Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Victoria Chang, Barbie Chang

Barbie Chang can’t stop watching
      the Ellen Pao trial

while the rest of the world wonders
     about a plane crash in

the Alps helping Ellen Pao is not an
      option Barbie Chang

opted out but never really severed
      ties with the people in

the office she kept quiet because by
      speaking she would

become a victim something projected
      upon like the canvas (“BARBIE CHANG CAN’T STOP WATCHING”)

The first thing that struck me about Southern California poet Victoria Chang’s fourth full-length poetry collection, Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) [see my review of her prior collection here], is how it is reminiscent, structurally, of Toronto poet Shannon Bramer’s second collections, scarf (Exile Editions, 2001), both of which are accumulative character-studies heavy on interiority, wrapped around a central image/character. Whereas the image and story of a scarf provides Bramer’s character Vera her narrative through-line, Victoria Chang writes her character and central figure “Barbie Chang” as a “perpetual outsider,” writing her character’s feeling of disconnect against the loaded cultural figure of “Barbie.” What makes the connection stronger is in how Chang doesn’t need to present information any more than the name itself, and her main character isn’t mentioned once without her full name: “Barbie Chang.”

Chang (Victoria, I mean) also adds the figure of “Mr. Darcy” as a side-character, referencing the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), through Barbie Chang’s “romantic misadventures with Mr. Darcy,” as she writes, to open the poem “MR. DARCY LEANS”:

Mr. Darcy leans into Barbie Chang again
      weans her from his lean

then leans again his face doesn’t reach
      her face but she can feel

its heat soldering her to him his shoulder
      lacks flesh but she still

wishes for it when he says cheese she
      shows her teeth and

wonders when she will believe in the
      idea of which space again

Barbie Chang is a hefty and complicated character study, as we watch Chang’s (Victoria, I mean) protagonist deal with parental health issues, heartbreak, racism and anxiety while attempting to maneuver the potential minefield of social engagement, as she writes to open the poem “BARBIE CHANG GOT HER HAIR DONE”:

Barbie Chang got her hair done for
      the school auction

she was afraid sick of the Circle since
      she heard of their

shopping for matching dresses so out
      of the nest she flew

into the auction thinking she could
      outmaneuver her

loneliness thinking she could overcome
      being classified thinking

I find her rhythms of her poems fascinating, wondering how her lines are meant to be heard or read, with the jagged, staggered meanings and collision of phrase. I find the rhythms jarring, but am fascinated by how they are meant to sound, and meant to flow, reading instead a kind of uneven ground meant to keep the reader slightly unsettled. The effect requires a slowness, but aloud would be quite different to hear at higher speeds. How am I to read these? How does she, I wonder?

No comments: