First off, let me say that McSweeney’s publish beautiful books. I’ve said it before, probably, but I’ll say it again: these poetry books are beautifully made. The latest one is Victoria Chang’s The Boss:
There are two central themes to the collection, namely ‘the boss’ and ‘the family.’ Interspersed between poems that describe, from the view point of an employee, the traits of the (bad) boss are poems in the voice of a daughter whose father has aphasia after a stroke. The daughter is also herself a parent, and at times the family and boss themes flow together into the same poem.
Chang plays with words and sounds – consistently and virtually all the time – and as I was reading this book, it felt like a spoken word performance in my head, but much less self-aggrandizing than a lot of slam poetry seems to be. Here’s a taste: “my father used to be president used to be present / used to present slides in front of people / / I used to accept his presents after business trips” (43) Or this:
I once was a child am a child am someone’s child / not my mother’s not my father’s the boss / gave us special treatment treatment for something / special a lollipop or a sticker glitter from the / / toy box the better we did the better the plastic prize made / in China (1)
There is tenderness and frustration in the family poems. The daughter explains what the stroke has done to the father, how things no longer make sense, to her or him, and how the words get separated from their meanings and reconnected in hopscotch patterns.
My father says the wrong things I say the wrong things / my father thinks he is 42 not 69 my father / was born in 1942 my father thinks his address / is 1942 my father sits in a hospital / / he thinks the year is 1942 that I am 1942 years old that his / knee is 1942 he thinks his name is 1942 / he says he is in the hospital because of weight or maybe / he means wait or lean maybe he means / / he leaned on the toilet he was fixing and fell down (4)
There is a strong ekphrastic element to this collection; Chang weaves several office-like paintings by Hopper into her poems. I’m using them to illustrate this post, because I wasn’t familiar with those particular paintings of his and they are interesting.
The “boss” poems speak of the strange kind of wage-slavery that keeps employees in line and silent (or not). In this, the atmosphere of the Hopper paintings Chang has chosen to incorporate fits very well, a Depression-era misogynist, harsh work place.
The boss has almost god-like qualities:
Today is the boss the boss is today the day shines / her white teeth today is the boss / […] / the boss / takes a bus and drives over our / / plates again and again the boss pretends to glue us after / she breaks us we try to glue ourselves / Elmer’s allows us to emerge as a different person I have / a piece of someone else’s saucer as my heart (2)
At the same time, the boss in these poems is a woman – a woman who, as some would (misguidedly, in my opinion) say “has it all”: a family (a baby) and the position of boss. (Not only has she scored a man, she’s also taken a man’s job, and is juggling both. Is that really “having it all”? But I digress. Back to the book before I burst into a feminist rant.)
“The Boss Tells Me” appeared in a recent issue of The Believer. I liked it on its own, but like it much better in its context. It’s cynical and, well, harsh as it speaks about looking the other way to save one’s own hide:
when asked about Mary or Tom or Larry I too / can say I never saw anything never saw the boss / wind them up and point them towards the / / edge of the roof before Mary went over the / edge I threw down a pillow in the shape of a / pet and hoped it landed under her I didn’t stay long / enough to see what happened (14)
I hope I’ve not made this book sound glum or grim – it isn’t. It’s not about butterflies (well, there is one butterfly but still) and puppies and forget-me-nots, it’s about real life, working life, early 1900s as today, but it’s also playful. It’s fresh and interesting and not afraid to address tricky topics in surprising ways. I read this book from cover to cover in one go, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
In view of books like this, how can anyone possibly think poetry is ailing, let alone dead? No ivory towers here, no aloofness, no slack. This book would be good for getting someone interested in poetry who’s put literature off as stuffy and dusty. It also looks great on your shelf with its rich orange spine. 🙂