Ken Chen's "Essay on Crying at Night"

Thoughts on innocence.

Essay on Crying at Night

I am just like my mother. I buy books and tell myself that I am buying wisdom and at the end of my life, I own a house full of books. When I was little, I thought that the water came out of the showerhead because it was crying. This is because I heard my mother crying and thought it was the showerhead.

from Juvenilia (Yale University Press, 2010)


Sometimes you read a poem and you just go oh, I remember now, this is why poems exist. It’s less about stopping you in your tracks. Or shattering you, which I use all to often to describe a poem that moves you. Or whatever phrase or word you might use to offer up the language of your feeling. Rather, it’s more, to me, about what happens when you read a poem that inverts and subverts and re-positions the world on its axis, that tilts the world away and back toward you.

Ken Chen’s poem today offers up that feeling so brilliantly. It is a deceitfully simple poem — all prose, short, comprised of mostly simple, compact sentences. And yet, notice how it begins with such a bold, grandiose, and yet relatable sentence:

I am just like my mother.

To begin in such a way is to bring to bear all the ways in which both the speaker of the poem and the reader of the poem relate to such a statement. It’s a powerful statement. It has been uttered countless times. In the moment it took me to write that previous sentence, someone somewhere probably uttered such a statement. Maybe in disgust. Maybe in pride. Perhaps, most likely, somewhere completely in between. But, by following such a sentence with the sentence that follows, the poem subverts the grandiosity typically associated with such a beginning:

I buy books and tell myself that I am buying
wisdom and at the end of my life, I own a house full of books.

There is no revelation here. Wisdom is not achieved. Only the reality of books. Only the reality of their physicality, the way they take up space when they are read and take up space when they are finished. In this subversion, there is sorrow. Something is hoped for. Some vast revelation. I think of the phrase from Yeats’ “Second Coming” — Surely some revelation is at hand. And yet — none. Already, this poem tilts the expectation of the world away from us as readers. We so often are promised revelation, the wisdom alluded to at the onset of this poem. And yet, and yet, and yet.

But what I find remarkable about this poem is how it manages to turn even from there, from that act of great subversion. It moves away from books. It moves away from commonly held tropes of wisdom. It moves to childhood. It moves to “When I was little.” And here is where the poem becomes something special to me. I think part of that intrinsic sparkle has to do with innocence, most notably the innocence of childhood. The innocence where things, as they are being figured out, are given meaning. The innocence that exists before adulthood — and all adulthood carries — sometimes destroys such meaning.

Think back to childhood. Think of all the things — mundane or extraordinary — you ascribed meaning toward. Think of how you defined them. Think of what you let be the result of magic. Think of what you let be the result of love. Think of what you let be the result of pain, despair, joy, impossibility. Think of how it felt to not have to question the seeming reality of your definitions. Think of what it felt like to make up your own definitions. To imagine, simply, and by imagining, make the complexity of the world turn in its many luminous directions.

That is what is happening in the second half of this poem. How the speaker offers the agency of despair to something as ordinary as a showerhead. How there is a world in that young imagination where even the most simple things are capable of feeling. And how beautiful that is, and how sad, because pushed up against that is the reality of human suffering. The mother crying in the shower. The son not knowing, until now, the fact of that. And perhaps only knowing that because he, too, has cried, and he too knows the loneliness of such tears.

Perhaps I am drawn to this poem because I am reading Marilynne Robinson for the first time, and I am caught up in her depiction of a world laced with grace and wonder. I am thinking of the way she writes, in Gilead:

In every important way we are such secrets from one another, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us…

I am thinking of that “separate language,” yes. I am thinking of the way we are each complete and singular messes of understanding and witness. I am thinking of what we are drawn toward, what we ascribe meaning toward, what we wonder about. And, by nature of such thought, I am thinking of what we each ignore, by virtue of our obsessions. I am thinking of what we miss, what grace we fail to see, or what suffering.

But that is perhaps what I love about this poem, how, by beginning with the acknowledgment that “I am just like my mother,” it therefore links the speaker with the mother crying at the end. It achieves a sense of communion. It says, by virtue of what it does not: I, too, have cried in the shower, and it is by crying in the shower that I realized a truth of my mother’s existence, and so am bound to her.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes about “mutual incomprehension,” even among the ones we love. Some might find this phrase alienating. They might find it hopeless. How, they might ask, can we have hope and joy and love in this world if we cannot even comprehend the ones we love? And yet, perhaps the hope in such a statement is that we still love them. Perhaps thinking of what we do not know about one another is a better way of achieving a sense of solidarity than thinking of what we do know. Perhaps the only known truth is that we are in many ways spending each day grasping at straws. It’s not an easy answer, I know. But there’s something there. To depend on revelation is to depend on a way to consistently make the incomprehensible understandable. Why wait for such a thing? Why not dwell?