Six poems by Chen Chen


Big Mug

Found last August in a barn prolific with gorgeous,
made by artist friend E. who likes to keep a copy of Being & Time
in the bathroom, made with her hands that can’t stop
making things, painted blue with night & yellow with stars,
a soft brown field haunted by a grey round goat—
big mug, I adore you. & because you’re a bit too big to handle,
drink from, instead of coffee or tea you’ve come to hold a rainbow
of Sharpies, a museum of movie stubs, buttons that declare
Comics Made Me Queer, fresh white index cards, favorite fake-Confucian
futures from fortune cookies, too many take-out receipts, photos
of my guy & I competing for freakiest face, index cards abounding
in bad ideas for poems, a piece of purple string whose secret
I can’t recall, & one small envelope, red, the hong bao from Mom & Dad
that held the Lunar New Year’s lucky money, that holds tradition
& memory, my parents watching over three nights a bootleg of CCTV’s
five-hour New Year’s Gala in Beijing, my parents’ loud happiness
because of the acrobat’s impossible dance, the comedy duo’s impressions,
the actress’s song, her giant teal dress. Did they watch it all this year?
How many more years will they get to? Do you know, big mug?
You, a mostly accidental, weirdly accurate record of time
& being. Already it’s summer again, & I think your lack of tea leaves
is telling me Go, make bolder, hold weirder, lose it all on streets & streets
of pink-gold bafflements, with lunar luck, for too large, so much, such loves.


I Dream on a Crowded Subway Train with My Eyes Open But My Body Swaying

I dream of how I was running late & had to sprint
at least five June-hot city blocks
in order to meet you. I dream of how we walked
(me a bit breathless & sweaty) into a little café together
& right away got so caught up in talking
I didn’t even think to order a drink
till much later you reminded me, Did you want to get
something to drink?

& I felt so grateful to you,
that you would cease being so interesting for a moment
& give me the chance to get up
because I was indeed very thirsty.

It was past closing time
when we left the café & wandered into the park—Yes,
I said, Let’s sit here
& we sat there, a bench, a place on this earth
for maybe five people at most
though everyone knows it’s really just
for two people at a time, that’s why benches were made
& when they’re not serving their purpose
they are rained upon & look more miserable
than a child who has suddenly dropped her ice cream
on the pavement. But how un-miserably
we kissed, how the lamplight
made everything the most
anti-despondent green. The trees, the grass,
the benches—our bench—all
greenly awake, as we kissed
& kissed. I’m dreaming,

yes, on the train heading home,
that our kiss, the last before we parted, has yet to end,
not entirely—that I’m carrying
the sweet ghost of that kiss on my lips, while on
your train, you carry it, too.
Let’s say it takes all night
for us to get home, the train having to make
every stop, & everyone forgetting to step off
the first,
even second times,
while we’re still kissing that kiss, that green,
& June


Talking to God About Heaven from the Bed of a Heathen

It’s a dark 4AM here, but up where you are, it’s probably always
a shiny noon. So no one there ever thinks thoughts like: I can’t,
I need to, why can’t I sleep, why does this overfull love

fill me with fear? See, the boy I love is asleep beside me,
cocooned in his quilt despite the many blankets of summer.
God, how does he sleep? Why doesn’t my love for him

make me believe in a super-us, give me a sense of giddy
invincibility? Why am I more terrified than ever of the terrible
inevitable? & does he ever ask these 4AM questions?

Or does he believe in souls, eternity, our immortality?
Do you, God? You should know that although I miraculously
agreed to attend Bible camp one summer (my parents pushed

not because they were religious, but because the camp
was free), I don’t & have never believed in you.
Yet here I am: sitting up in bed, thinking about death,

& needing to talk to someone who (reportedly) has the answers.
I know, though, that there are believers who don’t believe
out of fear simply. They actually love you. They reach out

& receive your touch. Like a friend, like a boyfriend, like the boy
beside me, overheating, reeking of sweat, & still (somehow)
asleep. I wish I could feel your warmth, as easily

as I feel his. But I don’t. I feel fear. I hear fear telling me I’m
a body, that’s all. & the boy I love is a body. & bodies die. No
other world, no return to this world in another form. Annihilation.

It isn’t that I didn’t think these were the facts before. It’s that now,
he’s here. I have to try harder. Believe the facts could be
at least a little wrong. Believe if not you, almighty

& only, with your kingdom in the clouds, then something
else. If not a whole slew of gods with an infinity of realms,
if not a climb up & down the karmic ladders of rebirth

till moksha, nirvana, if not any existing promise
of after, of more, then something. Please,
something. Some magic, real as this ripe life with him.


After Another Conversation with My Parents In Which I Refer to Him as My Roommate

Who in this story, parent or child, is the coward?
The parents who can’t listen without anger?
Or the child who can’t speak without hurt?
Whose myth is this that demands again & again
civility over reality, cheerfulness over change?
Oh but I know: the myth is mine, theirs, ours.

Each month that passes by like this is ours.
Every time I choose to call them up: coward!
I call myself for not bringing up what would change
everything. Every time they call me: anger
that they did not ask, did not ask again
what I would not answer, not wanting to hurt

them, though they are the ones who have hurt
me most, who have looked away & said, Not ours.
Who have said, You are ours, but don’t ever again
talk about
that. Who made me feel a coward
for not asking nice girl out, a traitor for my anger,
my “refusal” to be with girls, to change

for anyone, for the world they think won’t change
for me, though it is, it is. It doesn’t have to hurt
simply to be here. We don’t have to have this anger
anymore. What’s mine, what’s theirs, & ours
should be the same: a world without shouting coward,
traitor, then silence, silence. But my body again

refuses to cooperate. My hand, my mouth again
stay still, shut. Won’t pick up the phone, can’t change
the static channel of the face, the show called Coward
. & all the while, the boy I love is hurt.
He’s already welcomed me into his family, said ours,
not just yours or mine any longer
. Which sparks an anger

with myself, my stubborn hesitation. But maybe this anger
is good anger, a kind that leads back to kindness again.
Maybe this anger is courage. & I need it for the hours,
months it might take after I finally make the change
& my parents say, Go to hell or Give us time or You’ve hurt
. & then hanging up, retreating as cowards,

afraid of me, my anger, no, afraid of themselves, changing.
Damn it, it’s time to speak again. Not to hurt
but to say, our life can’t go on as that of a coward’s.


Didier et Zizou

for Zach

We loved Howl & the Tao when it was still
spelled with a T. We loved green tea but often had
Orangina instead. We loved Trakl & a darkly

declarative sentence. We loved different genders
but knew we were just two variations on the theme,
horny teenage boy. We loved Heidegger

& dwelling in your kitchen, drinking Orangina,
being there, for an hour, two, being moved
by each other’s stillnesses.

Sometimes your cat stopped by, ink black
& unimpressed. An ellipsis from next door always
stopped by. It said nothing & preferred to stand,

quietly vibrating, between our adolescent musings
& philosophical urges. Then it reminded us
we had French homework. The future perfect

vs. the plain future. We put off both.
In French one afternoon, when Madame asked for
everyday associations with the season of l’automne,

our classmates responded with leaves, scarves, pumpkins,
pumpkin-flavored drinks. Then I raised my hand
& Madame sighed, Oui, Didier? & I said, La mort, autumn

has to do with death. & you laughed, loud. In French
I was Didier & you were Zizou & Madame was
unimpressed, unamused. In French it was like

we’d never left your kitchen. Except it was raining,
always a panicky autumnal rain with Madame, which
made us crave tea & love e.e. & consider the smallness

of our hands. They were like ellipses, master
procrastinators, unable to finish things & not wanting to,
they loved fooling with the point, multiplying

the period…elongating the time…the words spent together


I Say Good Morning

to the ticklish of your neck,
the freckled of your shoulders,
the vast & very
of your chest, all
your underneath
streets, & electricity,
good morning,
packed subway
of workers commuting
from Grand Central
in their finest
red suits, oh
how they know
where to go, what
to carry, even at night,
zipping from
downtown heat
to the chilly outskirts
of toes, or this good,
good morning,
their dashing
to the cheek,
that bloom, as I
kiss you there,
& because these
workers know
just what to do,
because they seem
to sing Good morning
back, when I sing,
they must know
how I need
every blossoming
city block
of you, all your feral
how I wish you
your sweet
mammal breath
to be

Chen Chen is the author of the chapbooks Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016). A Kundiman Fellow, his poems appear/are forthcoming in Poetry, Narrative, Drunken Boat, The Best American Poetry 2015, among others. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is currently a PhD candidate in English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at

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