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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #43 (October 24, 2006), page 15.
Writing in circles
Poems by Victoria Chang
Crab Orchard Series in Poetry
Southern Illinois University Press, 2005
Paperback, 65 pages, $14.95
By Douglas Spangle
I started wondering about the title of this interesting first collection of poems by Victoria Chang before I even cracked the covers. Itís probably a little overboard to go wondering about such things, but I guess I canít help it ó it seems that the choice of a title must mean something, even for a book of poetry.
Thereís nothing especially circular in the structure of the poems; Chang writes long-lined fairly conversational verse in a rather brittle voice, chatty, sometimes with sporadic non sequitur phrases. She seems fond of piling items in long, casually related lists: "behind colonials, across pools of wheat, / near prints of wolves ó" or "through mulch and bulge, / the casita option, loft option, granite option." She tends to run to couplets and tercets and almost never repeats herself. Nothing circular there.
She writes with the knowing tone of a thoroughly assimilated Asian American in suburban Southern California and the Midwest. There is much about sportswear, workouts, cars, television, housing developments. Straight as a stick.
She tips her hand, I discovered, at the beginning of Part Three, "Limits," where she quotes Emerson for an epigraph: "The life of a man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end." Her theme, I believe, is just that: the expansion of the individual outward into the world at large. As Emerson declares, she moves outward in larger circles.
Just beyond the center of the Self, she moves past her family. Father and mother make appearances. Then surrounding the core there is a lot about food, waitresses at dim sum, table settings, chopping vegetables, daikon, pork loins. Here she takes a misstep in a poem with Eva Braun as narrator, where the signature motif is the consumption of beef. There is currently much debate on how strict Hitlerís vegetarianism was (he was said to be fond of Bavarian sausages), but it is certain that beef was not a staple at der FŁhrerís table.
And so Changís personal circle moves outward from the central circle of the person to the rice bowl and dinner table (family circle) that surrounds it like a nest encircles a clutch of eggs. She pursues, with school, dating, entering the workforce, choosing a house. Eventually she expands to Emersonís grand metaphysic. At the end, she dwells on the dissolution of the body, and in the final lines, "a thousand young lark / mount the sudden breeze."
Victoria Chang may have won the Crab Orchard Open Competition for reasons other than this collectionís simple and elegant pattern, but I see much in it.
Find the center point. Draw a line outward from there. When the radius has been determined, begin to turn and define the total area. This will be your circle.