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by Ken Chen,
Yale University Press, $18 (paper)
Winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, Ken Chen’s first book walks the high wire between deeply felt trauma and poetic artifact. Both exquisitely stylized and wrenchingly felt, the book resists categorization: surprising gestures abound. Chen crafts eye-widening philosophies (“I do not believe that we have intentions. We possess practices, an ecosystem of habits that may or may not be good for us”) and highlights the strange in the familiar (“When I was little, I thought that the water came out of the showerhead because it was crying. This is because I heard my mother crying and thought it was the showerhead”) with equal deftness. He mixes verse with prose, outline, notes, equations, amidst playful experiments with white space and more. Encyclopedic influences converge—mathematics, Confucius, Li Yu, nations, languages, families, “Proust, Bellow, Renoir.” And when—recalling “the scene in the movie, where the actors / find the camera and say Stop / looking at me”—he turns to face us readers headlong, we feel a chill: “The first sentence of this poem is not about you. / In this respect, it is unlike the last sentence and my heart.” In her illuminating foreword, Louise Glück writes, “immigrant displacement . . . [is] a metaphor for the adult’s relation to his childhood, or origins.” Pursuing this trope—the centrality of which explains why Juvenilia lays claim to our whole attention, intellectual and emotional—Chen delivers a memorable, beautiful-yet-sly, powerful debut.
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