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Reviewed by:
  • Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
  • Asa Drake (bio)
Victoria Chang. Barbie Chang. Copper Canyon Press.

Barbie Chang, Victoria Chang's fourth poetry collection, manufactures a way to inhabit the body and invites us onto the assembly line. It would be wrong to call these forty-seven poems persona poems. Writing for Poetry Foundation's Harriet Blog, Victoria Chang describes the process in which "Barbie became a Chinese American woman who was born in America but could never fully assimilate with certain types of women because of her appearance and culture, even if she were named Barbie." Barbie Chang is compelling because she is a vector away from the lyric "I," a suppressed speaker, watched and speaking:

"she can't promote herself   if she had legs she would

stop begging if she had hands she would   stop her own wedding

the city has no extra bedding it is not   ready yet the maids are

still making beds Barbie Chang is still   looking for small openings"

If Barbie Chang has taken the space for "I," where has the self gone? Is Barbie Chang honest? Very honest. Is the speaker fair? She is not fair. She is herself, constructing herself, a person who could resemble Barbie Chang and who stubbornly isn't Barbie Chang. Is it empathy, too, to sympathize with the objects that are ourselves? [End Page 180]

Rooting for Barbie Chang watching Ellen Pao is being able to root for oneself, knowing "helping Ellen Pao is not an / option Barbie Chang / opted out but never really severed / ties with the people in / the office." Ellen Pao's lawsuit against Silicon Valley giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers called out the sexism and racism of the tech industry, and media coverage of her lawsuit displayed the sexism and racism of America. Few Asian-American women in the workforce can claim not to have encountered a coworker who seizes this opportunity to describe his own fetish for Asian women and his disdain for any detour from their meek model minority assignment. Victoria Chang's rejection of punctuation best demonstrates such office politics. Here, "helping Ellen Pao is not an / option" for Barbie Chang, making her a prepositional object to the first line, but also the subject of the line that follows. Victoria Chang's verse navigates a way for Barbie Chang to exist as the poem's structural subject while not undermining her experience as an object disposed to the actions of others.

Victoria Chang's collection gives us an object striving out of the predicate structure in a narrative of desire. Barbie Chang is fighting the American sentence where the "Chang" body must always inform or complement the actions of a white subject:

"the beautiful thin mothers at school   form a perfect circle

the Circle will school her if she lets   them they have

something to say doves come out of   their mouths"

It examines our universal fantasies because they have been marketed as universal. Chang's collection questions the marketing that creates "a special hand she has been trying / to touch for years." For Barbie Chang, desire is circumstantial, modified by "maybe," "is it possible," and "what if":

"much more what if Mr. Darcy didn't   own the house or

worse not even a horse how do we   separate the things

from a man the man from the things   is a man still the same"

Without punctuation, this last line is left open with intent, to be both questioning and emphatically certain. As soon as the poem affirms "a man still the same" it is doubting him. Chang's Barbie Chang is not satisfied. When the world is the world, Barbie Chang offers platitudes for a modern people who cannot be Elizabeth Bennet "here it rains every / fifteen minutes it / would be foolish to marry a [End Page 181] man / without an umbrella." While Barbie Chang returns again and again to Mr. Darcy, the beautiful women of the pta circle, and the boss at the office, her relationships with these figureheads are tentative. As readers rooting for Barbie Chang, we can't get into the Circle, though we might be exactly who she means.

Barbie Chang ultimately rejects the urge...


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pp. 180-182
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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