Chen Chen

Chen Chen

One Year Later: Her Answer 

In memory of Ruthann Johnson

September, again
& she is

not, again 
& he keeps thinking of things to ask her
then remembering he can’t, & I could

ask, in a beautiful
poem sort of way, what was the creature she always wanted

to growl as, the candy she always hoped
to create? But I want him to be able to pick up the phone, to call
his mom with all his beautifully

boring questions—yeah, it’s the fridge again, what
should I do? What should I check first?

Should I take everything
out? Just put it on the floor? Are you home,
are you watching Frasier?   

But the last question I can remember, the one I keep remembering
her answer to

was in the hospital. & I can’t stop hearing, seeing
her voice, her face in the hospital,
when the social worker came, asked if everyone in the room

was family—when his mother, from her bed, looked
right at me, said, Yes.

In the World’s Italianest Restaurant

In memory of Justin Chin, 1969-2015

OK but why aren’t more people talking about the fact—the undeniably 
indisputable fact—that you were hot? 

A simple Google image search confirms this. My erogenous zones 
affirm this. You with your 

tattooed arms, which clearly you knew were A Key Feature, yes I’m talking 
about all those photos 

in a plain T-shirt, polo, tank top. You with your goatee & mustache, 
the stache I’m trying 

these days to emulate. Did you ever go full-on caterpillar with that? 
Did it work—meaning, 

was it hot? These are the questions I need to ask you. If only 
we’d met. I wish we could meet, 

this bright blue afternoon, in the boba tea shop down the street, the spot 
I always ask folks to come to, 

even from the afterlife, or what must be the bluest of oblivions. 
But if you’re feeling 

fancy, let’s go to that Pizza Hut, the one my aunt took me to once, in Xiamen, 
& let me tell you—

stunning. Like a seriously Italian Italian fine dining establishment. 
I’d order us a large 

pepperoni pizza, then between bites tell you about the white guy on Facebook 
who called me an ‘identitalian clown’ 

for posting ‘nonstop’ about race. I’d write a poem called ‘White Guys on Facebook’
but I’d rather not further exhaust 

my exhaustion. How tired were you? Growing up? 
In those last years? 

Some days I wonder if I’ll make it to your age. 

Scrolling down the same image search, the cover of my first book 
pops up, 

from an article about Asian American poets. Gutted
is highlighted, your 

last book of poems. I wish I could’ve sent you my first. & told you 
what it felt like to find yours, 

Bite Hard, in a college library. The way I hid it 
between two more 

innocent-looking books I’ve long since forgotten. This habit I began 
in high school—sneaking 

into my backpack, then my room, all the queer 
lit, every bit of this 

aliveness I could find. The fact—the fact I’d love to dispute, deny, 
but can’t—that it took 

until college to find books & writers both queer & Asian. 
How I’m still shedding 

the unaliveness, the lie that queer & Asian must mean un- & never-
innocent, that to live 

like you is to choose pain & sorrow 
& pain. 

Have you heard about this new virus? That a body like yours, like mine 
is once again presumed sick, 

preferred dying, pronounced tragic-
ally already dead? 

I wish, I need to: send you this poem. Or better: for us to write 
together, to compose an acerbic yet ecstatic 

epic called ‘Identitalian Clowns’ that recounts every moment of the bright 
afternoon we ate pizza, while talking 

about how painful this world has made our living—
as well as how hot & mustachioed 

& hot 
we can’t help but continue to make ourselves.

a small book of questions: chapter v

after Bhanu Kapil 

How will you live now? 

In other words, aren’t both the triumphant & the tragic coming out narratives white constructions, anyway? why do you need to talk to your mother about everything, anyway? does she need to be your best friend? was it failure, 

             this fissure, 
             or are you happier to have the space 
             that opened up? 

haven’t you been happier, not speaking with her for almost a year? 
would she wish to talk about your relationship, if you were with a woman? 
is she just more interesting to write about than your father? 
is it that she’s shown more interest in changing? do you believe she’ll get him 
to change?


             or is it not space but distance? 
             not happiness; relief? 
             aren’t you forgetting how you used to sit, after school, 

at the kitchen table, & tell your mother every last thing from your day, the funny parts, the frustrating, the boys you liked to play Power Rangers with during recess, the boy you let play the Green Ranger, before you had to play Not Liking Boys No Not Like That, before you knew, before she knew, but didn’t she, already? 

CHEN CHEN’s second book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in September 2022 and Bloodaxe Books in October 2022. His debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017; Bloodaxe Books, 2019), was long-listed for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. His work appears in many publications, including Poetry, The Poetry Review, three editions of The Best American Poetry, and The Forward Book of Poetry 2021. He has received two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and United States Artists. He was the 2018-2022 Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University and currently teaches for the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast.