Mark Allen Jenkins
Review of The Boss by Victoria Chang
San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2013. 64pgs. $20.00.
The word "boss" evokes many feelings, typically unpleasant, as a term for a person or persons who hold some level of power over our lives and livelihoods. We might even assume it not a subject worthy of poetry, yet alone an entire collection, as one poem "the Boss is Not Poetic" acknowledges and then disproves: "writing about the boss is not poetic/ a corporate pencil doesn't gallop/ dactyl one foot two feet six feet seven the boss/ only has two feet." In this collection, Victoria Chang explores the word's varying contexts, many fictional, while others include her own father (a former boss, now retired, recovering from a stroke), several Edward Hopper paintings, and her own experience with the term. The Boss proves that the word is more complex and interesting than we might first assume.
Many poems in this collection create a boss sequence through their titles: "Today is the boss," "The boss rises," "The boss has a father," and "The boss is a no-fly zone." These poems create a sketch of not one boss, but many similar bosses. "Today is the boss" recounts a reoccurring nightmare where "the boss gives us tokens to take a bus/ to a restaurant to bus her table she// breaks our plates our dirty plates break when thrownÉ with my colleagues to glue the plates together again/ up in the skin a bird keeps flying in." "The boss has a father" shifts from a boss to the speaker's father "further than my father the boss/ doesn't speak to others the boss smothers the boss/ hovers over and under and within" and he, post-stroke, "calls me// my sister Debbie everyone is Debbie my daughters are/ Debbie." The repetition mirrors well the often-stunted language of a stroke victim who may never return to their more advanced pre-stroke vocabulary. More broadly, Chang seems to consider that all of us have a boss, at home and at work, even if we are selves are also someone's boss.
Anyone familiar with Maurice Manning's book Bucolics will recognize its influence in many of Chang's poems, as both address an unnamed boss, though Manning's speaker is seemingly more rural than Chang's and his boss most likely is God, like in a poem like "XXIX": "boss of the blue sky boss/ of green water boss of rain." Also, like Manning, Chang's repetition and wordplay makes the poems in The Boss fun to read out loud. A kind of Dr. Seuss for adults, if you will. For example, in "I Once Had a Good Boss," the speaker laments "my good boss is gone is a goner boss is a no-longer-/mine boss is someone else's boss I once/ had a good boss but he didn't know he was a good boss/until I met my new boss." The playful, conversational change from "gone" to "goner" especially brings Manning to mind. The Boss is a fun book, a statement I wouldn't make about many poetry collections.
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Mark Allen Jenkins is currently a PhD in Humanities student at the University of Texas at Dallas where he serves as Assistant Editor for Reunion: The Dallas Review. His poetry has appeared in Memorious, minnesota review, Muse & Stone, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere.