The 2009 winner of the annual Yale Younger Poets competition, Ken Chen's Juvenilia features poems that are varied and anything but formally conventional, conveying a kaleidoscopic intelligence. Poems explore communication, family, and heartbreak in a range of frameworks: dream, argument, novella, letter, monologue. Chen's child- and adult-self are examined from every angle, especially as reflected by other important characters, primarily the speaker's parents and his former lover. In "Love is like tautology in the same way like is like tautology," Chen writes:
The middle of love—when we forget that love is what
occurs when I turn to you for everything: to learn how to sleep, to remind
myself that yes I too possess a body and slowly it
seems life conveys forward
only so I have something to tell you at dinner.
The rhetoric of Chen's previous occupation as a lawyer resonates in these emotional poems, which often employ systems of logic to understand patterns, feelings, people. Yet, as Louise Glück notes in the book's introduction, Chen is fixated on "the defects of this process: logic, which is synthetic, cannot substitute for knowledge; the passion invested in logic mirrors the voids and gaps of memory—the more crucial the gaps, the more passionate the stake in logic." These gaps, blurs, and breakdowns in memory, narrative, and understanding juxtaposed with moments of communion punctuate this multitextured, felt collection.
This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall 2010, Issue 39.