Barbie Chang

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

Those amused, or shocked, by Victoria Chang’s The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013)—an almost giddily unified book in which every poem used metaphors from an oppressive workplace—should like Chang’s new work. But they won’t be the only ones—and not even they will expect Chang’s grander scope, her greater nuance, and her more generous attention to its characters’ adult lives. Chang’s “Barbie,” the protagonist for most of the poems (“Barbie Chang Got Her Hair Done,” “Barbie Chang’s Mother Calls”) is a suburban Chinese American mom who does everything right and still feels she has failed. She’s “afraid sick of the Circle,” a set of grown-up mean girls; she’s anxiously ambivalent about public affairs (“other people / caring about something // else is called protesting”) and she’s sometimes overcome with melancholy, both at the futility of life and at the competitive haute-bourgeois world in which her kids grow up: “what if we don’t / even love living but just // the idea of it”; “[W]hy does // it matter which form is better or whether / anyone ever wins an // award for anything.” A mid-book sonnet sequence slows down, but cannot reverse, the Barbie’s momentum. Chang’s punctuation-free lines, like W. S. Merwin’s, invite overlapping readings and multiple syntax. Her pathos slows down for jokes, apercus, and hyper-contemporary puns: the protagonist of “Barbie Chang Loves Evites” is “always ready for mimesis ready to put / on her costume to // drink mimosas her heart smells like / moth balls jumps at // every broth bell.” Such invitations are hard to resist, and they ring.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.