Let It Not Be This (Jen Chen)

Long Bay Hospital

On the first visit to my client,
not guilty by reason of mental illness,
Long Bay Hospital extracted biometrics
for their security system, digital
fingerprints and snaps of my wide eyes.

Built for burley gatekeepers,
doors were weighted metronomes
counting minutes stacking into hours
building into years.

We looked at each other through glass
in a booth the width of my arm span
listening to the confidential
conversations of neighbouring lawyers.

His folded hands betrayed a tremor,
medication slurred his speech;
he had no visitors other than those
like me, paid to be present.

As I left the compound
only flies moved in the thick summer air.

Their freedom,
exercised with shameless frenzy,
was obscene.

Jen Chen reads ‘Long Bay Hospital’



The maid remembers the colours 
in the old man’s parade of pills,
the cycle of his television soaps
marking the transit of their humid Singaporean days.

The maid knows how often his children visit.
She sees that he tires at eight o’clock
but even so, their dinners linger.

As she waits, without complaint,
on his concrete steps for the family to return
(they do not trust her with the key)
she thinks of the grandchildren she supports
laughing at home in Manila —

And wonders why
when she calls, they do not answer.

Jen Chen reads ‘Duty’


Let it not be this

Let it be anything else
and we could stand up under it.
It might be hard — but give us an option, an out,
a side gate, no matter how narrow.

I would draw the marrow out of my bones to assist,
wrap up a kidney as a Christmas gift,
siphon out my blood like soup
if it could recoup her this long winter
and sustain her until spring.

us deep into the throes of bankruptcy
for expensive chemo treatment
even if it is excruciating, nerve
grating, with endless nights of aching
like crushed glass behind closed eyes —
only please, let her survive.

us with your hottest fire and we will improvise.
Beacause we’re fighters, we’re survivors.

My grandmother crawled up a mountainside for days
in a daze without food or water to escape rape by the Japanese.

My uncle swam across a flooded city with keys clenched
in his teeth, determined to rescue his stranded wife.

Mum refused to let the communists take the best years of her life
but smiled in the labour camp to prove she’d been reeducated.

Dad lived through a ‘revolution’ as schools were desecrated
escaping through the bamboo curtain with his hope
still undeflated and vision unabated.

So baptise us with your hottest fire and we will improvise.
Because we’re fighters, we’re survivors.
Let it be anything else
and we could stand up under it,
but let it not be this —

a paralysed recline,
the mental rewind,
this slow decline.

Jen Chen reads ‘Let it not be this’


Jen Chen is a second generation, Australian Chinese poet and lawyer. She has been writing poetry and performing slam poetry for over fifteen years. In 2018, she was published in the Hunters Writers Centre Grieve anthology, and in 2020 she was chosen as one of 200 finalists from 7000 entrants in the NYC Flash Fiction competition. Jen has performed at poetry slams across Sydney: Bankstown Poetry Slam, Burning Seed, Sappho Books, Lentil as Anything and at Red Rattler Theatre.

Like many Asian-Australians, Jen has grown up witnessing the indefatigable striving within migrant communities towards greater security. Her poetry is informed by a long-running commitment to social justice. Through her work in international aid, domestic violence policy and mental health law, she has heard stories of marginalisation, trauma and resilience. She tries to do justice to and explore the universality of these experiences in her poems. Find more from Jen @jen.chen.rhymes.