» Book Review
Review: Boyfriend Perspective by Michael Chang
Really Serious Literature, Sept. 9, 2021
Reading Michael Chang’s Boyfriend Perspective is like flipping through a fashion mag while reading a revolutionary’s diary. The poems celebrate their own arrival, their own awesomeness, sometimes slipping in the center to admit their limitations and vulnerability, only to resurrect themselves with wit and biting self-awareness. Incorporating poems from Chang’s 2021 chapbooks, Drakkar Noir (Bateau Press) and Chinatown Romeo (Ursus Americanus 2021), along with some new and previously uncollected work, Boyfriend Perspective is queer, Asian American, observant, fun, critical, urgent, and knows more than you.
The space provided by a full-length collection allows Chang’s work to explore a wider range of emotions and tones (bombastic to quiet), idea expansion (objects to emotions), and formal experimentation (free verse to haibun). Some of the best poems from each chapbook continue to function as anchors or whirlpool pieces that other poems in the collection get sucked toward or are stabilized by with linguistic or emotional resonance. The work is also a celebration of pop culture, queer life, queer sex, and the body as a sponge. The work situates itself in the world of Lindsay Lohan, mid-2000’s internet blind items about closeted celebs, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Notley, Sean Lennon, Frank O’Hara, Rick Ross, Bruce Weber’s photography, Annie Prouxl’s Brokeback Mountain, Wayne Koestenbaum, Cornel West, and ultra-famous queer ’80’s supermodel and icon, Gia Carangi.
Chang’s voice remains true to itself, at once contemptuous, teasing, and capricious, with moments of deep insight that feel like the cracking of an egg. One of the best qualities about their voice is its duality: a haughtiness and know-it-all attitude that rides shotgun with vulnerability, an anxiety that nothing will change despite the voice’s commands. The true emotion of the collection lies in the manic vacillation between ego and ego death. What is the modern experience but daily assaults of multiple validations and humiliations? Chang’s speaker is in all of us.
The collection offers a range of styles and forms—haibun, zuihitsu, short free-verse, all-caps list poems—but long lines and more essayistic or block prose poems are at the heart of this collection. These long lines tell us something: the speaker is not interested in cutting themselves off. Stylistic capitalization choices feel right in poems where power, hierarchy, class, race, capitalism, and value systems are examined and thrown up against one another. A sometimes lowercasing of the lyric “i” speaks to the vulnerability of our normally bullet-proof speaker. In “Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail,” Chang writes, “i’ll miss him, i’m sure, but / doesn’t it just eat at you when a boy is too perfect?”
“Yankee Yellow” is a prose block poem that looks to the reader to discern its patterns and associations. It’s no accident that the poem’s title is built from such loaded words; as the poem unfolds, the definitions of “Yankee” and “Yellow” start to expand, contract, or unravel as Chang places food, brand names, literature, and public figures alongside them, modifying their meaning. The repetition functions as a reminder that as far away as we wander from the phrase we are pushed back to its commanding presence. Maybe most importantly, Chang references the poet George Oppen: “Yankee Yellow Oppen’s G-string” and “Yankee Yellow New Rochelle” (Oppen’s hometown). Oppen, from the school of Objectivist poetry, provides a lens through which to think about Chang’s work. Louis Zukofsky defined Objectivism in terms of its focus on sincerity and approach to poems as objects; however, that definition may be less helpful than looking at the work as a link between modernism and language poets. The Objectivist movement was staunchly left-leaning, interested in ethical poetry, and Oppen famously joined the communist party: “Yankee Yellow commie scum.”
Chang’s work hovers around the influences of Objectivism, language poetry, and the coolest, wisest graffiti you’ve ever seen scrawled under a bridge: “There are two wolves named Dolce & Gabbana. First disarm them with / a compliment, defuse their racist anger.” Chang’s work becomes its own phenomenon complete with the peaks and valleys of vacillating popular trends. Each poem reads like a fashion fad or society spectating its own rise and fall, whipping in and out of style so violently that the somber truths that lie beneath emerge in gasping one-liners. In “Squeeze,” Chang writes, “Sometimes I feel like our relationship is two con artists trying to / con one another.”
“Incendiary Chxnxmxn” is a political language poem that appears as a code poem. When you solve for X, the first line of the poem—“AX XNGLXSH-CHXNXSX PHRXSXBXXK (1875)—becomes “AN ENGLISH AND CHINESE PHRASEBOOK (1875).” The date is important, as it’s not only the source of the found text below but also the date of the enactment of The Page Act (a precursor to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), which outlawed the entry of Chinese women to the U.S. The Page Act is often cited as sexually motivated, a way to stop women of color from entering the U.S. and becoming “sexual threats” across racial lines. Chang ends the poem with a purposeful mixing of commerce and sex: “SXME MXN LXVX CXPXTXL / & SXMX MXN GXT PRXFXTS / BXY XS MXNY XS YXX LXKX / CXN YXX LXT MX SXX XT? / YXXR CXCK, X MXXN” (“SOME MEN LOVE CAPITAL / & SOME MEN GET PROFITS / BUY AS MANY AS YOU LIKE / CAN YOU LET ME SEE IT? / YOUR COCK I MEAN”).
“America’s Sweetheart” underscores this tension regarding objectification, dangerous power differentials, and politics in sexual and romantic relationships. “Is Brett a human boy…” the prose poem begins, and though it’s not punctuated as a question, it is one. It goes on to describe all the objects that surround Brett, the achievements he’s earned, “his hand up the skirt of some unsuspecting girl who thinks she has found the one.…” By these descriptors, we know Brett’s class, race, and gender, and we’re still questioning if he’s human. We question it because at the end Chang warns, “Brett is so happy though he never throws a tantrum in public but she doesn’t know that Brett is an undecided voter.” How can we be so close to someone and not know them politically? Who benefits from that separation? Cis, white, hetero women and privilege are clearly under scrutiny here; who else would have the “luxury” of not knowing their partner’s politics?
In “Rage is Just a Number,” the speaker again approaches themes of sex and objectification but this time places themself more in the spotlight: “He lets me touch him till he shudders. / I’ve learned to feed the ducks within / me. They’re always hungry. / I’m the bag of old crusts, a vessel for / your hate: flip me over, turn me inside / Out. / You can journal your disappointment/ later.”
The speaker sees themself as something to be used, hated even, and in this moment our speaker is naming themself the object, “I’m the bag of old crusts,” and giving permission to be objectified, “flip me over, turn me inside/out.” Chang’s work and speaker is showing us here how consent functions, how sex sometimes works as permissive momentary objectification—how that’s different than the other exchanges and objectification taking place in the collection.
No one is safe from this speaker’s criticism, not even poets. In “Adverse Possession,” Chang writes, “Nobody: / Absolutely nobody: / Poets: SELF-PORTRAIT AS.” Critique is a form of protest, and Chang is asking for more—more from poets, more from lovers, more from America, more from a failing society, more from you, dear reader: “sex is good, but have you ever fucked the system?”
Chang’s work, not unlike the abstract art it references, finds resonance in what’s universal and yet is specific in its expression and vision. Questions that arise while reading Boyfriend Perspective stay with the reader long after finishing the text: What happens when you live in a disposable culture? Do you dispose of yourself before anyone else can dispose of you? If everything is an object, should we objectify ourselves before anyone else does? In order to safeguard oneself from disappointment or disappointing others, should you state out loud you’re disappointing or will disappoint? If we observe pop culture, will we become embedded in it? If we have sex do we become embedded in our lover? Is everything an exchange? or some kind of sale, or deal, including relationships? Is everything a trend or a moment, how do we know what moments are meaningful, or is that the point? None of it is more important? What if what or who you desire (by its very nature) will or wants to destroy you? Or what if who you love will never recognize your humanity? If your lover is shallow, should you be more shallow? Is your lover’s racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny as certain as their indifference to your pleasure? Or is this complicatedly part of the pleasure? Is your lover’s kiss no more valuable, no more intimate, than watching them shit? In the title poem, Chang writes, “sometimes it’s freeing to love someone/take off ur life jacket & plunge.” With these instructions, we just might.
After all the questions, the Lindsay Lohan references, the Brokeback Mountain quotes, the rifling through and examining of culture and objects, we might wonder what is left? Chang writes on the last page of their collection, “here is happiness / more or less / what saves us.”