Review: Your Emergency Contact has Vomited ( A Review of Your Emergency Contact has Experienced an Emergency by Chen Chen)

By Hugh Blanton

Poets try their darndest to make the world fall in love with their sadness. Indeed, some of them succeed. There are multi-dimensional poets who have experienced the grief that life often hands out and have the talent to write about it in a way that touches the reader. Then there are those poets, maybe they began writing during their teenage melancholia days, who have experienced little genuine sadness and are so one-dimensional and without talent that their poems garner little more than bemused eye rolls from readers. Poets often use their poems as places to air out their tragic grievances about a mother who hates the poet's boyfriend. Fair enough, I guess. But now we get a clutch of poems from a writer whose mother doesn't even hate the boyfriend, and in fact seems to somewhat like the boyfriend, but simply doesn't fawn enough over the boyfriend. Welcome to the new millennium of grief.

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Your Emergency Contact has Experienced an Emergency is the latest collection of poetry from Chen Chen. These vapid one-dimensional poems grab at your lapels and beg for attention without offering anything worthy of it. Chen Chen is second only to Nick Flynn when it comes to hysterical mama drama, but Chen throws in the gimmickry of Mandarin alphabet characters (of the fifty-seven poems in this collection, five of them have at least some Mandarin lettering), small "books" of questions where an imaginary someone is constantly asking him "What would you say if you could?" (different answers each time, of course), and never using the word "and," using the ampersand instead. None of this rescues the poems from their vacuity.
When Chen is fourteen he tells his mother he might be bisexual, not gay, thinking it might please her. Of course, he's crestfallen when she isn't pleased, claiming she looked at him "like I might sprout a set of octopus arms." The vast majority of the poems here deal with Chen telling his mother and the world—over and over—that he's gay, and the agony he endures at hers and sometimes the world's tepid reactions. In the poem I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party he writes:

In the invitation, I tell them for the seventeenth time (the fourth in writing) that I am gay.
In the invitation, I include a picture of my boyfriend & write, You've met him two times, but this time,

you will ask him things other than can you pass the whatever. You will ask him

about him. You will enjoy dinner. You will be enjoyable. Please RSVP.

Chen's mother should be nominated for sainthood—she accepts the invitation and puts up with more of her son's bratty behavior the whole night of the dinner.
Chen has an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD in English/creative writing from Texas Tech. In 2011 he received a BA in creative writing and Asian/Pacific/American studies from Hampshire College. He's been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including an NEA, a Pushcart, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Despite the cushy academic life and all the accolades Chen still believes himself to be persecuted. In his poem The School of Fury he writes, "Or as I said, 8th grade was all Robert Frost and Alanis Morissette. Because I had to learn who the important white people were." Later in the same poem: "would Frost have called me a chink?" In a poem titled Winter: "What percentage of this country loves me, after reading my name, after seeing my face, after hearing me talk about my boyfriend." In another poem he writes "i will feel//so healed when white people/finally shut up/about that one time they went to asia//& felt so spiritual and healed."
Chen's persecution complex is not the worst of what he has to offer—he's just plain vulgar. In another poem called Winter (this seems to be a newer trend in poetry, multiple poems in a collection with the same title; see also Alive at the End of the World by Saeed Jones) he writes of bowel movements and scat play in an effort to make his "enemies throw up." To wit: "But I marvel whenever poop comes out of me as one true Platonic tube." Platonic tube? "I mean, if you shower with soap & eat well, maintaining consistent gastrointestinal/ health, you should be ready for a rimjob or other forms of anal play." It gets worse: "I mean, my boyfriend and I are not into scat but if you are I hope your beloved/ produces the most fragrant, citrusy shit." Chen's likely succeeded in making more than just his enemies throw up. He gives us even more in a prose poem titled Ode to Rereading Rimbaud in Lubbock, Texas: "From between my love's cheeks I sing my song of merde that's good."
Chen has the infant's belief that he has a right to be loved regardless of its deservedness. He believes his homosexuality entitles him not just to love but adoration; and even for the people who do love him, he demands an amount of zeal bordering on worship. Love can be earned in other ways than proclaiming an identity and writing vacuous guff about it. Many have earned loved by writing decent poems.

Hugh Blanton's latest book is Kentucky Outlaw. He can be reached on X @HughBlanton5


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