Chen Chen

Author photograph: Paula Champagne

Chen Chen’s second book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in September 2022. His debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. His work appears in many publications, including Poetry and three editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from Kundiman, the National Endowment for the Arts, and United States Artists. He was the 2018-2022 Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University and currently teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast. 

Background photograph: Naihan Nath

Fabric paintings: Megan Luddy O’Leary

Brief Bio

I’m just a burnt
flap of soul, anti-empire, pro-soup.
A complete atheist
water sign who can’t
drive. Can
cry in subways, subway stations, & Subway
(the sandwich shoppe).
Everywhere I go I’m underdressed
very smartly in a clearance rack
wool libido.
I do know some things
about the things
koalas eat.
I’m a fan of this whole
goddamn planet’s trees.
Especially oak but also pine.
I say “also” approximately
a bajillion times a minute. It’s true,
I’m eternally in need
of a HOT hot tub.
But I’ll take whatever,
however much warmth
there is on tap, even that of the saddest
candle, perpetually autumnal.
From time
to slime, I have been known
to reluctantly hiccup
an original American song.
Oh won’t you sing along.
Yes, sing it
with me now, dear
cockles of the moon’s
iron heart.


the most beautiful pair of words in the english language is
“eggplant parm.”
followed by “friends forever.”
really, a close second. 
a distant thirtieth is “research assistant.”
of course the most beautiful single english word is
now some might say it’s “dragonfly”
& others “devastation”
but they would all be 122% wrong. 
meanwhile a few might say these are all just other words for 
summer. & they would be 211% right. & if we
were to, every last anglophone, including the staunchest 
of anti-anglophiles, if we had to 
gather & heatedly 
debate the beautifulest trio of words intheenglishlanguage
& the shortlist included such mighty contenders as
“i love you”
“flaming hot cheetos”
the winner would still, 
by the most mile of a mile, be
“jesus fucking christ.”


Don’t you get out of my hair, 爸, don’t you stop
your big sneeze ways, your boogers of 爸 truth
flying across the kitchen, skipping right over a pot of soup
to which you’ve just added your chili flakes, then out
the sliding glass door, across
the city, to land in the unruly field
of my bangs, where they’ve always
belonged, bless you. Don’t you stop loving me, 爸. This
& all your ways.

Don’t you get out of my teeth, 妈, don’t you leave
my teeth so sadly
spinachless, your mega-green
strands of 妈 knowing & wise
ribbing stuck in this abundance of crooked
teeth, thank you. Don’t you
stop loving me, either.
Never. This, 妈, & every way
of yours. 

爸妈, don’t you stop giving me
grief, but don’t you ever (I know) make me (I know) grieve
you (it’s impossible
not to, one day).

爸妈, 我疼你—how is it now my turn to say it to you?
Except really
about you, & to other people, just as I’m sure
you’ve said it. This way. To closest friends.
To your 爸妈.

我疼他们, I want to say to my closest
about you. The two of. The 疼
that taps on my shoulder, tugs me by the ear
to our history again.
Again, your faces
in my words.

疼 as in ache. pain. pang. your faces. 疼
as another way to say爱,

我疼你 as another way to sing 我爱你,
but pangfully,

like an ache in my most crooked tooth,
song of my longest hair.

疼, to tend, to be tender, to attend
each other’s lives. 疼 as in our lives have hurt
each other—why?

疼 as in the wish to become another world
for you, far away

from this world
that imagines (when did you know) you,
prefers (that imagination could wreck) you

a thing, wishes you
& me dead.

疼, which contains 冬,
which means winter.
Likely a sonic borrowing, since 疼 is téng, 冬 is dōng—
probably, at an earlier time, they lived closer
in sound. Winter, living

beneath the roof-like 疒 radical, meaning “sickness.”
To be sick in the heart of winter. No.
To be sick with a winter’s heart. No.
To be sick with winter for you—is that the love
I feel? A perpetual inner

December? Does to love mean to worry, to be a worrier
on the snowy field of another’s face?
Once, you said you were worried
I’d get my brothers, your other (truer?) sons, sick.
More than once. The both of you. Said. This.

Sick with what, neither of you could say
out loud. Get out before you get them sick, too.
& now the country we live in believes everyone with a face
like ours is sick. Our sick faces, sick countries, go back
before you get us sick.

in a word that means shield & shattered, roof
& rain, a love that hurts to give,
receive. Have I wanted
to hurt you back? Did my poems
hurt you? Do I want these words to wound?

疼, a family, tending
to each other’s history—is this tenderness, such 疼

possible? 疼, I want to see its roof-
like 疒 radical as a roof over us, & we’re warmed, warming
up to each other again. For now, the 疼 we have, are: a December

ache, windy
loving, this don’t you stop 冬天 field
full of my to-you,

for-you words, 爸, my shivers, 妈, tender
as snow & silver as falling.