University of Georgia Press
Quick: how many poems can you recall that start with the words, “The Federal Reserve?” Me neither. That’s just one of the breaths of fresh air here, even for a book that makes one reach for the easy “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” allusion. While men (and women) do not die for lack of the prescience on display in these poems that have to have been written sometime before November 2008, certainly fortunes have died due to what is detailed within them, for Chang’s subject in a large portion of the book is corporate malfeasance and greed.
Her larger theme, though, is malfeasance of all kinds, and atrocity, and the implications of savagery beyond the individuals brutalized by armies or dictators or the more banal ramifications of self-interest run amok. And thus her power to prophesize comes from her willingness to cast her net wide for voices—to anticipate the headlines means not following them out of narrow solipsism but writing what you learn and can imagine of the world.
Chang’s first book also dealt with atrocity on both the personal and global scale, in a voice both prophetic and brutally intimate. In Circle, Chang pushed through autobiographical works (however constructed) and into empathetic and imaginative work considering the perspectives of such tragic and haunting figures as Eva Braun, the D.C. snipers from a few years ago, and ordinary men and women trapped in wars, disasters, and endless cycles of loss.
In terms of perspective, Chang’s new book builds from where the last one ended, on polyphony, exploring again fear and oppression, misbehavior of all kinds, horrible consequences both physical and psychic, with less of the seemingly autobiographical material that characterized the first book. Here, too, she is more formally varied, and more formally astute than in her first book.
One would expect the second book to show some growth. What is worth attention in this book, and with this poet, is the way her work incorporates form so deftly to help shape an uncompromising vision of almost oppressive foreboding. Right from the opening poem, “Hanging Mao Posters,” the couplets unroll the drama of the short poem just as the subject “unrolls each poster” until, after seeing the face so many times, “Even the trees/ take flight.” Another early poem further accentuates how Chang can adopt various eyes: the view imagined in “Sparrows,” seeing through the vantage of birds flying over Mao’s rural China, the sights are blunt: “thatch, megaphone, and the tops of fists.”
The whole first section imagines the voices of witnesses and participants of the Cultural Revolution, and the poems expand individuals’ responses, telescoping the greater effect of violence in its many forms, reminding us that those we see as heroes or liberators, “even the man on horseback/ shoots down birds.” Her work challenges us to persist in our willful ignorance, “as if one body/ could be beaten in isolation.”
By the time readers arrive on the second section of the book, it’s clear there will be few happy endings or mild, tidy epiphanies. Most victories in a Chang poems are Pyrrhic. Most gains come at the destruction of something else. In that way, she is a poet of transition, perhaps transubstantiation, or maybe a phoenix—if the resulting bird is not the one of shiny feathered triumph but is instead a little charred and uneasy in its laborious flight. Her poems crackle with many words whose meanings and inferences center on breakage or restraint—“stub of sun” jumped out at me each time I read it. In “Little Gem,” the speaker notes, on seeing someone plant a magnolia, that “even a perfect tree is wayward.”1 The moon “confesses” light.
Chang follows closely the ethos of her book’s epigraph, taken from Virginia Woolf: “The beauty of the world . . . has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” Thus the book’s lengthy middle section deals with stories surrounding a recollected affair, as well as imagined ars poeticae that abstract the speaker and the poet into distant, cragged relations to the material of the section.
The section’s opening poem, “Spring Planting,” comprises couplets that end in one-two punches of feet landing with decision: “candied pansies,” “ink slabs,” “black ink breathe and broth,” “moon drew,” “one stroke.” By the end of the poem, the gardener, cowed by a crow, is tearing out, unplanting, “the palsied phlox you had planted last spring.” And even beyond rhythm, Chang undoes the classic received form of love poems. The narrative sequence of “The Professor’s Lover” runs six sections long, each in thirteen lines.
In the final section, where the opening poem begins “The Federal Reserve adjusts, raises,” Chang offers “Ars Poetica as Corporation and Canary,” wherein “the moon/ confesses light// from the sun, but can never truly/ have it.” The moon, thus, is bodiless, enjoying life as a corporation, action without the accountability of a person. A corporation can never truly have anything, though they can halve all kinds of things. Later in the poem, the narrator is “A stout fist on a table,” and the building of the corporation “bunts” the birds that fly near it. The poet is monolith and bodiless, present and unseen, of a self and not.
Perhaps this statement allows the liberty—that this reader did not begrudge the poet—of the meditations over the suicide on Enron executive Clifford Baxter. One poem makes anagrams of key phrases in the suicide note. Another conflates the moment the man shot himself with the cycle of cicadas and a coming-of-age moment while watching Dail M for Murder. Still another work imagines letters Baxter would write to his past, a crow, the winter, the ocean. Chang’s meditations and the collage of humanity built around the idea of Charles Baxter are built upon the work of the previous sections, as well as her first book. It works because she has produced already a clear and unyielding vision for writing the world’s brutality and imagining its facets, all of them, beautiful and fierce, sharp and jagged. She is able to move in from a great and well established psychic distance (to use John Gardiner’s term) to which she repeatedly returns to re-establish her position as a variant of the prophetic omniscient. Because she is detailed and confident, and her chosen forms reiterate her confidence through the manner in which she executes, the movement and liberties pull the reader into the ideas at work in the poems. She fully imagines a Charles Baxter that is doubtless a fiction, but whose humanity is (dare we say it?) rendered here in a way larger, perhaps truer and more visible, than it might well have been even to him.
Chang’s vision is also notably bodiless. It comes without commentary or and with little lyric impulse; in fact, there is less authorial presence in Chang’s work than I have found in many of her contemporaries. She is more a cipher for the voices toward which she gravitates in her concerns. Even in a poem ostensibly told by a simulation of the poet’s self, “Cardinal,” the final line of a poem considering the possibilities of different selves, the focus turns away: “all the mirrors I looked into,/ reflections missing.”
In the book’s title poem, named for the world’s most destructive and invasive weed, the narrator meditates on a life spent in corporate luxury, working in finance, for a man who was called “God’s banker.” The book’s epigraph is invoked in the description of a bird, in “the way a pair/ of wings as soft// as a child’s palm fasten/ to a bird’s beak meant for// tearing and jewelling.” The persona states:
Maybe we live in incomplete sentences.
Maybe there are no verbs—did, did not.
All of which, of course, could be verbs. All of which destroy and erode and take over. All of which are complicated. All of which are throughout this ambitious, complex, gem of a book.
Gabriel Welsch is author of the poetry collection, Dirt and All Its Dense Labor. He reviews books regularly for Mid-American Review and Small Press Review, and recent poems and stories appear in Tar River Poetry, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Mid-American Review, Ascent, Dislocate, PANK, Burnside Review, and other journals. He is assistant vice president for marketing at Juniata College, and lives in Huntingdon, Penn., with his wife and daughters.