- POETRY -

SELECTIONS FROM

A SMALL BOOK

OF QUESTIONS

AFTER BHANU KAPIL

by Chen Chen

What do you remember about the earth?

 

The truck window rolled down, the man’s head came through, he said, “I’m so sorry, man, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, man,” and his voice grew louder, as though trying to make up in sound what he had clearly lacked in sight just a moment earlier. And I said, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” and even chuckled a little, as though comforting him, the truck, the street, the darkness, the dark. And the whole time while he apologized, I kept wondering, Is he saying “man” or “ma’am?" Am I hearing “man” because of that afternoon in Worcester when the bus driver called me “ma’am”? Or that morning at Starbucks: “Excuse me, ma’am?” Or that evening—I call it that evening now—in West Texas, the time I was almost hit by a very large, very red truck, and spent most of the moment afterward wondering, “Man” or “Ma’am”?  

 

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

 

I walked the rest of the way home calmly. At home, I kissed him.

 

I kissed him. I forgot to tell him about the truck.

 

Or: I didn’t tell him because he’s told me how often he thinks about death, his and mine, and I didn’t want to scare him, didn’t want him thinking and thinking about what could’ve happened today, what could happen tomorrow. How do you tell someone you love them without making them think about one day losing you?

 

I kissed him. 



 

How will you live now?

 

My mother texts me, calls me, leaves me voicemails, e-mails me, calls. English. Chinese. In the voicemail, she directs me to her e-mail. “Please take a look.” Subject line: “help.” I click. I open. I feel briefly bad that my phone’s been on silent all day. Guilty that I haven’t been checking. But I feel glad, at the same time, that I didn’t have to go through an entire conversation just so I could get to the e-mail and start correcting. My mother has asked me to “please take a look at the following and help” and “please do it soon because it is due on November 1” and it is October 30. She is a high school Mandarin Chinese teacher. In the e-mail, her objectives for the 2016-2018 school years. How she plans on achieving these objectives. During which term. The kind of exercises, quizzes. “Closed book.” I add a hyphen. “Closed-book.” She plans on “putting additional resources in class web site.” I correct her: “putting additional resources on the class website.” I highlight my corrections in yellow. I go through four pages of her writing, her inhabiting this bureaucratic language. I’m bored and then impressed. Her writing in English has always been good, but this document is fairly polished and also wordy in that sleep-inducing way I’m sure her department will like. After an hour and a half of alternating between focus and yawns, I send my completed corrections to her. She writes back: “Thanks for your help! I am always not sure when to use the or on.”



 

Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?

 

When I tell my boyfriend the story about helping my mother with her writing, I explain, “In Chinese, there are no definite articles, no the.” I’m not sure if there is an explanation for my mother’s misuse or lack of on. Sometimes I have no idea which is better to use: on or in. Place your hope on. Place your hope in. When I search online, most of the sites that appear in the results have to do with passages from the Bible. Place your hope in God. On God. Though I don’t believe in him, it seems rude to place anything on God, even hope. I imagine God, sitting in heaven, weighed down by all the weighty abstractions people have and continue to place on him. Hope, immortality, truth, goodness, forgiveness, perfect love. Perfect speech.



 

What are the consequences of silence?

 

“Are you afraid of women because of me?”

 

I shook my head. I said, “I’m not afraid of women. I just don’t feel for women what I feel for guys, I guess.”

 

I wanted to answer my mother: “No, I’m afraid of you because of you.”



 

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

 

I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him. I kiss him.

 

What do you remember about the earth?

 

When he says, “We’re both going to live to a hundred and then die peacefully in our sleep at the exact same time,” I say, “Yes,” I say, “Of course,” I kiss him, “Yes.” At the same time I think, But what about two hundred? Three?



 

What are the consequences of silence?

 

I wanted to answer my mother: “No, I’m not afraid of women. And I’m not afraid of you. I love men. That’s all. That’s what you can’t believe. Won’t say. Won’t let me answer, because you can’t find the right question.”



 

Tell me what 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. I write a poem about her arguing with my father. I write a poem about her wanting to boil him alive. I write a poem about her watching Titanic and hating the sad ending. I write a poem in which she says, “I’m sick of sad endings.” I write a poem in which she is sick and for a while, the doctors can’t figure out why. I write a poem in which she has been dead for years. I write a poem in which she doesn’t die, she can’t, she will never. I write a poem in which she has a very long conversation with my boyfriend and then calls me to say, “I just had a very long conversation with your boyfriend. It was great!” I write a poem about us climbing a tree together but about halfway up the tree she falls, by accident or on purpose, it’s unclear.



 

Who are you and whom do you love?

 

I know it can’t be true, that my mother has only spat out the word fuck in one conversation, one argument. I know her favorite swearword in English is shit; I’ve written poems based on clear and multiple memories of her saying shit. But when I try to remember when my mother said fuck, only one memory emerges: the time we were arguing about gay sex. As in, whether it was even sex at all. My mother kept saying, “That’s just fucking.” At first I thought she was searching for the next word, that she was using fucking as a modifier for some horrible noun: fucking sickness, fucking madness, fucking filth. But then she went on: “That’s just fucking; that’s not anything.” She had found searches for gay porn in my Internet browser search history. I had forgotten to erase them. I had forgotten to forget them. “How can you look at that? That shit. Those men. Just fucking.” She said the word fucking with such force that it seemed like she had invented the word and was testing it out for the first time. I wanted to correct her: I also enjoy looking at men sucking each other off. Or going back and forth between sucking and kissing. Actually I might like looking at that more than the fucking. I wanted to start a conversation of sorts: Yes, sometimes it doesn’t look like they’re enjoying themselves; sometimes it looks painful, the fucking. Then she said, “When I’ve been with your father, it feels good. It feels right. It’s not that.” So straight people get to feel good and right. Gay men only fuck. Gay men only feel or have that. Who knows if that is even a feeling?

What would you say if you could?


I imagine my mother in a red truck, her head leaning out the window: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, it was so dark, I’m sorry, I made it that way, I didn’t see, I didn’t want to, I didn’t see you, I couldn’t see myself, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

 

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming this spring from BOA Editions. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary fellow, Chen’s work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry and The Best American Poetry.

 

 

Nat. Brut: The Responsible Future of Art and Literature
 

Nat. Brut  (pr. nat broot) is a journal of art and literature dedicated

to advancing inclusivity in all creative fields.

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