Pushcart XLIII: Victoria Chang, “Barbie Chang Wants to Be Someone” (poem) from Copper Canyon Press

Barbie Chang wants to be someone
                  special to no longer
 
have wet hair to no longer be spectral
                  to be a spectacle Barbie
 
Chang wants to befriend the Academy
                  which is the Circle

Complete poem available online at Alexandria Quarterly

Circles are perhaps the most natural shapes, which may be why so many pre-historic and early historic settlements and civilizations incorporated them into their lives: huts set in circles, beads shaped as circles, dwellings with circular footprints. By forming a circle, a group can define and defend a space, protect what is theirs from what might intrude. And only by breaking the circle, at least temporarily, can a new member be admitted.

So I’m intrigued by the use of circle imagery here connected with the Academy, the Academy Barbie Chang so wants to join if they would just turn from looking inward to looking outward. If they would just break the circle for a moment and let her in. But of course, Barbie can put on a business suit, a lab coat, or a Navy uniform, and still all anyone’s going to think of is her boobs.

Barbie Chang wants to forgive
                  the Academy for its
 
cattiness wants to hate the Academy
                  and its Circle and their
 
certainty

It’s one of the delicious ironies that, unlike Barbie Chang, Victoria Chang is, in fact, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, a twist Michael Odom brings up in his interview with her.

It’s a poem that makes good use of absent punctuation and irregular enjambments to create a kind of suspense with each phrase, each word: will the meaning change when I read the next word? The first line feels complete ending with someone, particularly given the title, but then that special gets added on, with a to that sets up a question, special to whom?, only to find the question moot when the reader finally parses the words and finds a missing comma or semicolon or something that starts a new thought. It’s disorienting, and notifies the reader in the first stanza not to jump to conclusions, to consider more than what has already been read before declaring a grammar.

There’s also wordplay throughout: special/spectral/spectacle, the emphatic rhyming spondee eat meat that comes across like the bang-bang of a drum or double shot, the tongue-twister awards for words.

But it’s the imagery that wins me over in the end, as the poem becomes more and more narrative:

…each year she buys climbing
                  shoes to go up the tree
 
she tries but can’t climb and sells them
                  on Craigslist she gets a
 
new pair each year on her wish list but
                  can’t get past the first five
 
feet…

And then the final knockout punch, the image of Barbie Chang, fallen onto the ground, trampled under the feet of others, discovering “aspirations of worth/everywhere”, even in the crushed bugs whose bodies in defeat form an iris, which is, in humans at least… a circle.

The poem, from Chang’s 2017 collection Barbie Chang, is not poet Chang’s first work with circles. In 2005 she published a collection titled Circle which acts in response to Emerson’s essay “Circles,” and “adopts the shape as a trope for gender, family, and history.” Then there’s 2013’s The Boss; I’m intrigued by the thematic discipline of her collections.

Only once have I been so bewitched by a poet on the basis of what appears in Pushcart; I might love a poem I read here, but seldom want to read more. I find myself wanting to read more of the poet Chang – and if Barbie Chang comes along, so much the better.

One response to “Pushcart XLIII: Victoria Chang, “Barbie Chang Wants to Be Someone” (poem) from Copper Canyon Press

  1. The idea of circles and belonging within them or not is an interesting idea to think about. There is connection and acceptance and also perceived acceptance or denial. This is the second time this week circles and poems have come up for me. Thanks for sharing this poem and your thoughts.

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