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Nihilistic Joy

Juvenilia (Yale Series of Younger Poets #104)Juvenilia (Yale Series of Younger Poets #104) by Ken Chen

Reviewed by William La Ganza
Cerise Press

The photo on the cover of Juvenilia is a still from a movie directed by Wong Kar-Wai. It shows a man with his back to the viewer, walking away down a muddy road lined with palm trees. The man in his tropical Chinese landscape stands in contrast to the title, Juvenilia, which evokes childhood toys, as well as Yale, with its clipped lawns. Yet the man's clothes are Western; in Juvenilia, Ken Chen looks at the past as a contemporary American inhabited by ancestors and images from China and Taiwan, by moods and voices, and their expression both free and constrained.

On the surface there is play, like the title of the first poem, "My Father and My Mother Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei?" This title is ironical and cheeky: Wang Wei, an ancestral patriarch, can never be forgotten. Humour seems to be a way of coping with the obligations toward parents and grandparents: "My grandfather is packing up his organs" we are told, invited to laugh at the dead old man's expense. The ghost then takes a taxi. We laugh again -- then are calmed by the grip of patriarchs on the poet's destiny:

So did you listen to him, my Father says taking his keys out of the ignition. You should
become a lawyer but your grandfather says anything is fine. As long as you're the best.

-- p. 3

The mother, complicit, "stays silent." The poet, belittled, regresses, "I sit and suck my thumb." Mother, who is "like the moon which rents light from its past," is sycophantic to her husband's dead father. She tells him his "painting... was beautiful," to which old Wang Wei replies in the style of five-character Tang verse complete with sibilant assonance:

In the silent bamboo woods, sitting along
Playing strings and bellowing long.

-- p. 4

Chen the poet is playing and seems to be enjoying himself. He moves in this poem from the outrageously long and ironic title, to a movie-script style shot description with the sentence "Dissolve." And to fantastic narrative, to ancient Chinese pastoral, and personal narratives, among others. The venerated Wang Wei's verse is immediately followed by words iconoclastical to both Tang poetic conceits and the new culture they have adopted:

But America is allergic to bamboo, my father says to Wang Wei. They
love skill sets, cash and the first person singular,
the language of C++ not our English.

-- p. 4

Underneath the play, however, is the pain of being rejected for not being of either the old culture or the new: for having imperfect English and "forget[ting] Chinese he never remembered," like what he listened to when his mother played "the Peking opera" on the radio. There is his parents' divorce, and the disillusionment that his wise and patronizing father is perhaps not as sure-footed and well-orientated as he seemed:

My father unlocks the door and says, Dropped the keys in the toilet. But that's what
life is like. You're young... you don't understand the world

-- p. 4

There is also the threat that patriarchs might invest the self to the extent of annihilating all agency. A dead patriarch can seem real, "as though a ghost could die into a man." This ghost-man can then decide one's life:

And Wang Wei asks Who are
And my Father says, Decide.

-- p. 5

Death and its inevitability, the vicissitudes of love, adapting to the American culture, and the aliveness of dead ancestors are themes throughout this collection. These concerns are engendered in childhood and their persistence underpins an ongoing dialectic between the adult and the child. All these themes are present in "At Taipei station, I saw this city undress!": the dead grandfather "manages to crawl into / a glass jar that we slide into a birch box." The undertaker remarks, "This is only what will happen to everyone," and the poet warns, "Adjust your eyes to the unlit room." The portent of death and the pain or mourning appears in the form of "Graffiti... Who kill my soul?" in which the grammatical transgression reflects challenges of literacy in their new country, the U.S.A.

In "There are two types of trees in winter," the legacy a family elder leaves the family before and after death is difficult for family members to deal with. It is "as if merely by existing, we erect a history of regret ready to be lived ahead of us." While the poet's father is "on the phone with his girlfriend" and suffering from ailments "[w]e never talked about," the unspoken family, ill at ease, seems to be expressing itself via the poet's skin, in the form of an "ineffable pox across my arms and torso." "Taipei novel" appears to be about the meeting of the poet's father and his lover. A woman who has "cheated on her husband" is physically but not morally attractive, being "lonely and perfect, if we do not count her self." The glorified individualism of the US is also unattractive to the immigrant lovers, whose "hatred for Top Gun was commensurate with their hatred of humidity." In contrast, the woman admires the man's "humourless joy and his earnestness", and when she "touched his knee... they both felt guilty." Away from her, the father lives in regret, as the poetry contains a vivid, tactile image:

When I am alone, I feel pentinent, my heart damp like cold metal

This line recalls the autopsy in "At Taipei station, I saw this city undress!" during which "they have some problems stripping the veins from [grandfather's] chest."

Juvenilia presents an unsentimental view of childhood. In "The Mansions of the Moon," the poet-child sees adults "together, growing alone"; in "Yes, No, Yes, The Future, Gone, Happy, Yes, No, Yes, Cut, You" the poet's sense of humour as seen in the title dwindles at the line "You are so good at being happy," pointing to the sadness that can underlie joy, and at the ruthlessness that can underlie communications with those we love. The poet asks, "Are questions like relationships?" and the answer:

One can use a question mark for many things. For example: as a
sickle for cutting people's hearts off.

-- p. 34

Finally, the poet turns to sarcasm to comment on family elders who, despite their life experience, have disillusioned those who are supposed to esteem them.

The earth is a millstone that sharpens us into saint

-- p. 58

Disillusionment leads to nihilism, as when his parents separated and denied all promise of reunion:

Since the separation was irrevocable, the enemy was hope.

Which left him with a nihilistic joy.

-- p. 57

In "The Invisible Memoir," the narrator seems to find some peace in nostalgia for his "Uncle's house -- the happiest time of my life," just when all seems lost:

My gold sword sunk into the ground.
My spirit lost among the long weeds.
Then in the cool night. Then in the quiet sky. Then the moon
blossoming open.
My mind goes back to those old hallways, but now only
the light glows hollow on the waters of Ch'in-huai.

-- p. 65

The poet's mother is "homesick," the family no longer understands the Chinese language, which is like a "white space" in the mind. The exiled person is like a headless body. We are told that "decapitation" carries a "great sorrow" because after death "the body will appear in the realms below without a head." Memory can be cruel when the longing for and absence from one's country of birth is revived: "I had forgotten about all of this -- my self, this exile." One needs to look away from the pain, and in this mood the poet reaches to the lyrical traditions of Tang verse, particularly to Li Lu, the "inventor of the confessional voice in Chinese lyric poetry." In his contemporary conceit, however, there exists a background of poisoned beauty, as suggested in "the smog moist over weeping willows," and of inevitability, as in "This is the sorrow of leaving no other taste in my heart." In pathos, the poet reaches for his optimism, for a moment of happiness as he contemplates his place in the universe:

Again in pleasure.
I am starting to think -- that when the sun
is setting and you are resting alone, it's better not
to look south to those streams and hills. Leaving
them was easy -- but going back last night
was hard. The waters flowing away. The flowers
breaking the ground. Spring has also left.
That heaven, this earth.

-- p. 69

William La Ganza, , a contributing editor of Cerise Press, currently lives in Paris, France. An Honorary Associate at Macquarie University in Sydney, he specialises in language pedagogy. He has authored a chapbook of poetry, Meeting Her in Paris (La Petite Maison, 1998), and regularly reads short stories and poetry in Parisian bookshops.

This review was first published in Cerise Press.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Juvenilia (Yale Series of Younger... Used Trade Paper $12.50

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