Chen's Juvenilia is a compact collection of poems that demonstrate quite a bit of self-reflexivity regarding poetry, language, and Asian American identity. This self-reflexivity allows Chen to raise questions about how we make meanings and what we expect things to mean.
One poem, "Dramatic Monologue Against the Self," begins,
Hello, my name is Ken Chen. For my essay today, the organizers of this panel have produced a microphone named __________. Although this microphone may resemble and is a person, it is I who would like to discuss essays and how essays permit us to become the microphones of others. I enjoy being a microphone because I enjoy hearing the thoughts of others. I believe the essay is a genre of performance, which is not voice, but the author's mind bending a thought like gravity influencing the curvature of light. We find ourselves bored by creative nonfiction, autobiography, and memoir, which forsake the personality of thought for the impersonality of narrative.As this passage shows, Chen also writes with a bit of humor that verges on the absurd (a talking microphone!), creating situations and images that confront our conceptions of speaking, representing, and so on. This particular poem turns on the idea of the essay as a type of writing, especially its relation to the authorial self or identity.
Another poem that reflects on language and meaning is "'Love Is Like Tautology in the Same Way Like Is Like Tautology.'" This prose poem traces a series of logical statements about love and like, figured as algebraic equations:
Yet even equations can be unhappy. The problem arises when the letters are miswritten, when I = X as in an ex-love interest who wishes to change from an ex to a U. Say that S and E fall (collapsing like a weak will) in front of X and we will say that these letters spell out the problem. Or say that you find a letter written from X to I and U asks Why? Why are you doing this to me? Why do you have to talk to her--to X? (Let X be the ex-sex.)This game of substituting letters for people and attempting to make logical sense of interpersonal (intimate) drama is humorous and also revealing of the trickiness of using the words like and love in a relationship.
A number of the poems hint at a breakup of the parents in the speaker's family that created an irreparable rupture, one that the speaker cannot fully resolve and thus that haunts the speaker's perceptions of things broadly (beyond just family relations or intimate relationships). In the short prose poem "Essay on Crying at Night," for example, Chen writes:
I am just like my mother. I buy books and tell myself that I am buying wisdom and at the end of my life, I own a house full of books. 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.(Worth considering also is how to read this poem as an "essay" in light of Chen's other poem that questions the way essays operate in terms of truth, meaning, and identity.) This poem's juxtaposition of books (knowledge) and crying showerheads (sadness?) is interesting, suggesting a relationship between the two that it doesn't fully explain.
Of interest in Chen's work as well is his reference to Chinese culture. He is abundantly aware of the impulse of readers/critics to apprehend poetry by ethnic Americans as autoethnography, it seems, and as a result calls out that reading practice even as he occasionally makes use of Chinese cultural referents. For example, in the long poem "The Invisible Memoir" that concludes the volume, he writes:
IV. Against authenticity. If the exotic is the sensuous enigma, no sensuousness. Zero lyricism of food, night markets, Chinese customs, nature. No use of the appositive, the clause that annotates a noun (e.g., "the clause that annotates a noun").(Of note here as well is Chen's attention to language and particular units of meaning and grammar such as the appositive that often function to translate exotic cultural referents.)
As a final note, I found Louise Glück's Foreword a bit odd. I think Glück was the judge who chose Chen's manuscript for the prize, and yet her appreciation of his work, at least in terms of how she expressed it in the Foreword, seems off-kilter. In particular, I found her references to a Japanese poetic form, the renga, very odd. She does so to suggest that the form's collaborative nature, which was popular in creative writing programs for awhile, created a poetic voice that Chen's work mirrors. Yet, prefacing Chen's poetry with this poetic form seems a kind of misreading, a displacement of Chen's references to Chinese figures with a Japanese form as if Chinese and Japanese are the same...