- PHOTO BY JESS CHEN
- Chen Chen.
I am thrilled to launch the first of these columns with a poem by Chen Chen, who is new to Rochester but no stranger to the radical weather we experience in the area after having spent time in Syracuse. Returning to one’s birthplace can be fraught with complicated emotions, which Chen Chen deftly examines in his poem. The poem navigates the streets of China, takes us through a family’s biography as it deals with language and place, before coming to the quiet magic of the trees and their silvery smell, to the mystery and wonder of all the places we call home. Where have you been? Where are you going?
— Albert Abonado
by Chen Chen
Your white classmates treat you
like a dictionary with legs
& sometimes you like it.
Some nights, a taxi driver treats you
like a local & you love it.
& then you speak
a full sentence. Then he says, Ah,
you’re from Fujian province.
Then you nod because nodding
is easier than saying, Well actually
& Massachusetts & close to Boston
& also Amherst
& all five Backstreet Boys
& originally my father was considering Australia
& the exoskeleton of a wronged lobster
& my mother in Costco considering a lobster
& a year or so in Texas
& I was born here but grew up there
& I grew up there but was born of soup, both mung bean
& in the future
when I’m writing this, I’ll be back in Texas,
where some will say, Welcome back,
some, Go back,
& now it’s time to get out
of the taxi, begin to walk back
to the dorms.
Walking, you whisper
lines from the Dao De Jing,
from the latest
pop song. In lamplight,
you soft-sing to a tall audience
of trees. You’re in touch
with The Way,
the wants of boys
innovative hair. & the trees give
off a silvery smell
that’s become your entire
summer. You walk
slowly. You want,
you try to ask the smell
what these trees
Chen Chen is the author of "When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities," which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, and was longlisted for a National Book Award. His work appears in many publications, including Poetry, Tin House, The Best American Poetry, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Recently, Poets & Writers featured him as one of “Ten Poets Who Will Change the World.” He lives in Rochester, NY.
This occasional column is curated by Albert Abonado. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.