The book Salvinia Molesta by Victoria Chang is a tangled trellis of image and emotion, weaving a story of fear, loss, and violence. From this framework of intense and frightening subject matter, each poem hangs like an over-ripe fruit, eloquent words making the outside palatable, while the inside remains an upsettingly truthful vision of humanity’s disillusionment and depravity. In her uniquely gentle and motherly tone, Victoria Chang reassures us while simultaneously forcing us to open our eyes to the gloom that surrounds us, as in the elegant yet desolate opening stanza of “Ars Poetica as Dislocated Theater:”
There is a cliff. There is a woman on the
edge of the cliff. Her arms open. The sun
and sky become larger. The wind needles into
But where am I now, having seen the cliff, the woman
on the edge, having heard the music and its
Though the poem, like quite a few in the collection, begins with warm and beautiful imagery, in this case reminiscent of pregnancy and motherhood, the stanza continues with a questioning of the speaker’s life and place in the world. This is the position Salvinia Molesta takes in regards to almost all of its subjects: from the poverty of Communist China under Mao to the suicides of corrupt American businessmen, Chang chooses not to condemn the inhumanity in the world, but rather to make us question it and our part in it.
In this collection, her second book of poetry, Chang holds a mirror to the reader, and with each poem a twisted picture of mankind emerges. Some of the poems leave the reader feeling empty and used; others leave us inflamed with anger of injustice, tragedy. “Jiang Qing,” a poem about Mao Zedong’s wife, ends with the bleak sentiment that,
With each new
Thought, your hand around my neck still indents
me. Soon the wind will overtake my shadow.
Though the imagery of the last line may be melancholically beautiful, the violent death before it unsettles us. Chang never allows us to be comfortable, happy. In “Seven Stages of Genocide” a brutal murder in an unnamed concentration camp is described in an unsettlingly passive way:
When they tire, they bury my neighbor from
the neck down and let the German shepherds at him.
How his fists must have tried to clench.
In each instance of torture, death, poverty, misery, suicide, oppression, the reader must draw their own conclusions about the cruelty; Chang merely gives us the facts, reimagined in articulate language that belies the bestiality of the situations.
In taking on the voices of a host of real and imagined historical figures, Chang assumes the daunting responsibility of speaking for these people with dignity and respect. The type of first person witnessing she adopts in poems like “Jiang Qing” and “Seven Stages of Genocide” is a dangerous tightrope to wander onto. An author who speaks for someone who is now voiceless, in these examples Mao Zedong’s wife and a Holocaust victim, has the responsibility of treating this suffering, which they may never have personally experienced, with compassion and truth. It can be difficult for a poet to capture the realities of these situations. After all, how many of us have lived through a genocide, or know what it is like to be rejected by one’s people and forced to commit suicide. A poet must find something in their own experience, even something as abstract as an emotion to connect to these foreign experiences. And, as Kim Addonizio and Dorainne Laux claim in their book on the art of poetry, The Poet’s Companion, “Our link to the suffering of others is that we care about it, and what we care about we tend to put into our writing.” And though Victoria Chang addresses so many of her subjects in Salvinia Molesta with an air of detachment that allows us to insert our own emotional responses, it is clear that the subjects she addresses are near to her heart. She gives voice to people like Iris Chang, a Chinese-American author who she obviously respects, and to those whose suffering she finds fascinating, like Clifford Baxter, who committed suicide, and Frank Quattrone, who was accused and then cleared of obstruction of justice charges. She also bears witness to the daily struggles of unnamed, imagined people, like the weary Chinese woman who hangs up posters of Chairman Mao and finds herself questioning her loyalties in “Hanging Mao Posters” and “After Hanging Mao Posters”, two poems that frame the first section of the book, and the young Taiwanese schoolboy who witnesses the brutal murder of a peddler by a soldier in “February 28, 1947.” In all instances, whether she tackles bloody brutality or quiet dissatisfaction, Chang does justice to the complexity of human existence and suffering.
Like the stifling invasive weed it is named after, Salvinia Molesta is a fearsome but truthful epitaph to the world’s anguish, and a sad, yet insistently elegant glimpse of the sorrow that is yet to come. In a live reading of her poetry, Victoria Chang’s voice was calm and even, with the warmth of a mother speaking soothing words to her newborn. The tales of depravity and sadness that rolled off her tongue were tempered by her serenity, her resignation, and just a touch of hope. Her reading matched the tone of her poetry: the gracefulness of her portrayals of wretchedness, her sympathy for her subjects. By writing about occurrences both disturbing and painful, Chang dares to make human what so many of us dismiss as inhuman; she makes us see that the atrocities we avoid thinking about are human atrocities, committed by humans on humans. She faces, head-on, subject matter that other poets avoid because of its distasteful nature and the difficulty of portraying it with dignity and accuracy. Victoria Chang is a brave poet who does not shy away from the sad, the gruesome, yet who tells her stories with sensitivity and beauty. Salvinia Molesta is a unique collection of poetry and a must-have for every poetry lover.
The Lonely Alchemist