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“Gesundheit!” — Of Blessings and Friendships and Sex

By Literature

Illustration by Lela Johnson

Boystown’s quiet roads are riddled with Elm and Maple pollen, making the air particularly hard to breathe and sneeze-filled this time of year. In the quiet lull of what was once a buzzing neighborhood, I read Chen Chen’s and Sam Herschel Wein’s poetry chapbook, Gesundheit!” published by Glass Poetry Press. Within its personal narratives, the streets outside my window turned animated and suddenly I could see in its reflections how my own relationships — which had become similarly entwined in the queer culture that both authors speak of. 

Opening with “Allergy Season,” Wein plays with the metaphor of sneezing. He says that his sneezes come in twos, while comparing that metaphor with the pressure of coupling so artfully, that by the end of the poem, it seems nearly impossible not to come to that conclusion. This duality that pressures Wein also complements the duality of the chapbook, with its two authors. By opening with this poem, Wein begins with arguably one of his most recognizable forms, stream of consciousness. By starting with this poem, Wein is also able to help distinguish his poetry from Chen’s. 

Throughout the chapbook, each poet carefully considers form in order to contrast and complement each other. Some of Chen’s poems force the reader to stop and digest the content, the words selected so artfully that they are abstract to the reader unless they spend time with the text. It contrasts against Wein’s stream-of-consciousness which reads so naturally you almost have to read it again. Both, however, adapt, and at times write together. They write about their lives together as friends and how their lives in the queer community have impacted their friendships.

While each poet has their own story and interaction with their culture, it’s their friendship that becomes the backbone for the chapbook. In Chen’s “Friendship,” which occurs later on in the chapbook and is dedicated to Sam, one cannot help but be swept up in the love used to write the poem. Wein himself comes into picture through Chen’s description of  “a face / roller-blading & / wearing- / shorts.” Friendship becomes surreal of a “hotdog,” connoting Chicago, and the celestial moon. However, even in this love, one feels the long-distance yearning through a “crashed browser.” 

Out the same window looking out to the now-abandoned Roscoe, I had a pensive conversation with a friend, wearing masks, about the quest for heteronormativity in Boystown — specifically in gay cis culture. In their own relationship, my friend saw this dynamic thirsted for and knew they could not fulfill it. Looking at the community, we both saw it reflected in our once-daily interactions within the neighborhood. I saw this reflected in the chapbook, as it began to eat at both platonic and romantic relationships.

“So much getting down on one knee, so many surprises / (but not really) in gondolas. I’m not ready for this kind of summer,” Chen laments in “The Sinister Barista Meets the Loch Ness Professor.” He interrogates this need, opening up the dialogue instead to: “I’m ready / for the movie where four people topple tyranny, /  top each other, fall in love, keep things open.” In “Friendship,” Wein comments, “I think queer people mimic / the straights so they don’t become stuck in / a fog storm.” 

Sexuality is told so explicitly it becomes intimate. Wein’s “The Inside Job/Exit Strategy” is woefully relatable yet witty, and left me laughing. He takes a completely different turn in “Intimate Failures,” instead depicting the unspoken facets of his sex life. “I want better sex where we don’t / have sex at all because you’re still / crying about your friend who is dying, / or the blowjob we interrupt because one of us is having a flashback.” Failure, all forms of it, is embraced by both Chen and Wein. They air out their laundry, and by naming it, they both remove its power and sow their own growth.

Chen also brings the conversation about racism within gay culture. “Will they/won’t they/will I” begins with something as simple as critiquing “The Office,” which soon spirals to trauma from racism. The poem is written, both in form and content, so precisely to mimic a spiraling thought process that the reader is swept in. “You Should Let Yourself Be More Asian, It’s Cute.” Chen begins to detail pressure from one relationship, the impact of it, but also the pressure from society. He concludes:

I thought I could date, fuck into white.

I was willing to settle for eggshell white. But ideally

paperwhite so I could rewrite, remake myself any way 

I liked. I could tell anyone, Be more of that thing I like, 

be cute.

In both poems, Chen reflects on how some of his earliest relationships have affected him. While the chapbook constantly delves into how both poets navigate their present-day space, there is often a reflection on how childhood has created this space. In “First Prayers I Can Remember,” Wein details an interaction with other children where they describe a dog as “gay,” which, as the poem progresses, turns into a traumatic moment due to the detestment for queerness embodied, illogically, in a dog. 

When the two poets finally come together, it becomes magical for both them and the reader. The moment is made even more palpably essential by the fact the poem, “INFP Ghost,” is a collaboration poem. At last, we are able to see both poets occupying the same space, and a familiar one at that, as the poem ends in the Art Institute with one of them sneezing. Chen describes school life so vividly in the poem “Gesundheit!” that it is impossible not to get thrown back in time. He describes a simple moment of no one saying “bless you,” or “gesundheit,” but through it is able to capture the social distance of the classroom combined with the thankfulness for those in his life who were there to say “gesundheit.”

“Gesundheit!” traverses the ins and outs queer culture, but goes one step further, as both poets analyze how their position has affected the friendships, with each other or others, in their lives. “Hibiscus Knowledge,” the last poem of the chapbook, is written by both poets. With their last breath, they conclude how to move on through — of course, a cup of tea:

Holding

each other. Circulating a bushel

of how to heal in reverse.

A bushel of tea tongs.

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