“But still I marvel whenever poop comes out as one true Platonic tube. / I am trying to be marvelous. / & to make my enemies throw up.” —Chen Chen, “Winter”
It’s spring; the bushes and trees let the breeze move through their paint-dipped fingers. Outside, the sun holds my cheek and casts a faint orange on the pages of my book. “I see you,” I tell her. “I see you, and I appreciate you, and I love you.” She doesn’t say anything, just keeps being: orange, just barely.
It’s spring, and I love spring and the sun and the openness of daylight, which expands to hold earlier mornings and later dusks in its arms, but I’m still thinking about winter—Chen Chen’s “Winter.”
One night in early April, I was in Frist with Lauren and Sam, in that lecture hall they say Einstein taught in. It was echoey in the hall, and Lauren ran up the stairs to see if she could hear me clearly from all the way up there. She did. She walked back down the stairs, her black pants swishing.
When she made her way back down, we each had a slice of castella, a sweet Japanese cake—yellow rectangles with thin brown crusts, two parallel lines hugging the spongy sweetness.
I ate the cake, and I thought of how my family would buy pastries after dinner at a Korean restaurant—all the Asian shops in the same plaza—and my dad would imitate his late father. He’d place the castella loaf in the wicker shopping basket and say, “You know your grandpa liked to say ca-steh-ra,” three biting syllables crescendoing to the “ra,” with the Korean consonant that lies somewhere between R and L.
I felt beautifully Asian, and I felt a certain power beside Lauren. Lauren who brings castella to study dates, who never shies away from a conversation on race, who makes me feel affirmed and then excited about this Asian body. Perhaps my California sun is not too different than the Texas sun that she grew under, our beings shaped by similar traumas at the confluence of womanhood, Christianity, and tangled immigrant families.
And while whiteness and maleness sound doubly threatening, Sam feels safe to me. As Lauren and I passionately discussed our specific identities, Sam listened. No one’s space was threatened. We compared our different vantage points. Mostly, though, we all laughed together because so much more makes us similar than what makes us different—albeit critically different. And I would say, too, wonderfully different.
As our conversation meandered through Asianness, Asian love and bodies, vulnerability, violence, and honesty, Chen Chen’s poem, which I’ve loved for a year or two, felt increasingly relevant. “This is making me think of a poem,” I said, opening the Poetry Foundation page on my laptop. “It’s so good, we have to read this now.”
Lauren read the poem out loud, so perfectly and clearly, like she meant it. The first line filled the lecture hall: “Big smelly bowel movements this blue January morning.” April had just started, and it was half past nine in a lonely hall, no windows. Nothing was blue, but we sank into Chen’s cool-toned portrait of shit and romance. It was good to be beyond the present moment and our present bodies, if only for a few minutes.
The poem traveled through its own body, scoured every crevice for some truth to give us—three students on the cusp of adulthood, just trying to survive, having no firsthand conception of gay romance or anal sex and little vocabulary for our shit.
The fact that we all shit remains a veiled truth, a vital unpleasantry of the self we hold below our hips. Our head perches itself on the neck, maintaining a healthy torso-distance from the anus, because the brain’s poetic—that which creates, sings, swims—wants nothing to do with shit—that which our body cannot siphon life from.
But Chen marries shit with poetry, and he does so gracefully.
Lauren got through “gastrointestinal,” all six syllables judiciously clear, but fell out of rhythm on “health,” which came right after. She laughed at herself. I smiled at all my favorite lines of the poem: “Years ago, a teacher said never to use the word ‘poop’ in a poem. / Today, the icy kiss of the toilet seat wakes me up.”
Chen writes his own rules. The word “poop” is larger than poop. It’s the language of an alternate cosmology, a reordering of intimacies, a willingness to desire the undesirable. A love song that calls shit’s name and calls shit in. It’s a self-awareness, an ownership of all our being.
The unabashed presence of poop also marks his words as poetry that belongs to only him—which makes me feel like I can own myself through language. I’m an Asian woman from California, five feet tall, with kind words and a nonintrusive desire for greatness, and people think they know me. But I don’t want to be known—not in a way that suits white America. I want to exist like anyone else, and I want to own the rights to my Asianness.
And Chen entered my life through the backdoor—which is to say winter, the season past that threw a white blanket over all my surroundings—and gave me a vocabulary for defiance, and defiant honesty. Word-shields to protect the sanctity of my identity.
The “icy kiss of the toilet seat” is the bathroom’s invocation of romance. The experience is specific to Chen—his truth—confined, even, to the “today” he positions the poem in. But the kiss is universal and familiar. Though we cannot be more than a vague unknowable swath of readers to him, Chen feeds us the truth of our uncanny romance with the toilet seat, which takes us in everyday, arms open in an O to receive us.
A few lines later, Chen delivers an idea I cling to, a mantra of sorts: “I am trying to be marvelous. / & to make my enemies throw up.” When I said I identified with these lines, Sam asked if I had enemies. I said that of course I do. I don’t know who they are, but I feel them, and they’re there. But even more than seeing my enemies throw up, I would like us to all realize our marvelousness, and to marvel at ourselves and each other. To marvel at some goodnesses, and then, hopefully, to multiply them.
Occasionally, the TV interrupts Chen’s ruminations: “My boyfriend & I are not platonic. / From the TV: a white supremacist cites Science, barks Two sides to every —”
The white supremacist on TV interrupts Chen, but Chen has the last say in interrupting, ultimately cutting off the voice with an em dash. So the white supremacist wields great destructive power—the violence of their words embodied in a “bark”—but Chen wields the power of listening, rejecting, and appropriating.
The notion of “two sides” contributes to larger themes of the poem. Is Chen talking about the openings on either end of our body, vital for eating, speaking, copulating, shitting? Is he talking about the symmetry of gay love? And, by voicing words that give rise to poetic discourse, is the white supremacist speaking a truth beyond their consciousness, living unknowingly in Chen’s order of the universe? Poetry allows us to have the final say. And while even an infinity of final says cannot undo the destruction of white supremacy and bigotry, I believe final says can save us on the individual level, if only for a moment.
Life is never as clean as we think or will it to be, and Chen’s poem beckons every corner of the moment—the shitting, the TV-murmuring, the remembering—into its arms. Why should we guard the poetic, sequester the supposedly beautiful in a corner of cleanliness? People are turned off by the inaccessibility of poetry, by the notion that poetry—that is, the living or dead white men claiming poetic territory—can decide what crosses its membrane. Chen invites it all in. If shit wants to be poetic, let it be.
In a PBS interview, Chen said, “I felt like I couldn’t be Chinese and American and gay all at the same time. I felt like the world I was in was telling me that these had to be very separate things. Poems were a way for those different experiences to come together, for them to be in the same room.”
The blank page is a room full of possibility. What does it mean to confront that space? Chen promotes a willingness to interrogate and inhabit one’s role as the architect.
A poem takes its shape on the white blankness of a page; my Asian female body carries a particular weight of presence. Poems demand us to listen; I demand to be listened to. I honor the space the poem inhabits, and I honor the space I inhabit by considering how I furnish it.
Lauren and Sam and I filled the room with ourselves. There was nothing out of the ordinary about that night; we just talked about life. But life itself—especially life that centers Asianness and womanhood, that creates space for the multiplicity of the self and a willingness to listen, a willingness to speak—is incredibly potent. We move through the world holding so much feeling and thought. Our bellies our full; our shit routinely reminds us that we are digesting the world.
Chen continued, “I think about, what am I allowing into this poem? What belongs here in the space of the poem? In the room of the poem what is being left out or denied? It’s this way to have different voices or people or experiences fit together in the poem, sometimes in an uncomfortable way, but in a necessary way.”
Through letting all of himself into the poetic room, Chen teaches us a specific art of surrender: surrender through knowing, acknowledging, and writing the truth of our bodies and being.
What did we bring to the room, and what did we lay down in the room? What came together, and what, from our feelings and experiences, coalesced on that April night? The hall was a poem pregnant with our beings of abundance. We filled it with Chen’s lines, and then our own lines: our breath, our bodies, our minds.
At the end of the poem, Chen lets us in on a love that feels like home—feels like I’m looking through the window, into the coziness of knowing and giving and staying. “I mean, one winter night I got sick & pooped the bed. / & he just got up with me. / Helped strip the sheets, carry it all to the washer. / I kept saying, I’m so sorry, shivering, I’m so, I’m sorry. But he said, What? Hey. I love you.”
Does that love exist in the love I inhabit now, in my future loves? I don’t know, and I’m scared of knowing. Talking about shit is different than shitting. I try to keep tabs on my demons and I dislike letting others in on my unbeauty. Asianness only increases the pressure on this. I was born into a world that loves whiteness, a world that knows me only in relation to whiteness. I strive for honesty in my relationship with the self and those close to me, but whiteness has nursed, in my belly, the paranoia of embodying Otherness, and thus, ugliness. I don’t want to be ugly, and I don’t want to produce shit, much less stain my white bedsheets. But Chen reminds me that I am loved not for my inability to shit, but my whole being—which includes the shitting self.
I would like to seriously meditate upon my own shit—physical and metaphorical—and to poeticize it. Chen does, and he possesses the radical power of delivering vulnerable truths—and thus, the power to decide the terms of love, closeness, and what we marvel at.
We need more entrails in our language, in our conversation, in our love. Then, I believe, we may be more gracious with ourselves and with others. “What? Hey. I love you.”
After Lauren finished reading the poem, we sat in silence for a few moments. We’d go on to discuss it, briefly, then watch videos of pandas giving birth. Chen Chen shook our world quietly: he suddenly made things vulnerable, immediate, and real. I’d like to think that bits of our aliveness were touched, beckoned.
It’s not a long poem. If you read it, consider the winter of our being, the fact of shit and survival and grace. With winter’s sickness comes the terrible everythingness of our insides, scooping themselves out from below our belly, and a love that stays. This poem is a perennial state of being; I don’t believe we ever shed winter. Time sticks, grows on us like rings of an old tree. So we go on this way, touched blessedly by Chen Chen. We go on carrying winter with us, even as our eyes are pinned skyward to hold all the blooming colors in our gaze. Here, the fullness of spring, and here, too, the leftover fullness of winter.