Review | Salvinia Molesta, by Victoria Chang
|The University of Georgia Press, 2008
We know, in general terms, what to expect from a first book of poetry. The poet has been writing it all her life. Second books don’t behave predictably at all. Accessible narrative poets go in for complicated word salads; autobiographical poets turn to someone else’s life. As with adolescents, the voice changes—and sometimes squeaks and breaks on its way to reaching maturity. Even at this stage, however, wise poets don’t jettison everything that worked right in their first collections. Victoria Chang, a wise poet, manages both continuity and innovation in her second book.
Salvinia Molesta bears a family resemblance to Chang’s first collection, Circle (reviewed here in volume 4, number 2). As in Circle, she offers episodes from Chinese life and history. Whereas, in the first book, these dealt primarily with the women—concubines and traditional wives—of earlier periods, the first section of Salvinia Molesta takes on twentieth-century political issues, from the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 to the suicide of Mao Zedong’s widow, the leader of the Gang of Four, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.
The effects of nearly a century of violence and repression show up in what appears to be Chang’s own family history. Across a distance of decades and continents, her narrator attempts a rational, even mathematical approach to the stories. A “great uncle” who “they say. . .read foreign books” is made to kneel “in the street, / sign around his neck // that said: Traitor” and is later seen “hanging from a mud house in Nanking, / perpendicular to the earth.” The poem is titled “Proof,” and its frame treats the narrative as a geometric proof (“Our angles are equal, therefore we are parallel.”). Similarly, “Two Trains” plays on the word problems of grade-school math textbooks: “A train leaves Nanking traveling / at sixty miles an hour; another leaves // Guangzhou, traveling at forty miles an hour.” The personal complicates this problem as Chang continues, still employing quantities and fractions:
Does it matter that the sister on the
faster train is pulling seven children,
half-lost, half-mad? That they spend
forty nights in the train, following
the trophies of a dying army? Or that
the woman left my great aunt in
Nanking, half-turned face, with her
kingdom of furniture?
The second section of Chang’s new book also follows on subject matter from Circle, in this case love and other emotional complications. In Circle the speakers chafed at contemporary courtship rituals and family pressure to marry and keep house; these new poems, with titles like “Seven Infidelities,” address more difficult relationships, some of them less about love than about the laws of physics. “People,” she writes in “The Professor’s Lover,” “do things. / People collide like sex.” Several of the pieces deal with an apparently brief and soulless affair between a young woman and an older man, initiated in a laundry room “where clothes beat against each other.” Bodies carom against each other too, and identities shrink to “young female student,” “old / married professor,” and the professor’s wife, who “suddenly had no / name.”
Chang follows these narratives of empty encounters with a series of love poems (“Love Poem with Peanut Shells,” “Love Poem with Bicycles and a Hotel,” “Love Poem as Eye Examination”) about a deeper and more lasting relationship in which her speaker wants
his salt in my eye,
his hand that perforates the gate with paint, that
nails cabinets in our garage, that joins
our scavenged bodies and pulls them through
the flaming flue.
In “Desire,” Chang returns to and answers those beating and beaten clothes in the laundromat:
The sun applies itself and bends, tries to debut
on my ankle, tries to copyright my body.
Because of you I let the sun iron my back until
it combusts. I let waves swindle my body,
enter all of its cavities. I let the airplane in the
sky disappear, just as the white clothes on the
line become the wind. It is not space I desire,
but a dying, as crows might stalk the sky, bankrupt
air, content in their coming and going, content
in their similar blackness, in how their blackness
resembles every shadow; as clothes in a dryer in
a laundromat at 3 a.m. might finally stop
unclenching and accept their entanglement.
Nodding to the generational conflicts in Circle, she even includes a playful “Newlywed Ghazal,” in which the speaker compares her domestic skills with her mother’s: “Even without looking down, she can slice pork into / even strips, but my knife slides under my flesh.”
Although the style is different (Chang’s voice is indeed changing, becoming more elliptical, more given to fragmentary narratives), the themes of these first two sections of Salvinia Molesta are recognizable from Circle. In the third section, however, she deals much more extensively with what was only an occasional motif in the earlier book: high finance and financial shenanigans. (Chang’s various degrees include an MBA, and she works as a business researcher and writer.)
Four poems address in different ways the death of disgraced Enron executive Clifford Baxter, including one that anagrams phrases from his suicide note. (“If he says, I am sorry, then why / do the words so easily become Am I sorry?”) This section, appropriately, continues the mathematical metaphors Chang began in the first section of the book. Baxter “year after year. . .added zeroes with perfect / curves, charred numbers, dove into a ledger / in which he missed the green lines.”
Here, with poems titled “Currency,” “Distribution,” and “How Much,” the imagery extends into economics. Economics morph into ecology as rampant growth of one kind translates into rampant growth of another. Chang likens a corporate office building to a “giant birdhouse” in which “flocks dive and skitter for mealworms / at my feet.”
The title poem, much expanded from the version which appeared in Blackbird (in the same issue as the review of Circle), ranges from a consideration of the noxious waterweed Salvinia molesta (“Eventually, they block / sunlight from everything below and // fish burn in hunger and scum”) to indicted investment banker Frank Quattrone (“Dubbed: God’s banker”) to the yuppie indulgences (“My body soaking in tubs that filled in sixty seconds”) of a speaker who may bear some resemblance to Chang herself, who once worked for Quattrone. (Quattrone also appeared in a poem in Circle.)
In a sense, this equation of corporate (or simply human) greed with ecological imbalance, of marketplace Darwinism with natural selection, is both strained and obvious, but, through the persistence and insistence of images of the rapacious nonhuman world, Chang manages to make it credible. Throughout the book, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” competes relentlessly with the human world for space and resources, the imagery serving as a unifying force in a collection otherwise rather strictly compartmentalized.
A poem in the first section of Salvinia addresses Chairman Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign against “rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows.” “I want to pull one down, look into its eye,” Chang writes. “There would be a village, // thatch, megaphone, and the tops of fists.” “Seven Stages of Genocide” pits teal against bull, Jew against Gypsy, “and there are red-skinned locusts everywhere / that wait to rise.”
Chang frequently uses images of birds, usually in a violent or ominous context. Clifford Baxter addresses letters to a “death finch,” a crow, and a sparrow. Author Iris Chang, another suicide, hears, as others cannot, “the hawk’s wings opening / like newly sparked tinder.” In the second section of the book, even the tiny hummingbird, with its “humorous little body” pierces “a honeysuckle’s // heart” and takes “the blood in [its] bill.”
“Bindweeds” combines allusions to World War II Japanese military brothels and the enslaved “comfort women” (“a Korean woman. / And a rusted needle // . . . to induce abortion”) and to the weeds whose “stems crawl / over the ground and // twine around everything.” “Girdling,” the final poem of the book, however, offers a drastic, but perhaps necessary cure. A baby boy is claimed by nine women, one of whom “will eventually win.” Later in his life, he discovers a ficus whose own aerial roots are choking it to death—an entanglement like his own—and he saves the tree by cutting around the circumference of the roots (“girdling”) until they “flurry out / and untangle themselves.” Of course, the effect of girdling is to kill the roots doing the strangling.
Like the boy, Victoria Chang looks unsentimentally on the various entanglements of this world. In Salvinia Molesta she doesn’t flinch from using a sharp blade to skewer pretense and cut away excess. In so doing, she’s given us a wise and feisty second book.