The modern preoccupations of Ken Chen’s award-winning debut collection, Juvenilia — the past, unknowable family secrets, identity, heartbreak — commonly appear in writings by the descendants of immigrants. What makes the book notable, and deserving of the Yale Younger Poets prize, is the fresh and intelligent way the poems confound these themes. “The mind itself has no walls” — and, accordingly, the speaker in the poems scours sources as discrepant as Batman, the ancient poet Wang Wei, an ex, a neighbor, and Confucius for a revelation that the speaker suspects cannot be realized: “The fantasy being the existence of the answer.” Rather than solutions, the inquiries deliver an assemblage of disjointed narratives, syllogisms, aphorisms, elliptical observations and half-discovered truths. Poetry becomes a way through both loss and revival, a means to “adjust your eyes to the unlit room” and “deploy your heart past its range.” Somber yet playful, self-disparaging yet hopeful, this collection brims with the promise of more achievement to come.
Book Review: Juvenilia by Ken Chen
Abigail Licad is one big FOB and damn proud of it. She grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to San Leandro, CA at age 13. She has a BA from University of California, Berkeley and a master's degree in literature from Oxford University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in Calyx, Borderlands, The Critical Flame, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is Hyphen's Books Editor.