Victoria Chang, The Boss, McSweeney's, 2013
Reviewed by Jessica Farquhar
I recently bought my four-year-old a Spirograph. Which is to say, I fell in love all over again with the pastel inks swirling rhythmically on paper guided by the tiny-holed gear. And I've been trying to pinpoint what feels so good about that.
Patterns on top of patterns. I think it is the same thing that feels so good about reading Victoria Chang's new poetry collection, The Boss.
The first line of "I Once Was a Child" does not read like a sentence but like spiraling around a notion: "I once was a child am a child am someone's child." Then the boss from the book's title is introduced before we loop back to childhood: "not my mother's not my father's the boss / gave us special treatment treatment for something / special a lollipop or a sticker glitter."
The lack of punctuation in any given poem means that a twenty-line piece, like the opener "I Once Was a Child," is read in one breath. Spiro as a prefix refers to the breath; it also invokes spiral, which is to circle around a point.
It is not just one long line drawing us through the poem, but several overlapping. And this form is present in every poem: quatrains, no punctuation, just spirals, which allow ample meditation and time for ideas to snag you so that you carry them with you as you move to the next and next. And which carry the content quite well—the slippery identity of "boss," including mother and self, self as child, among other themes.
Chang recently said of The Boss in a Rumpus interview with Abigail Welhouse, "It's an exploration of hierarchy. We're all just a part of this large, spiraling, constantly fluid hierarchy and changing."
To have such a solid focal point—this boss—and to spiral around it—is not the most adventurous method for laying out a manuscript, some might say. In fact, you could argue that this book is a one-trick pony, setting out the mathematical-looking tools and letting them do the work. What is so creative about that?
Is The Boss formulaic? (And didn't Maurice Manning already coin that formula?)
I recall some grand compliment offered somewhere to folks who invent their own forms, and I believe there is always something to be said for the process of creation. Sure, I swallowed this book like medicine in one quick spoonful. The experience of it was easy going down and delightful even in its darkness.
Still, the real value in it for me is the sensation of how it was made. Chang channeled something to get these poems, which is how I think of it when writers ritualize their process, like when Julia Story sat down every afternoon and did a sort of meditation and ended up composing Post Moxie. Chang wrote every Saturday for a couple of months under recurring circumstances—sitting under a tree while her daughter was in a two-hour language class.
The opposite of manufacturing, how she sees it: "I like things to bubble up. That's how these were written." And that is where the poems in this collection get their energy, from the bubbling up that led to their expulsion. It was on a recent trip to LA that I bought The Boss, along with that Spirograph and a tabletop volcano.
If urging those gears inside the plastic jagged circle is what it feels like to read Victoria Chang's The Boss, I wonder what that volcano could tell me about what it was like to write it.