Saturday, October 04, 2008

Victoria Chang's "Salvinia Molesta"

Victoria Chang dances with three Muses in her second poetry collection: Clio, the Muse of history; Erato, the Muse of love; and Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy. Though all three hover over every section of the book, each Muse presides over her own section. 

The first section deals with Chinese history. It begins with the poem "Hanging Mao Posters" and ends with the poem "After Hanging Mao Posters." The formal gesture (it makes me think of theater banners) prepares the reader for the section's meditation on big themes, such as the Cultural Revolution, the Nanking Massacre, and China-Taiwan relations. 

Chang approaches the Cultural Revolution symbolically (a poem about Mao's "Four Pests" campaign against rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows), empathetically (a poem speaks in the voice of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, who committed suicide while under house arrest), and in identification (a poem describes an uncle who "disappeared" after he was shamed for reading foreign books). 

Writing an ode to Iris Chang, the author of a controversial book on the Nanking Massacre, Chang makes the lyric mode combative by including the actual writing of a Japanese historian who minimized the horror and meaning of the event. Writing about China-Taiwan relations, she deploys metaphor (two trains colliding), and narrative (a 1947 incident in which Chinese troops killed Taiwanese protesters). 

Though the methods vary, the poems cohere in a single vision, suggested in the title of the poem "Ars Poetica as Dislocated Theater." The poems tend to present history as spectacle. While this has the strength of highlighting the display of power, it also has the potential to distance the reader from the events the poems depict. The best poem here, "Proof," is so powerful because the speaker inscribes herself in her poem, in a poignant and humble comparison to her book-loving uncle. Many of the poems in this section are written in couplets. The verse form feels too fragile to bear the burden of witness; the poems can appear thin. 

The second section sings of love and its infidelities. "The Professor's Lover," for instance, is an ambitious six-part poem charting an extra-marital affair. Love, in other poems, is sensually compared to plants--magnolia, mulberry, brambles, fig vines--and to food--fava beans, cured tofu, sliced pork, peanut shells, salt, Bundt cake. More originally, in "Love Poem as Eye Examination," 

The room became a raven until a white fire lit
the wall. The doctor's breath alarmed

and I was suddenly inside this bird, looking out
of its eye.

I've never read or heard an eye examination described like this before. This is wonderful. 

The most memorable of the love poems is also one with a real argument. In arguing against its Anne Carson epitaph--"A space must be maintained or desire ends"--Chang's poem "Desire" acquires rhetorical force. The images are no longer merely decorative or empirical, but they carry the burdens of thought and proof. "It is not space I desire," protests Chang, "but a dying. . . 
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsas clothes in a dryer in
a laundromat at 3 a.m. might finally stop
unclenching and accept their entanglement.

The third section is tragic in a very contemporary sense. The boardroom and the market become the stage for fear and pity. The protagonist here is Clifford Baxter, the Enron executive who committed suicide. He is treated in the fine poem "Collision" with no cover-up but with great sympathy, as a man entangled with his world. Salvinia Molesta is a weed that reproduces so quickly on a pond that it can choke off the pond inhabitants from the sun. If this entanglement with the world proves fatal, to someone like Baxter, it also produces beauty, for the speaker of the love poems.

Chang, who has an MBA and works as a business researcher, reports in a truthful yet poetic fashion from that world. One of the pleasures of the last section is the adroit manner in which she converts the tin of corporate-speak into the bullion of poetry. "How Much" is the best example of this. Its third section, almost presciently, makes of a giddy stock market recovery an existential crisis.

$13 a share. The man on the phone line
has a rope in his throat. The closing price is
rouged. We can believe in God again. The banks
are full. The streets are hungover. The man on
my left is rich. The man on my right is a month
from dead. The champagne ditches its bottle.
The London air free-falls in the hotel-room.
There are plates of carved fruit. New York is
cheering through the phone. Heaven must
be this way. Tomorrow, Germany. Then Paris.
Hello. Goodbye. Where's the bathroom? I don't
understand. I am lost. How much?

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