By Leah Silvieus
Victoria Chang’s The Boss (McSweeney’s 2013) is a virtuosic and intimate meditation on power in its many forms. The Boss, winner of the PEN Center Literary Award as well as a California Book Award, is as polished and self-assured as a third book should be. While there are many fine poems worth discussing in this collection, I would like to focus on the poems titled after the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1962), which make up nearly a quarter of the collection and comprise a significant part of its structural frame.
Hopper’s Office at Night appears in the title of three poems; the New York Office, Office in a Small City and Automat all appear twice. Chang also includes poems titled after Conference at Night and Chair Car. Much of Hopper’s oeuvre reveals figures gazing out windows – or gazing at each other unable to connect emotionally, which is solitude of a different kind. These paintings often place us as viewers into position of voyeurs who are happening upon Hopper’s figures just before or after something important occurs. We feel the tension between these individuals and the outside world that they gaze upon; we are not invited to engage fully, but at the same time, we are tempted to linger. The brilliance of Chang’s poems, however, lies in how they return the painting’s gaze, thus inviting the reader from the position of voyeur to witness:
“[…] from the front the building looks
like a giant spreadsheet there would be
thousands of rectangles
thousands of workers staring out like
little numbers waiting to be shifted up
shifted down summed up averaged
deleted” (“Edward Hopper’s Office in a Small City” p. 37)
The readers become those gazing back at the spreadsheet of office windows, alongside the speaker, as if it were in our power to sum the workers up, average them – delete them. “They are waiting on us – what will we do?” the poem seems to ask.
Chang also invites the reader into the position of witness as she transposes the figures in Hopper’s paintings into scenes of the speaker’s history, as she does in her second “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night.” The end of the poem segues into an intimate and personal discussion of the legacy of power: “I hear my two-year-old fighting / with someone in her crib she is bossing // someone around no no no bad that’s mine you don’t take / mine […]”, and later in the same poem, “[…] I hear her singing happy birthday to / me happy birthday to me she is already celebrating / herself she will be the perfect boss.”
Chang’s deft use of enjambment, slant rhymes and plays on words embody the tension between the figures in the poems, between interior and public life, between the individual and her relationship to structures of power. She walks courageously into the difficult terrain of the tension between power’s effects on others and our own desire for it: “my four-year-old daughter still / listens to me I am the boss and I like it I / see why the boss likes it,” she writes in “The Boss Wears a White Vest.” Later, in “The Boss Rises,” she comments: “we / can be bosses too can hold the cross but / there is a cost.”
Then, Chang reminds us, there are some powers that we are helpless to control altogether, which she captures in “I Once Was a Child”: “my father lost his words to a stroke / a stroke of bad luck stuck his words / used to be so worldly […]” Little, if anything, is lastingly ours:
“[…] my blood has nowhere to go trapped in this
cavity circling and reassuring itself chasing
itself until one day it will rush out and
never look back” (“Some Days One Day”)
The landscape of power that Chang presents in The Boss is, at times, quite grim; however, her playfulness and prosodic virtuosity reminds us that we need not live quietly desperate. While Hopper may have given us windows from which to gaze out, Chang’s poems give us the hammer to break through.
Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & Writing, CURA, The Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/