Have you heard about this new virus? That a body like yours, like mine
is once again presumed sick,
preferred dying, pronounced tragic–
ally already dead?
-From “In the World’s Italianest Restaurant”
Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency is a fabulously self-aware and timely collection from award-winning poet Chen Chen. Chen’s previous collection, When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Future Possibilities, was longlisted for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. With his newest collection, Chen continues to demonstrate his trademark ability to balance tenderness and wit, crafting a book that is constantly in conversation with itself. The end result is a book that reads like a wonderfully lyrical narrative with a protagonist who must come to terms with himself and, through the process, determine the terms of the relationships that surround him.
One of the first things that stands out about Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency is the careful arrangement of poems. The four sections help to reinforce Chen’s frequent allusion to the seasons in his poem titles. His particular predilection for referencing summer and winter further emphasizes the often embattled emotions at the heart of his poems. Chen gets yet more mileage from these allusions through his decision to reuse phrases and structures across many poems, such as the series of poems that begin with “The School of…” and the eight poems which carry the title “a small book of questions.” Chen masterfully grounds the collection in the passage of time while also emphasizing the tendency for lingering traumas to resurface, sending a message that the process of healing is long, messy, but ultimately fulfilling.
Chen has a gift for creating intimacy on the page, both amongst those within a poem and with the reader. His language is at once quiet and fiercely raw during a phone call with his lover in the poem “Summer”: “He says it’s snowing & his sister is pregnant & his mother is dying so they probably won’t be able to go on as many rides at Disney.//I say okay & I see but neither is true.” Juxtaposing a lengthy and fraught line with such a minimal response intensifies the speaker’s inability to reconcile what his lover is saying with his own selfish desire to have J come back to him. This sentiment returns in “Winter,” when the speaker admits, “I wish I wasn’t tired of his sadness.”
The risk of centering a speaker who is, at times, painfully self-involved is significant, but Chen balances these sentiments with frequent moments of grace, desire and appreciation. The effect is brilliant in that the protagonist exists as neither an idealized character or a self-loathing tragedy, but as someone fully human. Chen displays an exceptional talent for developing the speaker in his poems, often peppering poems with moments of trauma without ever sitting for too long inside that trauma. This helps to offset devastating memories and give the collection as a whole a sense of hope.
Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency gives ample space to the mother-son relationship, with the speaker in various poems describing how his mother continues to ignore that he is gay and refuses to acknowledge his long-time partner as a romantic lover. J, the speaker’s boyfriend, urges the speaker to invest in rebuilding the relationship time and again, fueled by having lost his own month near the beginning of the collection/narrative. Though the mother never fully reconciles with her son’s identity, “a small book of questions: chapter vii” offers a small moment of relief as the speaker posits, “Maybe she is asking about us by asking about the dog.” The speaker revisits memories, noting how his mother shows her affection for J even when she cannot articulate it, preparing meals that meet his dietary needs and showing disappointment when he cannot attend a family event.
Ultimately, the scope of the collection resists a brief review. The book itself is nearly twice as long as most contemporary collections, and many of the poems invite close readings. Chen is expert at infusing each poem with layer upon layer of meaning, each one building upon those that come before. This is a collection you’ll want to read from front to back at least once, allowing the narrative and the characters to become more and more familiar with each page.