Late September I drove down I-5 South from Seattle to California with a rice cooker in the front seat and everything else I owned in the back. When I pulled out of the driveway my mother said, "It's not too late to let me come with you." I kissed her through the window, slept in the backseat of my car and washed my hair with hand soap in public restrooms. The first night I spent at a friend of a friend's house Portland. The second night with my feet dipped in a public pool reading Chen Chen.
By the third night I was flirting with waitresses and only driving on cruise control and I knew I would have to tell my mother something else. I was moving down the coast to start my PhD in literature after I spent the summer in Brooklyn barely making rent. I lied to my mother and said my art internships were paying me enough but I got some of my income by going on dates with gross men with Oriental fetishes from the Internet. I drew my eyelids on heavy and spoke with an accent that sounded like a violet hunger.
"I will miss the particularly cruelty / of tongue twisters in my first tongue: / Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shí shī. / Shì shíshí shì shì shī."
Chen Chen's poetry transgresses the space between vulnerability and surrender, a steady pulse against the tides of forgetting. His loss of self is not delineated by an explicit anti-identity, but instead a subtle reconfiguration of the subjective. His writing is an externalization process that projects images of the self onto the beautifully banal. "There are some inside things I was going to make / outside things, just for one person in a godless / living room, full of passé plants."
I read poems at red lights and rest stops and thought about what inside things I had kept inside me, how I wanted to take those latent scars and take them to the surface, a psychic exfoliation. Chen Chen writes violence in a way that subverts the imagined binary between the victim and transgressor: "I tried to ask my parents to leave the room, / but not my life. It was very hard. Because the room was the size / of my life." The radical empathy in Chen Chen's poetry is a practice of amnesty—even in moments of anger his words are not vengeful. And they made me feel full, almost brimming over, with a ritual emptiness.
When I was ten I told my mother I wanted to be a writer and she said what? My fingers are swollen, come help me seal these dumplings. In high school I said it again and she told me I better marry someone rich so I never have to do real work. She wants to believe America made me this way but I like to believe I made me this way. "...when on second thought, I can see the dust was just there, / just dirt, & the light only made it visible." Sometimes I imagine her white dimpled flesh standing in the shadow of the doorway, waiting to smell my hands when I come home from a party, and suddenly I am struck with the guilt of being the one who was carried, as if when she bore me I came out as the vacancy.
There is an ontological sadness that grows from a powerlessness in my own becoming. Which is to say: it's not that I did not want to become the complicit daughter of a buried bloodline but the more fluid I tried to be the more liminal I became. When I was ten I stopped brushing my hair and my mother forced a comb through it. Don't move, she said before pouring cold water and saline solution over my head. She was sifting through in my psyche, looking for which pure to keep and which tainted to dispose of, like sorting grains of rice.
"Finally, I've learned—all this time, trying to get from one useless / chunk of land to another, when I should've just stayed / in the water."
When Chen Chen writes about his mother she lives in a space that fluctuates from omniscient to powerless. His descriptions of her are perforated with the realization that the hands that raised him have been dyed with memory and loss. "The grease-tang of kung pao chicken in my mother's shirts, / in my mother's far-away look after shifts." He writes of a spiritual disembodiment evoked by the spatial, and the distance between uncoils into a landscape. His poetry dilates this distance and becomes a silent transmission of empathy. Chen Chen's restless idealism is never reductive— instead, it resists the crippling anesthesia of assimilation one line at a time.
"What does it mean, to sing in the language of those / who have killed your mother, / would kill her again?"
When my mother thinks of my car stalled on the side of an Oregon freeway she remembers how my father slept in a pile of his own clothes somewhere in Ohio and how my grandmother gave her daughters away in Shanghai because she could only afford sons. And then she thinks of how history is this cyclical mass which cannot be broken no matter what we puncture it with. And still, passing through a starless desert at 100 mph, I could not shed her gaze or the conviction that I had spit out the leftover dreams that were painstakingly regurgitated in my mouth. My refusal "to be the one / my parents raised me to be— / a season from the planet / of planet-sized storms."
My mother told me last summer that our family friends no longer ask of me. Ying works in Wall Street, Jenny is in her last year of medical school, Simon studies computer science at Stanford, Richard is a lawyer for the United Nations. And I'm shoplifting shampoo from CVS, staring at the potchmarked sun until its light dies in the back of my eye. Chen Chen writes that he is "dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango." And I am dreaming of one day being an orange with my mother's thumb rooted in the rind.