Back to Issue Forty

The School of Keyboards & Our Whole Entire History Up to the Present


—your text wakes my phone & I can see
the moments before your sending: thumb hovering, potential characters
having popped up after you switched

keyboards, typed “Chen.” 琛—you’re one of a few who write it, say me
like that. You write It’s been a long time & it feels like the question

behind the statement—why
haven’t we talked? So busy I reply, when part of me
wants to call, say I miss you,

Mom. To speak that sentence in Mandarin. It’s been a long time
since I’ve spoken any Mandarin, any
to you. Some days I forget my name
isn’t just “Chen.” Worry I’ll forget how to write it, without my phone, without

you to write it to. What do you still need to finish this semester? you ask
& I almost laugh—it’s a question you’ve asked me

since conception. How different is it now, in PhD land? Might as well be back
in high school, scrambling to finish French
sentences about shopping on the Champs-Élysées

while aboard the shivery bus, or in the chattery cafeteria, lunch tray
balanced atop my knees. I was young. I said Here
I am. Do you have any idea how often
they called me strong, they said I don’t know how you do it, you’re so

brave & strong? Friends, classmates, teachers,
counselors, cafeteria ladies: Hi, SoBrave&Strong! as they passed in the hall.

Because I was young & said Here I am. While you said Wrong,
Wrong. While guys on the track team laughed & laughed because Hey,
French earlier, wasn’t it so

gay? While girls I just met linked arms with me, paraded
me around the halls. While teachers applauded me for becoming
president of the GSA,
then never attended another meeting. While my best friends

& favorite grownups spent their lunches listening, their free blocks listening.
They knew nobody is SoBrave without anybody’s &,

somebody else’s Strong—why didn’t
you? Why couldn’t I tell you about the boy
who dumped me via his away message on AIM? Or the boy who demanded

I have “anime hair”? Or the one who kept saying you were Horrible,
a horrible mother & I said
Yeah, & kept sipping my lukewarm chai, & later asked When can I see you
again? & he said Yeah

I don’t think we really clicked & I don’t blame him, I brought up
my whole entire history with you on the first date, I mean, why

did your name for me
also have to be SoBrave&Strong, why not
just Loved?

I know,
it’s been years since you’ve said Wrong.
But you still haven’t said Happy Anniversary! Six years, wow!
—what I hoped for last week.

Some days I imagine a different history. Us
talking. If only I could’ve told you

about high school,
about college. & you could’ve said Come here. At home
you don’t have to worry about that.

Imagine it: me coming home, me running to you
to rant about a boy, & you shaking your head, That boy? All wrong
for you anyway. If only you’d say How right,
this boy, taking good care of you now.

OK I have to get this work done, but I’ll
call you soon—I don’t know whether that sentence, either part,

is true. Whether I’m lying. My thumb hovers, considers
switching keyboards. To ask Are you ready now, 妈?



The School of You


Suppose you live a long life. Full
of blueberries & jade
blazers & dreams of ice skating in the nude

& ice skating in the nude. So briskly
frisky! A life
longer than you planned to live to. You.

Who was told at 13 to die, that you would
soon, a silly
faggot & not even

a white one, just a brief, brief
filth, not worth the spit
to wipe away.

At 13, you knew
you wouldn’t last forever. Still, you were given
little reason to believe

you might last another decade,
another. How already you were supposed to be
not. & yes, I am

talking to myself. Saying, suppose
otherwise. Suppose a life so long & gorgeously
silly, viewers will complain

about everything
left out from your biopic,
which will star an actor so handsome

every audience member will gasp,
in unison, upon first seeing him on screen—but
despite that, yes, the fans

will cry: Not enough about that time
he robbed a creperie!
Not enough about his years spent painting

hippos! Never enough
about how that involved both paintings of
& paintings on hippos, & how long

it took him to realize he was not
very good at painting,
then realizing, finally, that it didn’t matter, so long

as his very handsome fingers
spent all those many years dreaming
with paint, & why do only successes get to be

smashing, why not a smashing
failure! Yes, I am
talking to myself

as though it is my birthday. & this is my gift:
telling myself
what I was never told:

suppose in one part of your (still 3-hr-long) biopic
it is your 88th birthday. All day
you exclaim, I’m 88! At your party—I’m 88!

to every friend & fellow
80-something silly faggot. You are wearing
someone’s worst nightmare & you are

who wore it best. & then
the cake? Not 88 candles, but still
a ridiculous number. Flames

& flames. Suppose you blow them out, wishing
for more blazing, more
you. Suppose you

know already: there will be.



Lunar New Year


Never did I imagine you
gifting him a 红包. Never did I imagine
you gifting him a 红包 on 新年,
on our 新年.
Never could I have imagined you,
standing on our doorstep one cold yet bright
February afternoon & saying, 这是给
他的, then handing me
a 红包 for him.
So 红, this 包, so unimaginable
for you, my mother, who never
imagined my life
as a life, not really, not
with him, never with a 他.
Never did I imagine your not, your never,
your always capital N No
unraveling. I’m still having trouble
imagining you
like this. Imagine that: me, beaming, leaping
for this. A rain
droplet of a thing, really.
A real glimpse,
gleam finally,
of flowers.



Chen Chen’s second book of poetry, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions this fall. His first book, 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. With a brilliant team he edits Underblong; with the lazy egg Gudetama he edits the lickety~split. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence and also serves on the poetry faculty at the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast.

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