on Salvinia Molesta, poems by Victoria Chang (Univ. of Georgia Press)
Some poets write as if their personae are inseparable from a condition, within a swoon of perception. The severity of their judgments is aimed at the qualities of experience itself. The sounds of their lyricism claim a mysterious otherness as their source. Their orphic gestures imply a rejection of moralistic perspectives that would deny the difficulty and even the futility of their endeavors and desires. To accept the condition and give it voice are all that matter.
Other poets write as if in constant, plagued contact with what is specifically deleterious in other people and themselves. Their vocal disturbances result from that fearful, fatal contact. The severity of their judgments, aimed not at the quality of experience but the quality of acts, is based on disappointment and a lingering though perhaps muffled desire for repair. Such poems, generally demotic in diction, often inquire into the forces that have shaped the poet’s sensibilities.
Victoria Chang shares this latter preference, though her materials have ranged beyond what is baleful in humans. But in her second book of poems, Salvinia Molesta, Chang returns to some of the more disturbing elements of her celebrated first book, Circle (So. Illinois Univ. Press, 2005), and drills deeper, speaks ever more convincingly, and displays a maturing sophistication and sure handedness. Salvinia Molesta has a single-minded ambition: to create the sound of a psyche exposed to or punished by the excesses of power, danger, and evil. Moreover, the expansive drama of her projected world seems commensurate with the depth of mind heard in these speeches. This is a rare ability among younger poets who more often strain to address such topics, and lose courage or rely on glibness when it comes to risking statement.
Circle was a premonition of Salvinia Molesta, especially towards its conclusion in poems like “Instinct” and “Damage.” A poem brooding on the murders committed near Washington D.C. by Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, “Instinct” begins with the speaker noting the caution of ducks when approached in a pool. “Where did they learn this distance?” she asks. Is it instinct? The question seems a trifle naïve since the snipers obviously rely on their victims’ trust in civic safety. The poem ends: “What if the ducks are right in fearing everything, / even their own?” In “Ode to Iris Chang” in Salvinia Molesta, the question loosens into blunt statement: “How // to trust humans.” Similarly, in the first book we find the person of Frank Quattrone, the former Credit Suisse investment banker who, convicted of interfering with a government probe into allocating IPOs, evaded jail when an appeals court determined that his previous jury had been given erroneous instructions. In “Salvinia Molesta” Quattrone is back in business, making deals in the book’s title poem, and more clearly profiled among the book’s other pernicious characters. Clearly, Victoria Chang has some unfinished business to take care of in Salvinia Molesta -- and the confrontation between her quiet confidence, the persistence of her obsessions, and the heft of her topics creates the unique voiced pressures of this powerful book. Chang holds an MBA from Stanford and knows her way around – through the boardroom, through history, and through familial memory.
They say my great uncle read foreign books
in a mud house in Nanking,
plowed his twenty acres, listened to
rare birds, disregarded
the willow’s hush. One day he knelt in the street,
sign around his neck
that said: Traitor. Little Red Book spread like wax
on his back, even
birds spun their heads around. He labored with
peasants, hands turned rough.
He must have had eyes like golden orbs.
One day he disappeared.
I am standing in the dirt in La Jolla, perpendicular
to the earth,
weeds exploding, rows and rows of berries, clouds
that reach and sever.
He is hanging from a mud house in Nanking,
perpendicular to the earth.
Our angles are equal, therefore we are parallel.
Then there must be two birds, two shores,
“Proof” is a geometry of relations in which an unexpected equivalency results from tenderly stark repetitions: birds, perpendicular shapes, dirt and mud, tragedy and fecundity. Mao’s law poured on skin like hot wax. The niece also refuses the advice to hush up. In this way, “Proof” both explores the sources of her own sensibility – and exquisitely expresses its sound: prepared, on guard, assertive and succinct. Syntactically, her phrasing here is mostly whole but an article is missing in spots: “One day he knelt in the street, / sign around his neck.” In other poems, voices speak as if fragmented by their own breaths and syntax breaks down as well.
Chang is drawn to the voices of the damaged who speak out of confusion or delirium – but who retain dignity and persist among hurtful memories. In “Jiang Qing,” Mao’s beleaguered wife says, “I used to speak so smoothly in pavilions, even / crows and clouds came down to hear. Now they // blame me for deaths, even for the rain. I think / it’s the rain that kills with its endless dropping.” “February 28, 1947,” relating the murder of a street peddler by a Kuomintang soldier, ends:
It had started with an old lady selling cigarettes on a road,
she wouldn’t bargain, or she wouldn’t turn
her money over, or she spat on his uniform, or they were
smuggled cigarettes, yes, there was blood, yes, he
struck her down with a revolver butt, as if one body
could be beaten in isolation.
Violence generates not only history but also the anxiety with which the stories will be told. In the first part of Salvinia Molesta, Chang gauges the extent to which her poetic voice is affected by and resists an accumulated negative force. Her economical delivery and intimate grasp of situations give her work a global relevance, and while the poems’ views on “how to trust humans” seem to predict more trouble ahead, they don’t require or attempt orphic gestures to sound “worldly.”
The second part of Salvinia Molesta moves on to sex and love – extending the book’s meditation on power and force: wives jilted for younger women, professors pursuing students, women thinking obsessively about other women who are ravished. These poems have the strange effect of glossing the earlier poems on brutal histories – and making Chang’s fascination with violence more obvious. Perhaps this is what elevates Salvinia Molesta above its moral issues, provocative in themselves: a taint in the voice, a desire to draw near to the flaw, perhaps at some point to emerge from it as a changed being. Chang’s speakers, one realizes, are constrained by circumstance – signaling that while Salvinia Molesta is a passionate critique of the human, it may also represent the onset of a new stage in Chang’s search for transformation in poems to come. This is the fourth part of the six-part “The Professor’s Lover”:
In my dreams, a heart attacking itself.
In a new dream, the telephone had replaced
the heart and it rang and rang but I couldn’t
pick it up. In class, I stared at her bare back
and knew that he had run his rough fingers
across it. He cried in its crooked tunnels.
Her back, his tears, the garden where his wife
pulled up weeds each year, the porch, the chairs
rocking on the porch, perhaps all connected.
I stopped under the willows and watched
people come out from the high field, laughing,
looking for rooms to meet in. In my dreams,
people keep meeting, then switching.
The uncertain cause of this obsession with the professor and his student lover melds with the uncertain motive for speaking about it. The wielding of sexual power – professor over student (though who knows how the student sees it) – sets off a purely internal reaction in the narrator. Thus, in a way that is repeated in Salvinia Molesta, one’s sensitivities owe their vibrancy to the forces that seem to threaten or disturb them. In “Mulberry Tree,” a poem about Van Gogh, she describes “the forest / where he leaned / against trees to see // if they would hold him or / eat him,” a place “Where nothing is / transparent.” All of the things that bother Chang are made beautiful by the forms of her poems, where nothing, especially not a poor cigarette peddler beaten to death or a female student having sex in a laundry room with her teacher, is transparent.
The book’s third and final section moves to business and money. “Currency” remarks on the constant churning of the financial engine and ends with “a thirsty dog and / and old man” wandering the streets: “they leave behind the same smell behind -- / of resin, of garbage, that near-death // odor – how easily we exchange them, / how easily we create more.” The critique is blatant. But Chang understands that more complexity is required, and she follows with “At the Office Late” in which the speaker fills the office with imaginary birds but then makes them desist and faces the burden of spreadsheets, a single remaining owl looking on: “It’s not just the fall I seek, but the whole of it -- / the twilight before disgrace, the surprise of seeing / a once brilliant creature in a storm’s // carousel, and the temporary stillness of the water.” This “disgrace” she speaks of is her own, not just the Federal Reserve’s. This section also includes four poems about Clifford Baxter, an Enron executive who committed suicide. The business world has the same soiled allure that history and sex offer in the previous poems. In “How Much” the speaker says, “Each morning, I put on those shoes, legs, / nylons, sex, black briefs with texts. Each / dusk, there were martinis, starters, soup and / salad, main meal, dessert on trays, coffee in / thimbles, men scraping bread crumbs off a / table.” The comment or assessment she withholds seems to point to a widespread indictment – but also to a fixation with the mode of such a life.
“Salvinia Molesta” brings back Frank Quattrone for his encore. But also, in this version the speaker reduces the distance between herself and the money-man. “I wanted a blue shirt like his,” she says. This nine-part poem is a tour de force, in part narrative poem, catalog of facts, and business memoir. Quattrone was found guilty of obstruction of justice, but the verdict was overturned, the case dismissed. Here at the end of Salvinia Molesta, his figure helps to make a success of the poetry, indicating that Chang knows all too well the risks and pretensions of a too-sweeping judgment. The poems of this remarkable third section are loopholes that allow Chang, like Quattrone, to deal in the materials of power and pleasure while ultimately enjoying exoneration. The noxious weed can’t be eradicated, but perhaps it can be exploited, or as the businessperson might say, “re-purposed” into art.
Towards the end, there is also “ ‘One More Than One’,” a poem about an artwork by Eva Hesse (1936-70). It begins:
In this world, we have no use
for such a thing – brick-like lintel
fastened to a wall. Two concave
holes through the block. Holes emitting
two cords that dangle to the floor.
The artwork is an elemental, crude object. Yet it assumes a deserved authority. The life of the artist informs the work in the speaker’s mind, her death at an early age from a brain tumor. The art object has the presence of a body.
Here, the two hollow holes stare back
as if to say, on their side is life, and
in this gallery, with its whirr of used air,
the dying. Once, she said:
Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter.
The cords, then? As if she already knew.
The twin ropes are limp, they twist, tease,
distract … as if to say, Come, climb in,
it is cooler in here – no weather fronts,
no filthy doves that tempt, no tangled brain matter,
just stars that grow like hair.
Like Hesse’s stark and grim object of promise, Victoria Chang’s poetry offers both respite and recrimination. It speaks to the dead and dying in the gallery, it speaks to the wound. It is also a sensual, profane poetry, and the secret of its compulsions is seductively obscured. As the speaker asks in “The Professor’s Love,” “Am I guilty if I stand behind the / window and look?”
[Published September 15, 2008. 84 pp., $16.95, paperback. A selection of the VQR Poetry Series, edited by Ted Genoways.]