Nihilistic Joy: Juvenilia by Ken Chen

BY Ken Chen
(Yale University Press, 2010)

The photo on the cover of Juvenilia is a still from a movie directed by Wong Kar-Wai. It shows a man with his back to the viewer, walking away down a muddy road lined with palm trees. The man in his tropical Chinese landscape stands in contrast to the title, Juvenilia, which evokes childhood toys, as well as Yale, with its clipped lawns. Yet the man’s clothes are Western; in Juvenilia, Ken Chen looks at the past as a contemporary American inhabited by ancestors and images from China and Taiwan, by moods and voices, and their expression both free and constrained.

On the surface there is play, like the title of the first poem, “My Father and My Mother Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei?” This title is ironical and cheeky: Wang Wei, an ancestral patriarch, can never be forgotten. Humour seems to be a way of coping with the obligations toward parents and grandparents: “My grandfather is packing up his organs” we are told, invited to laugh at the dead old man’s expense. The ghost then takes a taxi. We laugh again — then are calmed by the grip of patriarchs on the poet’s destiny:

So did you listen to him, my Father says taking his keys out of the ignition. You should
become a lawyer but your grandfather says anything is fine. As long as you’re the best.

— p. 3

The mother, complicit, “stays silent.” The poet, belittled, regresses, “I sit and suck my thumb.” Mother, who is “like the moon which rents light from its past,” is sycophantic to her husband’s dead father. She tells him his “painting… was beautiful,” to which old Wang Wei replies in the style of five-character Tang verse complete with sibilant assonance:

In the silent bamboo woods, sitting along
Playing strings and bellowing long.

— p. 4

Chen the poet is playing and seems to be enjoying himself. He moves in this poem from the outrageously long and ironic title, to a movie-script style shot description with the sentence “Dissolve.” And to fantastic narrative, to ancient Chinese pastoral, and personal narratives, among others. The venerated Wang Wei’s verse is immediately followed by words iconoclastical to both Tang poetic conceits and the new culture they have adopted:

But America is allergic to bamboo, my father says to Wang Wei. They
love skill sets, cash and the first person singular,
the language of C++ not our English.

— p. 4

Underneath the play, however, is the pain of being rejected for not being of either the old culture or the new: for having imperfect English and “forget[ting] Chinese he never remembered,” like what he listened to when his mother played “the Peking opera” on the radio. There is his parents’ divorce, and the disillusionment that his wise and patronizing father is perhaps not as sure-footed and well-orientated as he seemed:

My father unlocks the door and says, Dropped the keys in the toilet. But that’s what
life is like. You’re young… you don’t understand the world

— p. 4

There is also the threat that patriarchs might invest the self to the extent of annihilating all agency. A dead patriarch can seem real, “as though a ghost could die into a man.” This ghost-man can then decide one’s life:

And Wang Wei asks Who are you?
And my Father says, Decide.

— p. 5

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