Book of poetry is about finding solace in the worst of times
By MIKE WALKER
by Victoria Chang
Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press,
How can we write poetry that is sincere and not overly sentimental or trite about the most horrible events of modern times? How can the poet, as a member of the writing and creative community help society as a whole better understand events such as September 11, 2001 or the genocide in Bosnia or the civil rights abuses of communist China? In Victoria Chang's astute new book of poetry, "Salvina Molesta", Chang sets forth via example to show how the poet functions today as a philosopher, a therapist, and a member of our society close to secular clergy. Chang, an Asian-American who draws from personal and family events in China plus other world events, addresses how the human spirit may find solace and triumph in even the worst of times. When we step back and consider that although technology has progressed over the past century in leaps and bounds, sometimes it seems that human nature has in fact failed in finding a moral and ethical compass yet Chang provides a glimpse at both the worst of human nature and the best of it. Grace, she appears to be saying between her lines, will abide no matter what mountains we must climb first to find it.
The title of Chang's book, "Salvina Molesta", is the scientific name of an aquatic fern that is known as perhaps the worst invasive plant in the world in terms of its fast growth and ability to crowd out other, often native, plants and ruin entire ecosystems. Cyrtobagous salviniae, a small weevil, has been researched by plant pathologists as a natural measure for control of this horrible fern as the weevil, despite its tiny size, can eat the fern fast enough to delimit its ability to take over lakes and waterways. In Salvina molesta, Chang finds a ready metaphor for the horrors of our modern age and the greed and fast pace of our society. While many of the poems collected in this volume cover expansive events, it appears to me the most effective of her poems are the more personal ones where she considers, in instance, a boy drowning and another boy injured in a car crash prior to moving into mulling over the actions we all take each day as we get dressed and go off to work . . . Chang even includes a printed transcript of her own outgoing voicemail as to indicate the banal nature of our daily lives in great contrast with things such as the awful deaths of these two boys.
The fresh view that Chang brings to events such as the Cultural Revolution in communist China though is worthwhile in that she addresses a period of great suffering often overlooked by contemporary Americans and in telling the stories of well-known Chinese of the time such as Mao Zedong's wife and everyday Chinese such as her own uncle, Chang is able to locate us as readers within the midst of a trying, scary, period in China's recent history. Some may think that the primary function of a poet is to write lofty, beautiful, words showcasing the best in life and nature, but Chang demonstrates instead that the poet can address the worst of life, the unspoken and untold and yet discern in even such dross some degree of humanity and beauty.
Victoria Chang is herself a very interesting person: aside from her career as a poet she is also an academic staffer in Stanford University's business school, from which she holds an MBA (she also holds an MA in Asian History from Harvard and, perhaps expectedly, an MFA in creative writing). Her day job factors into her poems rather often and in many places as a foil against the pain and suffering she sees elsewhere in the world: as she recalls death and massive injustices, she honestly notes also she is in London or Paris on business. Her own willingness to be humble in the face of her topical matter here and denote that she has a much better life than many in her past, and by extension, we as contemporary Americans have a much better lot in life than many others the world over, is truly a sobering thought. Chang is never pious in her writing nor speaking out of pity alone but instead speaking of the level of awestruck fear and wonder that one sees in war or perhaps in working in an inner city hospital: she sees herself as small compared to the vastness of suffering yet she knows that in retelling such suffering via her unique voice, she can make the world a better place.
"Salvinia Molesta" is not an easy book: the poems themselves are often logical yet complex in the way that Jorie Graham's work also is, and like Graham, Chang offers treasures for the reader who struggles with the harder parts of her craft. Of course, Chang's main topical focus is not easy either, but in our day and age it is very apt and very much needed. Grace will abide, and books like this remind us that the human spirit is unbroken even when the darkest of days invade everything we consider holy and safe. "Salvinia Molesta" is very possibly the best book of original poetry I have read this year.
* MIKE WALKER is a journalist based out of Gainesville, Florida, who writes for this and other news media about history, ecology, and other topics. He is also a published poet with work in Meanie, the Church-Wellesley Review, Fetishes, and other literary journals. He may be reached with comments via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org