Review  |  Circle, by Victoria Chang (Southern Illinois University, 2005)

“Write what you know,” young writers are told, and too often that’s an invitation to think small. It’s therefore a real pleasure to find a first book that thinks big, that harbors the best sort of ambitions, not to be acclaimed, but to stretch itself. Victoria Chang’s Circle, winner of last year’s Crab Orchard Open Award, has such ambitions. It frequently brings Randall Jarrell to mind, both in its wide range of subjects, including art, film, and history, in its many dramatic monologues, and particularly in its fundamental inquiry into the slippery nature of identity.

While some of Chang’s speakers echo the Woman at the Washington Zoo in her plea, “You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!,” others attempt their own changes. The narrator of “Sarah Emma Edmonds,” who joined the Union Army in male disguise, proclaims, “I am the breath of a fevered lion.” A contemporary speaker morphs with apparent ease from “ ‘Gertrude’ / to bombshell.” “I played bottle-cap table hockey / with strangers,” she says, “and trained / my brain to say yes to martinis / carried by men with small biographies.” In another poem, the speaker announces, “I want to be ornate, a well-dressed disaster.” Some characters, like the Grace Kelly socialite-sleuth of Rear Window, are “cursed in a betweenness,” a liminal condition of multiple, contradictory personalities, although, as Chang notes affectionately at the end of the poem, “nothing in her minds her state,” but rather “lets others, much later, mind for her."

Chang’s contemporary personae, especially those who seem drawn from her own Asian-American background, chafe at the 1950’s happy homemaker roles they’ve been trained to play (“A good Chinese American housewife,” says one, “has a five-year plan”). One notes ironically that, when her lover started to stray, “my genetics told me to / bake a bundt cake.” Another, chagrined to find herself single at thirty-three, laments her unfulfilled dream of marrying in order to receive a “KitchenAid Epicurean Stand Mixer” as a wedding present. (In a deliberately fortune-cookie-tacky acrostic, the initial letters of this poem inform us that “A GOOD HOUSEWIFE HAS A KITCHENAID.”)

Nevertheless, the women of these poems are as optimistic as compulsive gamblers, believing that, if they persist in trying on identities, they’ll hit on the right combination and win the jackpot. Gradually, we learn these transformations are driven by desire—someone’s desire, although not necessarily or wholly that of the women who populate these poems. Often the narrators have acquiesced to the expectations of family or lovers or media images. Chang might easily have created a predictable polemic from these pressures on the self, but her rueful wit and sense of irony undercut any sense of self-righteousness. One woman, preparing for a date, considers whether to “shave up the entire / thigh for once, instead of stopping / at the knees” and wonders, “Can they do / breast implants in an hour?” She has “studied / Suddenly Single—Bounce Back // with a 3-step Plan twice.”

Sometimes, however, the “many selves” (a phrase that shows up in several poems) operate to erase the speaker altogether. In one poem Chang finds herself diminished by other women with the same name: “with each new Chang, the shock of the world goes down,” but “Their fevered footsteps persist, / fist me into midnights.” (With a name as generic as Susan Williams, I can readily sympathize with her complaint.) In “$4.99 All You Can Eat Sunday Brunch,” the narrator becomes indistinguishable from the objects in the family restaurant: “I am paper mats,” “I am the back booth bandaged / with duct tape,” “I am trays of sweet-and-sour pork, fried rice, / fried noodles, egg foo young,” and finally “the minus symbol” of her father’s calculator.

Even the landscape is subject to persistent, often unwanted transformation. In “Golden Valley,” developers call on the narrator’s father, showing “slides of single-story ranches never to be built, hugged by palm trees never to be planted.” Afterwards, the father “[kneels] on the ground, washing his hands with dirt.”

Images of washing, of oceans and tides recur to express this ever-changing sense of self. “I am the girl who wakes within an ocean,” says a Shang-dynasty wife. Young girls at their parents’ holiday party serve appetizers in “boats, buoyed by beginning.” Another speaker acknowledges, “I know my body / will always be mostly ocean, // a disease stitched into me.”

Chang’s inventive diction demonstrates the changeability of language as well. Nouns become adjectives (“my mind gone / nova,” earth is “so extraordinarily fire”) and verbs (“her many selves paradox one another”). The unexpected part serves for the whole, as when Edmonds, the woman-soldier, aptly notes, “Everything here is made of beard.” The slipperiness of words becomes explicit when a child in “Chinese Speech Contest” stumbles over the word shi, which should be easy except that it and the other test words are truly foreign to her; she cannot “sow / those words onto a land I recognized.” She feels herself changed beyond the audience, an older generation of “immigrants in their evening gowns, not quite / scholars, barely-there business people, nearly-made // somethings.” Already she is shedding hyphens.

Ultimately, Chang is able to locate an odd comfort in this persistent mutability. In the next to the last poem of the book, a woman’s face challenges her assumptions of the limits of identity:

I know you must think
that I am the only thing

that belongs solely to you
and when you die, I will

disappear with you . . .

you cannot know how
wrong you are. Look

around in the streets—
a girl’s nose mimics mine,

and a young boy’s lips
also frown like a severed

stalk, thirsty for sun.
Long after you die, I will

still live everywhere,
erupting from the soil

each year, part here, part
there, and my grin will ever last

somewhere in someone.

The final poem underscores the point that transformation is a permanent condition. An old woman tells the speaker, who is distressed at the “ruining landscape,” “nothing has changed, / we have always been this way.

As Chang continues her explorations (see, for instance, her new poems in this issue), it will be not only comforting but also exhilarating to watch her transformations toward full maturity as a poet. Certainly, her first book promises delights to come.