop a profound regard for these voices of the other (my own throat throbbing!), while betraying the suspiciously coherent first-person speaker to the cleansing authorities. The voices range through every quarter of feeling and thought to resist being reduced to a single dimension of blandness and terror. They speak both the expressway and the escape tunnel into obsolescence.
But vibrant doctrine becomes institutional style. The few piercing voices are singular and solitary, examining their own working conditions while liberating memory from repetition into the sound of a mind-in-progress. They even welcome the returning, chastened first person from the resettlement camp and give him a job with a living wage. Ezra Pound said, “The supreme test of a book is that we should feel some unusual intelligence working behind the words.” The unusual “I” is a rare perennial. This brings us to Juvenilia, Ken Chen’s first book of poems.
In the opening poem, “My Father and My Mother Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei?”, the speaker-as-child (“my father’s son,” the poem’s “you”) rides in the backseat of a remembered Acura with Wang Wei, who recites a little poetry:
‘Red hearts in the southern country
Spring comes with stems enlarging.
I didn’t know you two were still together’
We’re not, my Father says. He is unsentimental and gestures
at the wish that furnishes the mind of his son.
Your son? Asks Wang Wei. He has seen me and become real, as
though a ghost could die into a man. Not the monk you quite expect,
Wang Wei wears a cowboy’s deadened face and stares
at you not unlike an establishing
shot. He says, Who are you?
Like the scene in the movie, where the actors
find the camera and say Stop
looking at me, they quit the car and stand. And I say:
Wish you’d gather some, caught me
more of this thing that is longing.
And Wang Wei asks Who are you?
And my Father says Decide.
Juvenilia enacts a stubborn refusal or an inability to accede to adulthood. Either way, revels in its own otherness. Non-aggressive contention is its keynote. If the adult is someone who goes deep into memory and the archives to find his youth and its puerile output, Chen’s response is to reject the adult’s authoritative binary system (I-then/I-now). He prefers a voice that is simply present, contra-analytical, unsettled, unripened into premature conclusion—the first person reconditioned. In those poems where the lack of conventional, mature gravity is especially pronounced, the words practically dissipate. This is because there must be something disposable and disabling about the other‘s voice, too—such that when it goes silent (or my voice, reciting, is stilled), the face of a tender, tenuous self of indeterminate dimension is all that remains.
Rather than consider Chen’s Chinese-backgrounded verse as proof of American literary diversity, I regard the poetry itself as pluralistic, since it reflects, as Michelle Yeh has described Taiwanese poetry, “high modernism, surrealism, nativism, realism, and postmodernism of all persuasion” existing together. Chen’s thematic dismissal of discontinuous time-of-life categories finds a formal analog in his hybridizing of literary genres. Juvenilia is preoccupied with notions of legacy, but it is hardly content to muse over inherited family traits and lore. Chen is an heir to a fortune of language. To engage with this book is to assist the poet in the work of understanding, attending to his tools as much as his construction.
In the multi-part cross-genre piece “Taipei Novel,” he braids all of the “isms” into a narrative about his parents’ youthful love affair that includes lyric poetry, prose, Confucian commentary, and a mother’s quoted remarks. He writes:
Sky dark as nuzzling faces.
He thought love was a room that power could not enter.
“It wasn’t like that. I was lonely then.”
A new relationship makes detectives of all of us.
What if a heart is no one’s goal. What if it is an outcome.
I cannot think of another young poet who writes so palpably, ingenuously about love. Since I must act like a “detective” from the outset of reading Juvenilia, I speculate that Chen addresses me as if I were the beloved in “a new relationship,” in which the “goal” is not my surrender but something (“an outcome”) both more active and isolate. He writes elsewhere as his own Confucius, “The goal of love is to be unmastered”—though in that instance, it is the speaker’s disappointed lover advising him to “deploy your heart past its range.”
The opening, family-oriented section also includes “Dramatic Monologue Against the Self,” a crypto-essay that initially claims, “We find ourselves bored by creative nonfiction, autobiography, and memoir, which forsake the personality of thought for the impersonality of narrative . . . of all our literary genres, it is our most popular and marginal, two adjectives that explain rather than contradict each other.” Popular and marginal describe the mainstream entertainments and arts of his generation, from music to comedy to literature. (Mainstream and marginal explain rather than contradict each other.) He writes, “Yet to say that the essay questions suggests that it quests. The essay may wander, it may be a science of associations, but it wanders with a goal.” Chen’s inside-out ars-poetica is serious about glibness and glib about signification, a speech chasing its own tail (the “goal”).
The second part of Juvenilia moves to “Banal Love Songs,” poems about the speaker’s tenuous relationship with a lover. Chen was trained as a lawyer; his poems’ persona is a disputant in a nonlinear debate over the nature of experience, language, and relations with others. Here is the first of six parts in “The City of Habits”:
When you speak of how poorly I treat you, you speak as though we have a thing inside us, such as a heart, a mind, or other flint ball that we strike with our thoughts and spark into intentions. I do not believe that we have intentions. We possess practices, an ecosystem of habits that may or may not be good for us. The dew on the grass stalks, the air-moistening leaf and the dark and breathing woods – our lush habits give us a life that we can breathe before we dive back into the black waters. We spend most of our lives in these waters.
The lovers, intense, passionate, keep getting lost
Tonight, pearled with high-beams, the cars escorting couples to their lives—unstarred night since you were at Howe Street and I was walking home.
The headlights—not a car, but two motorcycles.
A man who congratulates himself before a couple for introducing the two of them. But he did not introduce them to each other and in fact they have just broken up.
How does the bridge implicate us?
How lovely to be modern, when the entire world is inanimate!
The couple bought a furnished apartment, but the day before they moved it, the landlord sent movers to switch the expensive furniture for the cheap.
How the snow silts outside my window, bricking our apartment into an egg. Sorry, my apartment.
He studies the ceiling for hours before he sleeps – for the ceiling is ours. He wore the bedroom ceiling as his eyelid.
Sadness, the cave—Have fun burying yourself!
The birds alight at our feet and begin to burrow into dirt.
He found it difficult to recognize beauty. Honest enough his sadness not beautiful.
Longing would be so much easier without the other person obstructing it.
I believe you discuss romantic loss because it allows you to believe that you are an innocent person who must merely solve a problem that is small, temporary, and local.
In love, that holy toy.
Just because you are the victim does not mean that you are not the perpetrator.
Chen’s speaker purports to be comprised of “practices,” not intentions. It is a cold response to the other’s plea for kinder treatment. The poem’s moment is packed with, and affected by, rampant implications figured by the splitting of a car’s lights into motorcycles, the transit between bridged land bodies, the bait-and-switch of furniture, the all-inclusive perpetrating world. So the poem, the speech (at times quite childish), aspires to behave like yet another outside influence, an unpurposed, habitual, driven, surface-thing. Chen’s speaker would like to have the same characteristics as the mysterious other, freed from history’s interpretation. But he arrives embedded with his parents’ genetic tendency to a certain love. His only chance comes through the act of speaking otherly.
Since Chen knows that every poem has an intention, his conceit must include its own collapse. I and the speaker’s alienated lover obstruct (with our demands) the speaker’s longing for pure, non-intended, bloodless practice. This is why the love songs are knowingly called “banal.” Chen pulls off the amazing trick of enticing us into the attractions of a mind in attentive, enclosed motion, while posting arrows to exit the cave (“Have fun burying yourself!”). He writes, “These experiences taught me how to tell myself a story without realizing it and slowly begin to uninterpret it to myself. . . . My life is not unbearable yet still I must escape it.” Similarly, I am drawn into the story through the unconventionality of the telling “without realizing it,” and although I learn from it in an oblique way, I can’t dwell there, so I must escape . . .
. . . but not before the final section, “The Invisible Memoir,” a sketchy, multi-faceted overview of the speaker’s and his family’s lives, composed of various materials and forms. What began with Wang Wei ends with Li Yu, “the inventor of the confessional voice in Chinese poetry,” a shrewd pick:
And it is also curious that almost all of his thirty-seven surviving poems are impossible to place accurately in the chronology of his life. And while these poems depict a devastating nostalgia for one’s home, this itself was a conventional period motif; in fact the poems were titled after the popular melodies to which they were sung.
The inventor of personalized confession is himself a disappearing act, a product of the outside (his culture), a set of practices, a modernist. Chen’s “devastating nostalgia” for the love lives of his separated parents becomes a nostalgia for his own, registered within the “impossible to place” parameters of his life. He is vanishing. Is it he or Li Yu who is speaking?
No words my own, nothing to say, climbing alone
the western chamber. The moon bent like a hook.
Lonely under the sycamores — all autumn, locked in …
Cannot cut it cleanly off or even
order it without the mess. This is
the sorrow of leaving – no other taste in my heart.
Ron Slate’s second book of poems, The Great Wave, was published this spring by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He maintains a book review called “On the Seawall” and a homepage at ronslate.com.
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