Seamless, is the word that lodged in my mind as I read Victoria Chang’s melodic poetry collection Barbie Chang. Not only do the poems move effortlessly from sarcasm to sincerity as the words cascade down the page unimpeded by punctuation, but the entire collection flows with such a graceful intelligence, it would not be a stretch to call it—flawless. Flawless in the way that no poem feels out of place, and each of the poems build upon each other creating a single narrative arc which deepens the engagement of the reader. At the center of this lyrical narrative is the unforgettable Barbie Chang, a mother who longs to fit in with the other mothers at her children’s school, a woman grappling with romantic love and its inevitable fading, and a daughter whose parents' illnesses are getting worse every day.
At the opening of the collection, Barbie Chang leaves behind Wall Street, and a world of lanyards, podiums and insincere applause in the hopes of “something better.” It is a longing many of us have felt, a longing for an authentic life; perhaps Barbie doesn’t want to be so plastic. Barbie Chang herself is born out of a longing for another identity. In a panel at 2018’s AWP Conference, Victoria Chang spoke of how these poems originally began in the I, but that once she happened upon the persona or alter-ego of Barbie Chang, the poems found their voice. It is often when a poet is released from their own poetic voice, even just by a small alteration of it, that they can discover a kind of music and style they weren’t able to find within the confines of first person.
The style that Chang discovers is as playful as it is masterful; rhyme, homonyms, and word-play are used throughout to propel the poems forward and often to surprise the reader with deft turns away from and back to the central theme of the poem. Yet, Chang’s movements away from the central theme of a poem never feel random, instead, in a rather surprising way they deepen the impact of the poem through their interruption. These moments abound in the collection as can be seen in the poem “The Doctor Says Hospice:”
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 hostess and the crawfish come into the poem purely through sound and yet they are also images that speak to the surrounding lines, a hostess, like a doctor often carries a false manner, and the crawfish provide a shape for the mother to take as she attempts to located a crawl space. These words which at first glance seemed disconnected from the poem, in turn give the fabric of the poem a certain texture, which speaks to Barbie Chang’s shock at hearing that fateful/hateful word hospice.
It is perhaps because of the mask of Barbie Chang that Chang can be so honest. Honest about the complex feelings a child has towards their mothers and fathers even when they are ill or dying. Early in the collection Barbie Chang discovers the mother has been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and the father’s dementia is worsening:
if a person is so edited that they are
unrecognizable can you
still love them is it possible to write an
elegy for someone who
isn’t dead yet what if a name no longer
means what it used
to where does the wind go when it
is not blowing
When a loved one is suffering we often feel outside of ourselves, disembodied even, and perhaps this is also part of the necessity for this particular narrator—Barbie Chang. Barbie Chang also feels alienated from a tight-knit group of mothers at her child’s school, that she refers to repeatedly as the Circle, and this alienation only increases as she shares stories about her ailing parents. As the circle of the family appears to be breaking, the desire to be a part of the Circle of mothers increases. Barbie Chang feels continually rejected by this Circle that takes on almost mythic proportions, “she fell in / love with the Circle but she is allergic / to them unnoticed by / them. While on the surface this drama plays out through never received evites and shopping trips that Barbie Chang is not invited to, on a deeper level it is the circle of motherhood that Chang wants to belong to, already belongs to without truly realizing it.
While the majority of the book, Victoria Chang's fourth poetry collection, is comprised of the Barbie Chang poems which are all written in couplets, the first line tending be about twice the length of the second line, there is a series of sonnets at the center of the collection and a section of poems that close the collection in which the poet writes directly to her daughter. The tone of these poems, especially within the gorgeous sonnet sequence, is intimate, immediate, and without a doubt—heartfelt:
When you fall onto the floor your cry
sounds like a lightbulb as it pulses on
off on off your wail sticks to me I fail to
hear the people dying or the dog crying or
the seizures that light up bodies you are my
seizure a blowtorch that sprouts fire then
laughter then fire you take me by force you
are a sudden occurrence I ask the sky for
help but it just gives me the next rain…
In this sonnet crown the desperate feelings of a mother are on full display, the voice at times is frenzied with concern for the safety and well-being of the child, and at other times fearful of how the relationship between the mother and child will shift over time, the speaker envisioning even her own death, “one day I will bang and bang on the soil from / below but you and your briefcase will not hear / me.”
The urgent quality of these “Dear P” poems, written in first person, set off the Barbie Chang poems and increase the depth of the collection as a whole. Poetry collections tend to have a shape, this one mirrors the subject matter of the circle in its form. Towards the end of the collection “Barbie Chang is done worshipping the Circle” and works to build her own circle, her own hero’s journey is drawing to a completion, even though Chang insists that the grieving are wrongly named heroes.
A mother’s journey, another kind of heroic journey, is the propelling force behind this narrative. Even after death, the mother’s journey continues within the daughter. Victoria Chang’s luminous collection concludes, “the wind will fill you up with my words….until you recognize / yourself until you see that every woman / begins and ends with another woman.” Women are connected with women in the most intimate ways, what we make of those connections defines us.
Through Victoria Chang’s faultless ear, Barbie Chang is given a dynamic voice that ponders the confines of identity, gender, race, motherhood, daughterhood, and in some of the most heartbreaking and humorous sections of the book romantic love. Barbie Chang navigates her wavering feelings for Mr. Darcy, a man more difficult than any Ken could be, as she questions the shapelessness of this continually failing love. Barbie Chang wonders, “Is it rude for Barbie Chang to tell men / she doesn’t love them / just the idea of them,” the love she fells itself is suspect, she worries about the possible inauthenticity of that love. This love will always be faultier and more fragile than the love she feels for her child.
Barbie Chang’s vulnerability, her fear of becoming invisible to men, to women, to her own children, within the literary world, at work, amid groups of white people, and after her parent’s passing is at the forefront of this collection. Though she fears invisibility it is through her voice she appears to us with remarkable clarity, a character of lasting qualities. I suspect this book will be read for many years to come in homes and in classrooms.
Copper Canyon Press
Brunch: I was out in Lincoln Square, an old immigrant neighborhood in Chicago where one can find a number of cultural influences. The bakery I wanted to visit was closed that day, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a pastry counter at Gene’s Sausage Shop, which has all kinds of European imports items. I picked up a chocolate mousse cake which I promptly ate and this traditional layered Hungarian cake which was, I must admit, also quite delicious.
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester