‘The Boss’ by Victoria Chang
“I am the boss and I like it”
When you read this, are you working?
Where is your powerful boss? Where are those you love?
“[T]he middle finger,” declares Victoria Chang’s poem “The Boss Wears Wrist Guards,” “is the longest the /middle is used by those without power.” The Boss, Chang’s third poetry collection, tangles with work and sacrifice, examining power relationships as they exist in our most essential and contested arenas: the office, the home. Here, we witness a speaker hard at work, who must hold up a father and a daughter and her work, caring for many even as the workplace exacts its demands in all corners of her life. Chang, speaking to McSweeney’s earlier this summer, described the experience of negotiating these disparate realms in relation to the writing of The Boss, much of which was written after her work week ended and while her daughter attended after-school classes:
I parked my car in front of a tree and opened my notebook and started writing. The fact that the same tree was there, stationary, and waiting for me week after week, actually showed up in one of the poems, I think. When she was done with class, I stopped writing. Then the following Saturday, I would repeat the process until I had finished an entire manuscript…
Chang has crafted a vital collection in these “spare” moments, one which makes use of rushing, unpunctuated and unrhymed quatrains to examine the stakes—as an artist, as a woman, as a parent and a child—of participating, choice or (more often) no, in the modern workplace. For those of us also not The Boss, even our anger or frustration with the limitations of the system ultimately deflates in the face of power, according to The Boss: for “the /middle finger does not resemble a bird the bird is / something with power the bird can fly away.”
But Chang’s book exhibits more than simple hostility towards the man. The Boss is, in a sense, about what it means to live a good life, a whole life: it focuses on the realm where so many people spend the majority of their life’s hours, and how much the power relationships involved can deflate the human spirit in small increments. In this way, Chang accounts for a contemporary anxiety that exists in a vacuum. You will always have a boss; your bosses will have bosses, ad infinitum, and not just in the workplace.
The Boss’s workplace, sometimes depicted through Chang’s ekprastic renderings of Edward Hopper paintings, is a place for rigid hierarchy and artistic suppression; the boss has freedoms that workers can never attain, and Human Resources hovers as a sort of inutile regulatory force, “always sweating…/ always wetting itself.” The speaker of these poems is a worker, not a boss; the role of boss both attracts and repels her. In “The Boss Rises,” we learn more about this relationship, as
The boss rises up the boss keeps her job
the boss is safe the workers are not
the boss smiles the boss files the boss
throws pennies at the workers
the boss rises up higher and higher the boss’s
head is the balloon getting bigger
and bigger it gets harder and harder to hold
on the workers do good work…
While the boss can thrive in this environment, the worker’s employment is uncertain day to tday. “[W]e / can be bosses too can hold the cross but / there is a cost” notes the speaker at the poem’s end, pointing to both the compromise of integrity and the attraction to power implicated in assuming a boss’s role, a role in The Machine, The Administration.
And the cost, according to Chang, rises higher and higher as the friction between our work and family realms commingle. The speaker of The Boss is also a mother to a daughter whose worldview emerges in the context of her mother’s workplace, sometimes even in her sleep:
some nights I hear my two-year-old fighting
with someone in her crib she is bossing
someone around no no no bad that’s mine you don’t take
mine I wonder if she will be a future boss
in the office with the green carpet with the
blood-red stains bossing around
the man who can’t get his numbers to foot on other
nights I hear her singing happy birthday to
me happy birthday to me she is already celebrating
herself she will be the perfect boss
In this and the collection’s other poems about motherhood, Chang heightens the stakes of her rendering of the modern American workplace as hierarchically entrenched: how do we teach our children to work, to “be a boss?” Do we want our children to be the boss? How much of the politics and pressure of the working world should we pass onto our children? “[M]y four-year-old daughter still / listens to me I am the boss and I like it I / see why the boss likes it,” observes the speaker of “The Boss Wears a White Vest,” rejoicing in the one boss-role she has attained as mother. And in “The Boss’s Christmas Card,” we see the boss with her own child, as the speaker considers the complicated relationship between the smiling boss on the family holiday card and the one capable of coldly firing a subordinate:
The boss’s Christmas card is red her children
are well-fed one year after firing
someone she went home she went to a field or
a backyard or somewhere with trees
and thistle and grass she went home and lifted
the boy into her arms and swung him
in circles in circles…
This seeming personality split, empathic and non-, within the boss raises suspicion for the speaker. Does the boss feel true affection for her son, as the speaker of The Boss feels palpably for her own daughter—or does she merely behave as expected, smiling for the camera, knowing her role and performing it to the hilt? Does this make her a better boss, a better mother?
Tensions between work and motherhood come to an arresting snap in “The Boss Has a Daughter.” “[I]f the boss / is a successful woman what are we,” asks the poem’s speaker. “[A]re we in trouble.” In this poem, I see the faces of the High-Profile Mothers Who Work, the women who write the overdiscussed and hyperbolic articles about Having it All that appear, regular as direct deposit, in major American magazines: Sheryl Sandberg’s face at her TEDTalk, on the cover of her memoir asking us all to Lean In, herself most emphatically a boss. In “Today My Daughter,” the poem immediately following “The Boss Has a Daughter,” we again hear the snap of this tension, as the speaker’s daughter “wants to be a waitress when she / grows up she doesn’t know that a waitress is / not a boss.” We see the speaker grappling with expectation, with the assumption that we should all want this Boss-y power: if not for ourselves, then certainly for our children, who must, in this collection, become more than ourselves.
When our monuments to work violently crumble, our vulnerability expands, as Chang considers the terrorist attacks of September 11th in some of the collection’s most visceral and arresting poems. “The Boss Calls Us At Home” imagines the meeting of “bosses” under the most devastating of circumstances: “when the planes crashed into the / towers the pilots’ bodies met a CEO their bodies / pressed together their power latched /together on the 54th floor hating / each other embracing each other like an accordion.” We read in other poems of “the building with five sides,” planes pointing inexplicably down towards the earth, pitched for death. While Chang depicts the attacks of September 11th as a flattening event, one affecting worker and boss alike, the atmospheric pervasiveness of the attack’s aftermath serves as a cautionary tale: the boss’s reach, even in tragedy, is infinitely long. On 9/11, “the boss calls us at home the boss can call us anytime / the boss tells us to turn on the television…”
Like the omnipresent imagery of 9/11, Chang’s father—suffering from aphasia—ghosts many poems in The Boss; as the speaker grapples with his fading faculties, the reader understands here, too, exactly how treacherously long the boss’s reach can be. “[M]y father sat / in his office dictating his thoughts about / meetings with bosses,” describes the speaker of “I Only Knew Dictators”; in retirement, as seen in “The Boss Tells Me,” his illness has robbed him of his worker’s abilities, leaving him unable to relate to the very child now assisting with his care:
writes his name on the aphasia workbook writes
my name calls my name calls me
my sister Debbie everyone is Debbie…
Facile worker in the past, the father now “can’t remember / ass-kissing for his large accounts can’t account / for himself can no longer count.” And the speaker, yearning warily for her daughter to learn the ways of The Boss, must also reckon with her father’s expectations even in the context of his waning mental health: “[M]y father wanted me // to be a boss,” the speaker of “I Drive Up Hills” tells us. But “when I / ask him the name of his old boss / he says his own name.” When name, identity, and memory fade, according to The Boss, what remains is work: its entrenched expectations, its immutable power structures.
Sprawling in its absent punctuation, breathless in its prosody even as each image-driven line lingers, The Boss shows us what we gain and what we lose by working and loving at the same time. As we must; as is expected of us. “[W]ho will take care of my children later who will take care of my father” asks the speaker of “Edward Hopper’s ‘Office at Night’,” and we feel the question turn deep in our gut. And then we gather our bus pass, search for our car keys, kiss our animals and/or humans goodbye, and we head into work.