Poetry Issue #28

Circle “C” If You Just Don’t Know

By Chen Chen

I failed the multiple choice exam. I failed to thank the driver

before exiting the bus. I failed my pet fish in the third grade.

I am failing to recall if it was the third or in fact second grade…
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*Image: “Roller-life” by Irina Udalova, tempera on paper, 2008


Chen Chen

Featured Poet



Circle “C” If You Just Don’t Know


I failed the multiple choice exam. I failed to thank the driver
before exiting the bus. I failed my pet fish in the third grade.
I am failing to recall if it was the third or in fact second grade.
I failed Facts but passed Fervor & have placed top of my class

in Least Profitable all twenty-seven years so far. I passed my loneliness
to the stranger sitting beside me on the bus, failing to stop
going on & on about the first chapter of Italo Calvino’s
If on a winter’s night a traveler. I failed to move very much

for much of the Monday that was part of the long weekend.
I failed not to masturbate first, then finish the task. I failed
to save him first before he saved me from “our loveless
relationship.” I failed every religion except the Quiet Cult

of Unrequired Reading. I passed Gay Best Friend on shopping trips
while failing to do anything when my mother said again,
Those people are sick & with a small click of the remote
erased the two smiling grooms. I failed to look at my mother

in the hospital bed, after she had failed to keep standing,
had collapsed in the bathroom. I failed to glance up at her
from the book I brought. I failed to put things aside, I failed
to put the book down, put it gently, saying to my father, Can we

go now? as she lay there, I failed to choose her, wanted to erase her.
Together we passed with flying colors the senior project in Family
Drama. No rubric, no final grade for all the times & ways we’ve failed
each other, named the other the fuel & engine of every fracture.

I am failing, right now, to see her, to look up from my dear
words, my dramatizing of failure. Can I retake this, unmake this
scene of us? Can we go another way, another now? Can we
go, can we fail, a little differently?




First Love


I fingered him as I sucked him, entering
as I was entered, a tip, then deeper,

slow, then eager, his hairy thighs cradling
my greedy face, we were relentless

tenderness, all lick, small worming
twist, we grew new mouths, ways

to open, new tongues with which to fail
at the oldest speech—he came, as though

running toward me over great distance
with a great question, an untranslatable

unbearable gift, every wicked gulp of it,
& without previous experience I could not

have accepted it as graciously as I did,
this first love clearly not my first time.

& perhaps the only difference was,
after returning to our everyday bodies,

but before he rediscovered his phone
& the everyday tongue of pizza ordering,

asking what toppings, he liked pineapple,
did I like pineapple, before that question,

he asked softly, shyly, what I wanted
to ask him—How long can you stay?



"Air Castles" by Irina Udalova, tempera on paper, 2010
“Air Castles” by Irina Udalova, tempera on paper, 2010



The School of Sharpening


I sharpen a pencil
                until it glows
like a newborn skyscraper.

I watch it eat the cloud of a page.
                I watch it eat
two clouds. I feel it eat the sky

of an idea, the heaven
                of a mistake, the whole
afternoon, I sharpen my pencil

& tell it eat, urge it grow.
                But the more it eats,
the less it grows.

In its belly: planets,
                the night,
gods, the future.

In my hand: a stick.
                A quickly
growing memory.

I sharpen my pencil
                until it is all tooth,
small tooth. All hunger,

my hunger. Sleepless
                chronic dreamer. Greedy
magic sliver.




How Will You Live Now?

                after Bhanu Kapil


As ancient pollen. As newborn
antimatter. As flummoxed

as always. As the version of
Gilmore Girls in which Lane

& Mrs. Kim get to star.
As the slowly expanding

sound of the word
armoire. As a light rain

beginning to write a long,
very Russian novel.

As an elephant’s ear.
As most likely

to die while trying to
think of a synonym

for armoire.
As a supremely

orange, slippery
radiance—radiating from

the window of a castle
inside an aquarium.






is a mean curl
of moon
coming at
you in roller-
blades. Let our
pelvises listen
to friendship’s
bright criss-
crossing of night
& terrible futons
too many miles apart.
Let our pelvises
be wrapped in
a silver blanket made
possible by celestial
the sun lending
itself to the moon’s
face. Friendship
is a face
rollerblading &
wearing short-
shorts & handing
out hotdogs
in the midst
of spiky roaches,
leaky rooms.
Friendship waits
till everyone has
a hotdog & is ready
to put on their
own rollerblades.
Friendship’s hotdogs
are indeed
the moon’s hotdogs
& don’t taste all that great.
But friendship doesn’t
expect you to take
every bite, to finish.
Friendship wants you to
have what it can make,
what it is trying
to make, with its
small moon hands, its
crescent hands criss-
crossing the night
& our cities swollen
with dream.
Friendship travels
at the speed of heat
& one bite of mustard-
dripping hotdog.
Friendship travels
at the speed of a favorite
music video never
loading on Safari
while we wait
& wait. Friendship
is the crashed browser,
the honey of not
going to bed at
bedtime. We are busy
listening to friendship
in the softest part
of our pelvises.


for Sam

By Chen Chen

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, selected by Jericho Brown for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and out now from BOA Editions, Ltd. The book was also a finalist for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize (Waywiser Press). Chen’s work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Poem-a-Day, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. His work has been recognized by eight Pushcart Prize nominations and an honorable mention in this year’s anthology. He has received fellowships from Kundiman, Lambda Literary, the Saltonstall Foundation, and in 2015 he was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships. Currently, Chen is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He lives in Lubbock with his partner, Jeff Gilbert, and their pug dog, Mr. Rupert Giles. For more information, visit (Photo credit: Jess Chen)