Juvenilia (Yale Series of Younger Poets #104)
by Ken Chen
Reviewed by Karen Rigby
In his award-winning debut, Ken Chen draws on techniques from filmmaking such as the match frame (a shift in place, but not time), the jump cut (a shift in time, but not place), and their variants. He offers cues as though poems were stage sets. He also portrays a Chinese-American family with a reflexive wit that lends Juvenilia the feeling of a hand-held documentary, which is not to say the work is rough-cut or naive, but that it suggests proximity -- at one point, the speaker announces, "Hello, my name is Ken Chen" -- and reveals the author as both maker/subject in ways that complicate "autobiography."
In the opening poem, "My Father and My Mother Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei?," the father's expectation ("You should become a lawyer") is laced with reassurance -- "but your grandfather says anything is fine" -- and finally admits that acceptance is conditional: "As long as you're the best." Such material could devolve into regret about the burden of misdirected aspirations, but Chen adds an absurd element that amplifies the discontinuity between the speaker's and the parents' realities even as it connects them: Wang Wei is resurrected to recite from the backseat of an Acura. The parents converse naturally with Wang Wei, who responds with poetic lines, and he in turn asks the son, "Who are you?" as if the son is the misfit in this scene, rather than the asynchronous poet. The son responds with a couplet.
This introduction proves irresistible, strange and swift in its movements, but tense with the knowledge that much has been lost between "the Peking opera soundtrack of my childhood" and the present reduced in bold strokes when the father remarks that America loves "skill sets, cash and the first person singular." With admirable efficiency, Chen establishes the collision that underpins the world in which his characters move. One view emphasizes community; the other regards self. One is perceived as rich in culture, and the other as focused on the everyday hustle. Whether these polarities contain truth is less relevant than how they inform the family's life.
In the final section, "The Invisible Memoir," we return to the car ride. Chen writes:
a. I sit in the back, exhausted, not civil
b. Everyone thinks I'm an idiot. I'm tired. I can't speak
Chinese. Sitting in the back. I can't believe I'm
Slice-of-life moments contain whole stories; they invite us to consider how "we are tenants in our own context." The unspoken realization, however, is that we are also often alone. Even the closest are "two humans together, growing alone." As funny and deadpan as Chen's personas can be, it is their sobriety that stands out. Juvenilia is an inventive exploration of identity in transition, evidenced by poems which range from "Banal Love Songs" to prose poems that span the generational divide, detail estrangement, and elegize what can seldom be recovered.