What happens when everything falls away, when those you call on in times of need are themselves calling out for rescue?
In his highly anticipated second collection, Chen Chen continues his investigation of family, both blood and chosen, examining what one inherits and what one invents, as a queer Asian American living through an era of Trump, mass shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Always at work in the wrecked heart of this new collection is a switchboard operator, picking up and connecting calls. Raucous 2 a.m. prank calls. Whispered-in-a-classroom emergency calls. And sometimes, its pages record the dropping of a call, a failure or refusal to pick up. With irrepressible humor and play, these anarchic poems celebrate life, despite all that would crush aliveness.
Hybrid in form and set in New England, West Texas, and a landlocked province of China, among other places, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency refuses neat categorizations and pat answers. Instead, the book offers an insatiable curiosity about how it is we keep finding ways to hold onto one another.
The vibrant second collection from Chen (When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities) wonders aloud at how to make a place in a world where people and institutions strain under the weight of impossible expectations. In one poem, Chen imagines his father emigrating from the U.S. to Australia, where he "will toss out a dog-eared copy/ of the manual he received upon arriving in America—/ How to Have Deeply Sorrowful Exchanges// With Your Son About Your Immigrant Hardships:/ How to Make Him Understand He Must Become/ a Neurosurgeon/ At Least a Dentist." Chen's humor and curiosity shine in poems that experiment with form and content, asking, "why do only successes get to be// smashing, why not a smashing/ failure!" The collection suggests that it is humanity's flawed nature, its failings, and its frequently impossible desires that make life meaningful; in Chen's words, "If we could love perfectly, there would be no need to love. If we could finish grieving, there would be no need to live." These questioning, funny, and deeply humane poems pack a fantastic punch.