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Set the Garden on Fire

By Chen Chen

for Jeanette Li

My friend’s new neighbors in the suburbs
are planting a neat row of roses
between her house & theirs.

Her neighbors smile, say the roses are part
of a community garden project, that’s all.
But they whisper, too—whisper plans for trees,
a wall of them. They plant rumors
that her house is hiding illegals, when it’s aunts
& uncles, visiting. They grow tall accusations
fed by talk radio, that her house was bought
with drug money, not seventeen years of woks
sizzling, people serving, delivering, filing,
people scrubbing, refilling, running—her family
running the best restaurant in town.
Like with your family, my friend says, once we
moved in, they stopped calling us
hardworking immigrants
Friend, let’s really move in, let’s

plunge our hands into the soil.
Plant cilantro & strong tomatoes,
watermelon & honey-hearted cantaloupe,
good things, sweeter than any rose.
Let’s build the community garden
that never was. Let’s call the neighbors
out, call for an orchard, not a wall.
Trees with arms free, flaming
into apple, peach, pear—every imaginable,
edible fire.

Come friend, neighbor,
you, come set the garden on fire
with all our hard-earned years, tender labor
of being here, ceaseless & volcanic
making of being here, together.

Added: Wednesday, October 1, 2014  /  Used with permission.
Chen Chen
Photo by Paula Champagne.

Chen Chen’s second book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, was a best book of 2022 according to the Boston Globe, Electric Lit, NPR, and others. It was also named a 2023 Notable Book by the American Library Association. His debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award.  He has received two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from Kundiman, the National Endowment for the Arts, and United States Artists. He teaches for the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast.

Image Description: Chen Chen stands in front of a large residential building. His slicked back hair is dyed orangey blond and he wears clear glasses, a silver blazer, and a purple button-down shirt with silver polka dots.

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