When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht

The jubilantly titled debut from Chen Chen weaves together his complex narrative as an immigrant and a queer man. The poems are full of wisdom and wit, engaging with the slow revelation of the poet’s sense of self but also with metaphysics, psychology, and the cosmos: “Your smile in the early dark is a paraphrase of Mars. Your smile in the deep dark is an anagram of Jupiter.” “In the City” is an accomplished poem in which the speaker and his mother make dumplings and are interrupted by his father. It utilizes fractured poetics next to the fractured speech of immigrant parents. There are also poems about nature, sex, and loss, and a poem echoing Christopher Smart’s ode to his cat, “For I will consider my boyfriend Jeffrey. / For he is an atheist but makes room for the unseen, unsayable.” Chen Chen references Audre Lorde in one of the book’s most powerful moments: “This English, I bear it, a master’s / axe, yet so is every tongue—red with singing & killing.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2017.