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Johnson on Chang

Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang

Copper Canyon Press, 2017

reviewed by Kasey Johnson 

Victoria Chang’s poetry collection, Barbie Chang, ruefully examines womanhood writ large: as a daughter to ailing parents, as a mother, as a lover, and as an Asian woman. She writes about women when the category of “woman” is simultaneously being interrogated, shaped, legislated, demonized, and celebrated within American culture, making her collection part poetic triumph, part contemporary satire. By pursuing poems that focus on the foibles and triumphs of an Asian woman, Chang’s poems challenge and subvert easy categories and stereotypes of gender, race, and class, forcing the reader to examine the robust infrastructure that sustains them. Her poems are charged with an energy that is both whimsical and political, whose very irreverence underscores their intelligence and import. 

Chang’s fourth book of poetry, Barbie Chang, makes evident her facility with language and with the project of poem-making. Her collection is organized into four parts: third-person poems organized in couplets, first-person sonnets addressed to “Dear P.”, third-person poems, and a final section of first-person epistolary poems with the salutation “Dear P.” This organization fragments an otherwise centralized narrator/subject, framing “Barbie Chang” as both subject and auteur. 

A central conceit of the book is the eponymous “Barbie Chang,” conjuring the ubiquitous long-legged, blonde iconography of Mattel’s “Barbie,” juxtaposing this with “Chang,” a surname that invokes Chinese heritage. Barbie Chang thus becomes an emblem of and avatar for negotiating the gendered and racialized spaces women must confront. Each poem in the first section is titled after the first line of the poem; thus, “Barbie Chang Parked” begins with that line and goes on to denote longing to be part of the Circle, “the beautiful thin mothers at school.” Barbie Chang’s longing and inability to be included “unnoticed by / them a streak of blue light in a blue / sky” reveals the way that being spurned can, by its own paradoxical logic, spur a desire to be accepted. 

This simultaneous longing for and ambivalence around inclusion is found in many of Chang’s poems. “Barbie Chang Can’t Stop Watching” pursues this theme through the court proceedings in which Silicon Valley executive and daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ellen Pao, sued her former firm for sexual harassment. In the reporting on Pao’s trial, Chang’s poem describes the “same binary argument / racism or incompetence is / there a third possibility that when we / have seen something so / many times we no longer recognize it as / injustice.” (Pao lost her case, but her allegations brought national attention to gender disparity and toxic masculinity in Silicon Valley.) 

The object of affection in this collection is the equally persistent archetype, “Mr. Darcy.” His anachronistic appearance signals the commodification of desire, recalling Austen’s interrogation of personhood, status, and capital in early 19th century England. Mr. Darcy provides the somewhat comical, but equally enthralling backdrop to Barbie Chang. If female desire is predicated on its own commodification, then Mr. Darcy is the heteronormative complement of that commodification, a legacy of female desire and its containment within Austen’s marriage plot. Chang writes “the words keep coming from Mr. Darcy’s / mouth and she keeps / waiting each month for him to go back / into the book but / how does she turn her back if there is / no one watching her,” further alluding to her ambivalence around the very temptations she attempts to resist. 

While Chang’s book is many things, it is an uncompromising look at the mythos of the American middle class and how it is informed by race and gender. In the opening poem, “Once Barbie Chang Worked,” Chang tells us her protagonist “worked on a / street named Wall” and “wore lanyards in large rooms.” Her desire is positioned within an economic framework: “everyone // else stood up and began putting / their hands together // and that started her always wanting / something better.” Thus, Barbie Chang is both consumer and consumed, both signifier and signified. Chang’s ability to use these layers to explore personhood in late-capitalist America reveals much about the contradictions and trappings of contemporary life. Her analysis in these poems is not a dichotomous algebra of right or wrong; rather, it is a derivative calculus, a layered examination of history, of lived experiences, and of familiar archetypes and their appearance in our lives. 

In the poem “Barbie Chang’s Mother Calls,” Chang draws attention to the way that racism permeates one’s personal and professional life: “she can’t distinguish between being a / token and racism” and wonders if the inextricability of racism and tokenism means that her “whole life is an object as a / shadow of someone.” In this way she invites her readers to consider racial constructs, the peril of being “representative” of any single identity and the ongoing indignities of racial injustice that exist alongside artmaking. Understandably then, she claims, “Some days Barbie Chang wants to / hang up her Asian boots,” pointing out the way in which socially and culturally constructed selves are indeed exhausting. 

By alternately mocking and highlighting the hierarchies and accolades that open or close doors for the working poet, Chang shows how arbitrary are the standards by which one is judged: “someone / wrote a book of poems about Kanye / West there are still / old poets looking for the best new young / poets who are all hornets / around the same old nest.” At the same time those arbitrary standards define a system in which some thrive and others struggle: “people are aiming for emeritus she can’t / figure out how to open / the door of the tower someone keeps / lowering her down to / the roof but doesn’t give her a rule book.” Later in the poem Barbie Chang “wishes to win the Guggenheim like / Paul Muldoon to doom / others like Paul Muldoon to write / rejection letters sending / them out the New Yorker windows.” Chang reminds us that art is made within and against the frameworks of capital, race, and gender and that recognition often translates into cultural capital. (Also fitting perfectly into the contemporaneity of the collection is the fact that Victoria Chang indeed won a Guggenheim in 2017, the same year Copper Canyon published this book.) 

These poems enter a space held by other women writers whose work was disparaged for telling the truth of their lives, as though the lives of women had less value, as though the work that occurred at home was not real work, and as though the home lives of men and women did not reflect the culture in which they were imbedded. Chang speaks to this ongoing double standard explicitly in sonnet 8: “Someone says it is difficult to write poems / that are both domestic and ambitious.” Her response is one of logic and reason, employing the Socratic method: “if your / small head is my earth if I have concerns only / for the internal affairs of your body then how / am I domestic.” She challenges the logic, both implicit and explicit, that the quotidian details of women’s lives specifically are not a mirror of the politics present in public life, that the two are not extensions of each other. It feels like an old argument, but one that continues to be necessary; Chang’s poems contribute to and work effectively within this tradition. 

Victoria Chang’s poems give account of the careful, conflicted way that women negotiate multiple spaces, identities, and the myriad expectations imposed on them from without. Her poems will most certainly endure as representative of our time, revealing in characteristically ecstatic verse the historicity and meaning of the woman writer’s life. Indeed, she promises nothing less, challenging the reader in the final poem to “see that every woman / begins and ends with another woman.” It is now up to the reader to truly see those women, rather than rendering their full humanity invisible or indivisible.