On Victoria Chang's Barbie Chang

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Barbie Chang, by Victoria Chang.
96 pp. Copper Canyon Press, 2017. $16

We first meet Barbie Chang, the character whose life and thoughts populate most of Victoria Chang’s fourth collection, at a conference, when everyone stands to give the speaker a standing ovation except Barbie, who walks out of the room. It’s a stark image of a woman who “once worked on a street called Wall,” and it’s this act—quiet defiance that isolates her from those around her, a kind of idealism—that will come to define her again and again in these poems.

            This character is a complex amalgamation of personal and cultural influences. While Barbie Chang shares some of her biography with the poet Victoria Chang, the character comes to feel like a two-way mask. The name evokes both the childhood fashion doll who, from the 80s onward, could achieve success in any field she chose, as well as Taiwanese heritage. The overlap becomes a mask the character Barbie Chang projects to the world around her as a kind of protective shield, and a mask placed upon her the world at large, who expect Barbie, as an Asian-American woman, to be beautiful, sexual, maternal, and successful in her career. It is the reader, though, who encounters the actual Barbie Chang, who is located somewhere between these two extremes as she tries to “outmaneuver her loneliness” even as she cares for two very ill parents, and parents her own children.

            Each Barbie Chang poem has an identical form—brief lines formed into couples, with a slightly longer first line and an indented second line. There is no punctuation in the poems—words build into phrases that collide and abut one another. The formal consistency contributes to a kind of rhythm that becomes the heartbeat of the book, while the lawless, unpunctuated language cultivates an anxiety and breathlessness that enhance the subject of the poems. Whether Barbie Chang is contending with the icy mothers of her children’s school (whom she refers to as “the Circle” for their impenetrable social connection that pointedly excludes Barbie), trying to pull her father back from the clutches of dementia, or spending time with her mother dying of a lung disease, the phrasings of the poem force the reader to proceed slowly, engage fully with the text, and constantly reframe/rephrase what he or she believes the poem is saying.

            Though the architecture of the poems does lend itself to feelings in the reader that closely match the feelings experienced by Barbie Chang, a third element offers a kind of reverse energy. Victoria Chang engages in rich language play in every poem. Rather than progressing only logically, the poems move intuitively through associations brought on by rhyme, homophones, and other chiming kinds of language:

The doctor says hospice as if she
            is a hostess and

wants Barbie Chang to try the
            crawfish there are

no longer many crawl spaces left for
            her mother who no

longer can take her own showers
            once she cut flowers

but now her lungs are burnt crust
            lost in their own

rusting Barbie Chang always thought
            her mother was heartless

            (“The Doctor Says Hospice”)

Here the troubling word hospice quickly morphs into hostess, much less concerning, and that leads into crawfish by association, which calls to crawl spaces; showers beckons to flowers, while the repetition of longer makes lungs feel familiar; these in turn are burnt crust, rusting. Everything in this poem hangs together like a complicated three-dimensional puzzle in which the tension between the pieces leads to a fragile stability. While the tonal dissonance between play and anxiety is risky, in Chang’s book, they are woven together so expertly that the poems themselves take on an urgency that enhances the impact of each individual piece.

            The last recurring presences in the book include Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen’s much-lusted-for hero of Pride and Prejudice. In Barbie Chang’s voice, Mr. Darcy is a dreamlike figure from her past—someone fleeting and unattainable, perhaps, but in whom she finds significant moments of respite from the conflicts that have come to define her life. The other recurring presence, a real world person, is Ellen Pao, who in 2015 sued for gender discrimination the venture capital firm for whom she worked. Pao, who holds a BS in electrical engineering from Princeton, and a JD and MBA from Harvard, is someone whose experience resonates with Barbie Chang in the poems:

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 a canvas

that pain is thrown on she quietly
            packed her bag and

pulled it through the narrow door some
            say what a whore Ellen

Pao was to fall in love with a man in the
            office doesn’t she know

that men like to take off their clothes
            extend their tongues

(“Barbie Chang Can’t Stop Watching”)

The conflict around perfection is palpable in Barbie Chang. The book’s concerns with idealizations like Mr. Darcy, high achievement like Ellen Pao, and social exclusivity like the Circle contrast starkly with Barbie Chang’s ailing parents, whose physical and mental acuity ebbs away poem by poem.

Barbie Chang’s four sections alternate between the Barbie Chang poems and “Dear P.” poems. Acting as a kind of response to the call of the Barbie Chang poems, the first interruption by “Dear P.” takes the form of 15 sonnets, all identical in address to a child, the titular “P.” In structure they echo the Barbie Chang form of unpunctuated and otherwise undifferentiated language clustered into associative phrases. Part diary, part instruction manual, these poems seem to dive into the unmediated mind of Barbie Chang—not the social Barbie Chang, whom the book thus far has mostly presented to the reader in her conflict with or stark contrast to another person (her parents, other children’s parents, Ellen Pao and Mr. Darcy, and so on). Here, the voice is both loving and sage, cautious and knowing. “Someone says it is difficult write poems / that are both domestic and ambitious,” the eighth sonnet begins in perhaps a vulnerable, self-conscious moment (though the book is doing precisely that, being both domestic and ambitious and not apologizing at any step for either impulse). But generally the sonnets are concerned with negotiating the complex identities a woman’s life offers her: mother, partner, and self. They feel like the notes toward a letter left to a daughter in legacy—a way of teaching, loving, and saying now the inevitable farewell delivered when the writer, too, dies, as we all must.

It is in the last section of the book, the final sequence of “Dear P.” poems, that this idea reifies. Now the sonnets are double-spaced, and offer broader word spacing to help us organize the unpunctuated language into discrete thoughts and phrases. These poems nurture the reader as much as their subject, which again seem to speak earnestly to a daughter. The sonnets take what we read of Barbie Chang and turn them into lessons and advice; they address girls who grow up to be women who form circles, the boys who will love her poorly, and the inevitable advance to womanhood and the time when it will be P.’s turn to mourn her parents.

Chang’s poems are dizzying structures that delight the mind with their fearlessness and innovation, and move the spirit with their unflinching observation and delivery of what we know to be true. The last “Dear P.” sonnet ends with the lines “every        woman / begins                        and ends                      with     another     woman,” a meaningful definition of the mother-daughter relationship, but just as appropriate for the social connectedness of all women, even the ones who occupy the exclusive Circle holding out Barbie Chang. The endings of Chang’s poems are where her mastery with words is most obvious, particularly in this collection with its clear voices and recurring characters. Each poem spins taut and furiously as a top, only to drop suddenly into its last couplet or last lines, offering there such beautiful, evocative imagery or declarative truths. It is nearly impossible to excerpt one example and do it justice because these lines and images become imbued with the energy of all the lines preceding them. As a reader, this means each poem lands with stunning payoff, and each ending urges the reader forward to the next poem.