Prehensile Live Wire: Victoria Chang’s Circle

Chang, Victoria. Circle. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. (63 pages)

Winner of the 2005 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Victoria Chang’s Circle proves a startling book of steely lines radiant with imagery, irony, and transitions. In her deft hands, lines spindle into wires that probe, wrap, and connect topics and eras which appear to live in separate realms. By the book’s end, its circularity compels readers to reread in hopes of reaching the furtive heart of her lines’ mission. Readers are caught in an undulating mobius strip of Chang’s design.
       The design begins with desire in Part One’s opening poem, “To Want,” twelve taut couplets that probe yet twist meaning so that full satisfaction is kept just outside our reach. The first line beckons, “To wait is to want more.” The second line bends the subject to a matter of perception: “Or to think you want more” (3).
       The following couplets each set forth meaning in a key image then pivots to vary it with another, continuing to half satisfy:

        Take a look backyard for the stitches
        that seam everything together.

        It’s unruly back there, yes, but
        when there is time, weeds

        want and want, an infinite
        accordion—to want what they

        cannot have, no mirrors
        to show them how they look or

        lie. How many toys
        do children need? For my home, (3)

It is Chang’s exacting ease in melding disparate images together that releases delight—the friction between “stitches, ” “weeds,” “accordion,” and “toys,” almost random items, smoothes in the capsule of the narrator’s “home” no less that the precise word context she crafts for those words. The backyard of perception opens to weeds which multiply in an accordion of folding mirrors which lie. A toy-strewn house stretches us to the pun in lie but features another kind of weed. By posing the question, “How many toys do children need?” the narrator casts light on the infinite gray between need and desire, stripping the rhetoric from the rhetorical question.
        At the poem’s midpoint, “For my home,” she begins to develop the real rhetoric for the poem through a catalogue of household bath items closing with “a man” not “for sale,” despite “other women” buyers. Following that half turn into irony, another comes, turning an image of jealousy into biting wit. The poem draws to a close by transforming prior ideas into a different realm of weed, unnecessary domestic activities distracting the narrator from confronting the real source of discontent: “Dig a garden. Eat only junk food.//Buy a strange pet with short legs.” Chang’s opening poem closes with the narrator and reader waiting for the object of desire to appear: “Always pick up the phone when you call.”
        The soundscape of desire, haunting moments of absence and presence, seep through Circle. “The phonograph//with its straw voice of/static and skips” calls us with its striking mimesis, capturing an era of waiting and desire in the poem “Eva Braun at Berchtesgaden” (5) echoes down a hallway of persona poems. The persona poems show that “many selves paradox one another,//fight for light”—asserting the question found in “Lisa Fremont,” “What is it that each wants?” (6)
        “Five-Year Plan” in Part Two elaborates on the stunting or delusions of want. This Part’s title poem starts, “A good Chinese American housewife has a five-year plan,” half the length of a good Chinese housewife’s “ten-year plan” (28). In couplets in which a long first line is superimposed over a terse second one, the plan and the poem is “…strategic, sparse,//menacing. It stutters at nothing, a tin present tense, perhaps” (28). The poem continues its long and short needled satire across the page. Ending with an image of strangling “so that the throat only brings in half the air” (29), the poem refreshes the definition of “want” not as “desire” but as “lack.”
        Part Three ,“Limits,” presses want to the extremity of war and of the grave. “Lantern Festival” electrifies with its red lanterns hung after the Rape of Nanking as does “Grooming” with its portrait of anti-US violence. This Part collapses Chang’s use of characteristic couplets to full-bodied stanzas, as if couplets consummated an end to themselves, calling us finally to see:

        the lighthouse column with its cracked putty
        and rotating eye….nothing has changed
        we have always been this way—a thousand larks
        mount the sudden breeze.” (63)

Mary Chi-Whi Kim currently teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design. She has published in various literary journals including Many Mountains Moving, Puerto Del Sol, Kalliope, and Literary Mama, and has won two poem commissions from The Ohio State University’s Multicultural Center. She is also the author of a poetry chapbook Silken Purse (Pudding House Press, 2005) and a multi-genre, self-help book, Karma Suture (Amazon.com, 2006). Recently she co-organized the first community-based Asian American and among the first GBLT literary events in Savannah, Georgia. (hannaverse@yahoo.com)

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761