Victoria Chang’s first collection of poetry, Circle, tracks the generational path of womanhood, family, politics, the T’ang Dynasty suicides, the Japanese invasion of Naking, and a multitude of other subjects.
However, Chang’s book, which takes its title from a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay, keeps circling back to roles of Chinese women during the Shang and T’ang Dynasties in contrast to their roles today. In the poem “Yang Gui Fei,” Chang writes from the voice of a woman, the favored concubine of Emperor Li Long-Ji, who was forced to commit suicide.
“Surely you know I will rule your besieged kingdom in the afterlife, build the rivers so they flow into a great bath, populate the land with plum trees, foliate the skies with golden birds. Once I was more than a woman, more than a gold hairpin, more than three thousand bathing concubines.”
The women in these poems seem to rise up from history to reclaim their rightful roles, yet Chang finds it impossible to escape from the past.
“I am paper mats, plotted with Chinese horoscopes, snake, dog, cock […] I am freshly wrapped egg rolls, candles glow stacked in pyramid.”
Chang’s Asian-American family crops up periodically throughout her book, especially her father. Of him, she writes,
“My father’s curled like a fist as he perched over the pavement, unhandsome with manuals and parts, brackets and backboard.”
Chang has a propensity to name her characters and, thus, to locate us as readers in the great span of history. She references Edward Hopper’s influence over women, Sarah Emma Edmonds, a woman who fought in Iraq under a male name
(“And for a gun touched by a woman’s hand, its collar ripped opening the heat, what could be better?”),
and Lisa Fremont, who plays a newly wedded wife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
This mostly narrative, although at times lyrical, book is punctuated by Chang’s love for word play. With subtle humor, she pokes fun at the differences in the Chinese and English languages. She writes, “shi should be easy, the beginning of shit, like cowshit.”
It is evident from the first poem, where Chang plays with our desires –
“To wait is to want more. Or to think you want more”
– that this is an impressive debut. Chang, a graduate of the MFA program at Warren Wilson, is also the editor of the anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Kenyon Review, among others. She was recently a Walter E. Dakin fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference last July. Currently Chang is attending the Ph. D program in Literature and Creative Writing at USC in Los Angeles.