Victoria Chang. The Boss. McSweeney's, 2013.
Victoria Chang’s third poetry collection, The Boss, explores an iconic figure of everyday life: the boss. Chang’s boss is protean: in turn harsh, fickle, caring, dangerous, and flighty. Sometimes the boss is a she; sometimes the boss is a he. And that’s the point: the boss isn’t a single figure. These poems aren’t the portrait of some sitcom middle manager, they’re the lyric distillation of the essence of “the boss”—a powerful force well known to anyone who’s ever donned a nametag or manned a cubicle.
In one of the first poems of the collection, “Today is the boss,” we get to see the boss in action:
Today is the boss the boss is today the day shines
her white teeth today is the boss
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 thrown
The boss unsettles from the start: her white teeth shine, she doles out bus tokens like a miser giving pennies to trick-or-treaters. The events may be surreal, but the emotional unease is eerily recognizable.
Structurally, all of the poems in The Boss share the same essential features: step-indented quatrains, no punctuation, and enjambments so harsh that it can seem as if Chang has lopped off the endings of lines with an ax. The resulting effect perfectly matches the content of the poems: the lack of punctuation creates a hurried, breathless intensity, but the sudden enjambments halt the rush, creating a tension that keeps each poem quivering with energy.
Yet if every poem were merely a portrait of the eponymous boss, the book would become stale. What makes The Boss such an exceptional collection is how Chang weaves her personal history, such as her relationship with her ill father, into poems featuring the larger-than-life boss. In the hands of a less skilled poet, the boss would overwhelm any other subject matter. But Chang deftly redirects her poems without losing the voice she’s cultivated or doing disservice to her personal narratives. In “I once was a child,” she begins by describing the boss’s increasingly unwelcome yearly gifts, then brings her father into the poem:
one year everyone got a tap on their shoulders
one year everyone was fired everyone
fired but me one year we all lost our words one year
my father lost his words to a stroke
a stroke of bad luck stuck his words
used to be so worldly his words fired
him let him go without notice can they do that
The repetition of “one year” allows Chang to slip from one subject to another as easily as if she were changing lanes. It’s a slick move, and one that allows the poems in The Boss to gain depth despite the collection’s strict framework and relative brevity (a mere 64 pages).
The endless petty vagaries of the boss mirror the helplessness Chang and her father feel in the face of illness. In “The boss has a father” (quoted here in its entirety), the aphasia her father suffers reveals a painful truth:
The boss has a father further than my father the boss
doesn’t speak to her father or her mother the boss
doesn’t speak to others the boss smothers the boss
hovers over and under and within
emails the boss rewrites emails the boss writes
mysteries the boss writes endings my father
writes his name on the aphasia workbook writes
my name calls my name calls me
my sister Debbie everyone is Debbie my daughters are
Debbie every Debbie must be heavy must be
ready to hear my father call them all day call
them Debbie his favorite daughter
Of course, Chang’s first name is Victoria, which is why the poem’s ending lands like a punch.
Throughout The Boss, a series of ekphrastic poems on paintings by Edward Hopper provide a brief change in mode. The Hopper paintings—which seem mundane given the linguistic gymnastics throughout the book—allow Chang a fresh canvas to work on.
She revisits the same paintings multiple times. In the first version of “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night,” a man—the boss—waits at his desk for the telephone to ring while a woman in a “blue dress like a reused file folder” looks for a file in a filing cabinet that “might eat her might take her hand off.”
But in a second version of the poem, the scene is recast. The woman is now the boss and the man is “filling out / an application for employment maybe.” Later in the poem, Chang describes her own daughter “fighting / with someone in her crib she is bossing // someone around no no no bad that’s mine you don’t take / mine.” By the end of the poem, as her daughter sings happy birthday to herself—alone in her crib—Chang declares (or perhaps laments): “ she is already celebrating / herself she will be the perfect boss.”
Victoria Chang’s The Boss skillfully captures the uncertainty and anxiety of work in poems full of verve and intelligence. It’s easily one of the best poetry collections of the year.