Gleaned from a Vacancy: On Victoria Chang’s The Boss

Anna Journey

San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2013. 46 pages. $20.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“[O]ne year / my father lost his words to a stroke / a stroke of bad luck stuck his words / used to be so worldly his words fired // him let him go without notice can they do that,” writes Victoria Chang in The Boss. In her third collection of poems, Chang interrogates, and often rails against, power structures—bureaucratic, familial, linguistic—through a syntactically fractured yet musical idiom. More specifically, Chang eschews punctuation and grammatical conventions in The Boss in favor of incantatory run-on sentences, spondaic rhythms, and terse sentence fragments, all of which reinforce the speedy velocity of her associations, often driven by internal or slant rhymes, assonance, and savvy homonymic wordplay. Chang reinforces depictions of claustrophobic interior spaces—business offices, e-mail accounts, a body post-stroke—through her formal choices. Each poem consists of approximately four to six quatrains, formatted in tidy patterns of staggered lines that evoke boxy, mirrored units (the “cubicles” of the poetic stanza?), in which an orderly visual symmetry collides with jagged syntax. Although Chang’s poems are lyric in mode, they continuously revisit a singular narrative fragment that becomes the book’s governing elegiac context: the speaker’s loss of her once worldly and articulate father’s ability to communicate.

Because the speaker’s father is alive, yet compromised linguistically due to his stroke, Chang’s approach to elegy refuses conventional gestures toward consolation in which a mourner seeks tropes in substitution of the deceased (what Peter Sacks terms a “paradoxical blend of absence and presence,” in The English Elegy) even as she adapts the genre’s ancient ties to music, repetition, and refrain. Instead of ritualistic floral offerings (as in Milton’s laurels, myrtle, and ivy in “Lycidas”) or figurations of the deceased as celestial bodies (as in Shelley’s beaconing star in “Adonaïs”), Chang’s approach to elegiac substitution demands that the speaker mourn her father’s loss of language through a language of frenetic excess. Thus, Chang aims to counter the father’s cognitive lack through her poems’ insistent, even manic, linguistic profusion and homonymic proliferation. Take, for example the first three stanzas of “My Father Says”:

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
                          he doesn’t know where his nose is but he
            knows 1942 when I was 19 I wanted to be a doctor
                                       in a few years I will be 42 and I will

be afraid of doctors . . .

In addition to its unique status as the only poem in The Boss longer than a single page, “My Father Says” provides an ideal template by which to understand Chang’s particular approach to elegy throughout the collection. The poem’s explicit interrogation of the aftermath of the father’s stroke also provides the essential dramatic scaffolding for many of the other more elliptical or indirect allusions to this central loss. How, then, can a person go about mourning a father who’s simultaneously here and not here? In “My Father Says,” Chang directly engages and hyperbolizes this difficult, disorienting simultaneity. Just as the speaker’s aphasic father recalls his age, incorrectly, as a fragment of his birth year (“my father thinks he is 42 not 69”), switches his name for his birth year (“he thinks his name is 1942”), and conflates a part of his body with the year of its origin (“that his / knee is 1942”), Chang’s diction proliferates as if to fill a vacancy—the father’s linguistic gaps—and the momentum of her cadence maintains its driving pace as a way to refuse the inevitability or permanence of his cognitive faltering.

Whereas Chang’s wordplay mimetically enacts the father’s confusion (“weight”; “wait”) as well as the speaker’s interpretive difficulties as she attempts to decipher his speech (Which homonym is the right one? Is it a noun or a verb?), I’d argue, too, that Chang’s technique of dictional “doubling” recalls Emily Dickinson’s unconventional mode of description: Dickinson often jotted alternates for specific words in a poem’s margins to allow readers to experience the meanings of multiple words at once. In the essay “These Flames and Generosities of Heart,” Susan Howe characterizes Dickinson’s writing as “a premeditated immersion in immediacy,” which seems, too, an apt description of Chang’s elegiac logic of simultaneity. In “My Father Says,” the words “weight” and “wait” repeat identical sounds yet allow for different meanings, even different parts of speech. “Nose” and “knows” can both be localized in the father’s face, although the noun is concrete and readily external while the verb is abstract and hidden within the father’s disoriented consciousness. Homonyms, we learn, aren’t merely opportunities for linguistic cleverness in The Boss; Chang’s associative pairings embody the inclusive language of grief: aphasic, unstable, Janus-faced, and relentlessly—even furiously—musical.

Toward the middle of “My Father Says,” the titular character, “the boss,” emerges as Chang’s archetypal figure of the bureaucrat: purveyor of meaningless tasks and possessor of scant empathy. In most of the poems in the collection, Chang figures the boss as the speaker’s own boss: her direct supervisor in a corporate office. Elsewhere the boss is someone’s particular corporate boss, as in Chang’s series of eleven ekphrastic poems (which are frequently written in third person rather than first) titled after Edward Hopper’s paintings of desolate urban scenes in which lonely people often stare out the windows of hideous corporate buildings—works which Mark Strand describes, in his book of art criticism, Hopper, as “all that can be gleaned from a vacancy.” Hopper, in a letter to the Walker Art Center, which owns Office at Night, suggested that the painting was inspired by “dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on [his] mind.” Chang’s ekphrastic lyrics appropriate Hopper’s “dark glimpses of office interiors” and use his ambiguous, psychological scenes as spaces in which to project elliptical associations involving power dynamics. In Chang’s third poem titled “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night,” a boss-man sits at a desk writing performance evaluations: “Kelly’s attitude is / an asset Jim starts and ends meetings on time / Polly is an effective communicator Jenny is a team player…” Chang’s employment of the language of bureaucratic cliché emphasizes the stasis of a corporate, rather than individualistic, idiom. Later in the poem, however, Chang animates Hopper’s enigmatic figure of the secretary (who wears a blue dress in the painting), empowering her through her communicative ability and (literally) fiery defense of the employee Jenny: “the woman in / the blue dress likes Jenny is friends with // Jenny speaks up for Jenny sparks arc from her / evaluation . . . ” Unfortunately for Jenny who, according to the boss, “has difficulty thinking // outside the box,” and the woman in the blue dress, the “sparking” language of defying a corporate manipulator results in the boss firing both women. The boss, it seems, prefers that his employees’ language remain safely “inside the box,” within his control. Chang suggests, however, that the empowering language of Jenny and her friend can’t be co-opted—that its potency won’t abide the conformist box of an evaluation form.

Whereas the boss in the third “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night,” seems an iconic, midcentury corporate entity, the boss in “My Father Says” appears to be a hospital bureaucrat or insurance paper-pusher, whose coolly impersonal power over the father and the speaker scrambles conventional modes of sense making:

on some days the boss takes our 1942 and turns it
                          into 2491 on other days she turns it into
            1429 and on the worst days she smiles at us
                                       and her smile looks like a 9 turned

on its side with a cat’s tongue sticking out . . .

The boss’s actions seem rote as well as maddeningly arbitrary, a circumstance that becomes heightened by the bewildering anonymity of “our 1942.” “1942” becomes a mysterious noun, an existential insurance form, a tragicomic synecdoche for all that the father cannot express and all that the speaker cannot fully express or for which she can conventionally grieve. Even the boss’s would-be expression of sympathetic emotion becomes, to the speaker, something like a cartoonish, digital emoticon: “a 9 turned // on its side with a cat’s tongue sticking out.” Here, the boss has all of the control as she scrambles “our 1942” into anagrammatic formulations of numbers in which the father has no personal stakes (“2491”; “1429”). She transforms his tenuous hold on a bit of language—the date of his birth—into an impossibility, an enigma he (and we) can’t crack.

In the final stanzas of “My Father Says,” Chang’s repetitions continue, though they sharpen in metaphorical import and slyly subvert the custom, in elegy, of repeating the name of the dead. Whereas the boss alters “1942”—at first a simple date and then a sinister synecdoche—Chang seizes and shapes the rollicking linguistic power of naming at the end of “My Father Says”:

                                                                        when asked if his name
                                       is Adam he points to the papers as if

to say ask the papers don’t ask me he no longer knows
                          that a Chinese man from Taiwan can’t
            possibly be named Adam or Bill or Bob or John
                                       or Gus maybe now he thinks

a Chinese man from Taiwan can be a CEO can be
                          a boss in America maybe now
            he thinks his name is Adam maybe that is
                                       why he named me Victoria

Chang’s shift in repetition (from homonymic pairings and repeating fragments or numbers) as she develops a cascade of potential names makes an implicit argument for the importance of affect, and thereby rebukes the boss’s impersonal, ready-made machinations. Chang’s list also recalls the common impulse in elegy toward repeating the names of the dead, as in Yeats’s “September 1913” (“For this Edward Fitzgerald died, / And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone”) or “Easter 1916” (“MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse”). Here, though, Chang’s use of repetition mourns not a clearly defined loss of a person’s entirety—their physical and metaphysical being—but perhaps a uniquely troubling loss of the father’s personality or spirit. His body, like those of the dead, appears vacant, even though he’s still here, thumbing through insurance paperwork. “[A] Chinese man from Taiwan can’t / possibly be named Adam or Bill or Bob or John / or Gus,” Chang writes, though we understand from a previous stanza (“when asked if his name / is Adam”), that the father, “a Chinese man from Taiwan,” can’t remember his own name, and so it might as well be, in a moment of grim black comedy, “Adam.” In the final couplet (“maybe that is / why he named me Victoria”), Chang asserts the power of language—the humanity in it—through reclaiming the father’s linguistic and existential power in his original naming of the speaker, even though his facility with words is now sorely diminished. After all the numbing repetitions of “1942” and its various anagrams, the warping homonymic mirrors, and the befuddling actions of the boss, we learn that, in Chang’s book of unusual, moving elegies, it’s language—its fractured, vehement music and fierce demands—that emerges as, yes,  “the boss.”

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