Chen Chen traverses a wide ground in Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, past and present, personal and universal, and does so with irreverence to the conventions of didactic poetry and the white western canon. In these past fraught years of Trumpism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and upticks in Asian American violence, Chen approaches such topics head-on, suggesting for artists, during times of turmoil, art proves an imperative.
Chen’s collection is divided into four parts, and while they remain untitled and reference various seasons in every section, there is clear growth and progression that in many ways stands in for the passage of time. In Part 1’s “Doctor’s Note,” Chen writes “It would be unwise & gross to reach out to Chen Chen’s parents. They are not his emergency contacts & have exhibited clear signs of wishing he were dead, such as saying in a clear voice, You’d be better off dead.” This theme of parental alienation and homophobia progresses with time. Chen reflects that his mother asks more questions about his dog than about his boyfriend. By Part 4, which begins with “I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party,” we see that progress is still ongoing: “While my father opens up / a Boston Globe, when the invitation / clearly stated: No security / blankets”. However, the act of sitting down at the dinner table together, sharing a communal meal in Chen’s established household, gives us as readers a subtle, tenuous hope. This series of poems, honed in so directly on Chen’s personal pain, contain some of the strongest in the collection.
When Chen references current events, the descriptions eschew subtlety in favor of narrative power. He states “the chalky delirious face / of our leader, endorsed / by the KKK.” His place teaching students in Lubbock, Texas is omnipresent in his self-concept of race, sexuality, and belonging, at first inhibited and later, in “Ode to Rereading Rimbaud in Lubbock, Texas,” proclaims “Instead of huddling in the corner of Maxey Park, let’s make Lubbock Gay Pride stream through 34th street, through Buddy Holly avenue.” Once again, we see hope in the face of tragedy, dreaming of more than survival as the world closes in.
Chen’s use of form is as varied as his content. Rambling prose poems such as “Doctor’s Note” convey a breathlessness, while “One Year Later: A Letter” uses short lines to slow the pace and emphasize the elegiac tone. This latter poem is tribute to Drew Leinonen, one of the few Asian American victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Indeed, Chen uses many opportunities to pay both tribute and homage in these poems, particularly to other Asian-American poets. Some of the most intriguing pieces in the collection are part of the “a small book of questions” series, prompts that stem from the work of Bhanu Kapil and expand on questions such as “what do you remember about the earth” and “who is responsible for the suffering of your mother.” While stating prompt-like beginnings verbatim like this may feel amateurish, Chen’s takes on these questions further the narrative of the collection and flood us with carefully chosen details.
If there is a criticism of this collection, it might be how Chen addresses the craft of poetry itself, breaking from the narratives of his poems to ask questions of the canon. “The School of Fury” comments directly on the teaching of poetry as a construct: “When the 30-something white guy in poetry class says A poem is this—, based on what a 70-something white guy once said.” Chen goes on in other poems to state that teachers advised him to avoid the words “poop,” “soul,” and “beautiful,” only to throw these rules back in their faces. The issue is not the irreverence to outdated rules but overstating this irreverence when the ideas have already taken shape. Chen has eschewed convention throughout the collection, and it can be argued that stating this intent outright takes away from the impact.
Chen’s poems are richly textured, tender, and often humorous. He writes of “smelly bowel movements” and the Mandarin prose of his mother (in separate poems) with equal care and attention. His collection is one for the last few years, emblematic of its chaos and conflicting feelings. Ultimately, there is hope. Delicate, fluctuating, but hope nevertheless.
Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency
by Chen Chen
Published on September 13, 2022