Thursday, May 4, 2023

rob mclennan : Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, by Chen Chen

Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, Chen Chen
BOA Editions, 2023





The second collection from New England-based poet and editor Chen Chen, following When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (Rochester NY: BOA Editions, 2017), is Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced An Emergency (BOA Editions, 2023). Chen Chen is one of those poets I’d long been hearing about from numerous others, all of whom have said that his work is required reading; and this collection certainly more than lives up to expectation. As well, Chen Chen knows how to come up with delightfully-memorable titles—some further examples beyond his book titles include the poems “& then a student stands up, says, Are you serious?,” “I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule” and the loaded-formality of “I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party”—while offering a first person descriptive lyric narrative able to turn any thought or subject inside-out or backwards. There is a fierce intelligence and open heart on display here, and such a heft to this collection of deeply intimate, engaged and engaging poems. As he offers as part of the sequence “a small book of questions: chapter i,” writing:

How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death?

I walk home calmly.

I kiss him.

          I kiss him.
          I forget to tell him about the truck.

Set in four sections, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced An Emergency is a book of philosophies, intimate moments, free-floating anxieties and descriptive passages; it is a book about belonging and family, and of what we are allowed to choose. “Your emergency contact has called / to quit.” he writes, to open “The School of Australia,” “Your back-up plan has backed / away. Your boyfriend has joined a boy band / named All Your Former Boyfriends // & Sarah McLachlan.” And still, there is such a confidence and ease to his lyric, one that shifts between prose poem and line breaks, every phrase and every word in its own and absolutely perfect place. At turns playful and mournful, his is an investigation of intimate and deeply felt moments, including around his mother, his partner, academia, homophobia and racism, and how it is he chooses to respond, and hold himself accountable to his own actions. “i am busy considering / how to personify / is to make a person out of feelings // & not necessarily to make / more personable                    again,” he writes, as part of the second section of “four short essays personifying a future in which white / supremacy has ended.” He writes of trauma but one that never overwhelms his awareness of what is beautiful. As the sequence “a small book of questions: chapter iv” includes:

What do you know about dismemberment?

I write a poem about my mother’s meat cleaver, which she uses to chop everything. I write a poem about my mother chopping watermelon. I write a poem about my mother crushing cockroaches with a shoe, a slipper, a roll of newspaper. I write a poem about my mother crying. A short poem about her arguing with my father. a longer poem about her wanting to boil him alive. A poem about her watching Titanic & hating the sad ending & saying, I’m sick of sad endings. A poem in which she is sick &, for a while, the doctors can’t figure out why. I write a poem in which she has been dead for years. Five poems in which she doesn’t die, she can’t, will never. I start a poem in which she has a very long conversation with my boyfriend, then calls me to say, I just had a very long conversation with your boyfriend, it & he were great! I just can’t figure out what would come next.

There is such an ease, even while wrapped up in an urgency; even while writing the small details between himself and his mother, or with his partner, including around his partner’s mother’s illness and death. The poems are heartfelt, meditative and move intuitively, it feels, from one moment directly into the next, as the poem “Summer,” the second poem in the first section, opens:

I have a canoe that gives me therapy my insurance won’t cover.

The man I love calls from Colorado, unaware of my canoe.

It offers a better kind of cognitive behavioral, in very turquoise water.

The man says his mother is dying & I say I know but nothing is clear.

I pay the canoe with my best Christopher Walken impression.

It becomes clear that Colorado is where all calls are from, how did I not know.






Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles include the poetry collections the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022) and World’s End, (ARP Books, 2023), and a suite of pandemic essays, essays in the face of uncertainties (Mansfield Press, 2022). He’s been spending the past six-plus months working on a book-length essay on reviewing, literature and community, “Lecture for an Empty Room,” sections of which have been slowly appearing via his remarkable substack. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

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