Home » criticism, Poetry

Office Space

By (February 1, 2014) No Comment

The BossVictoriaChangBoss

Victoria Chang
McSweeney’s Poetry Series 2013

I made comics, a sort of personal Dilbert, about a former boss who once told his assistant to call the airline and ask them to hold the plane for him. It was a creative outlet and a coping mechanism. Many of my friends thought I invented or exaggerated the tales. But the machinations of power, as well as their demands on our conformity, are often absurd. This absurdity creates the potential for subversive humor: in making people laugh, we aim directly at the powers that be.

As Victoria Chang writes in The Boss, her collection of poems on office life, “The boss is not poetic writing about the boss is not poetic.” Poetry can be humorous, but when we read poetry, we are often looking for more than just laughs. We want the transcendence of art. We engage with beauty. We search for meaning. We forget the petty concerns of everyday life. The office, in contrast, is hierarchical. Our roles are explicitly defined, our performance based on profit. It rewards homogeneity at the expense of originality. But most of us have to make a living, whatever we would rather be doing, and many of us work in offices.

In The Boss, Chang evokes a world of accounts and invoices, layoffs and bonuses, and a boss who makes life hell for her employees. At the same time, Chang’s father, an immigrant from Taiwan who worked his way through corporate America to become a boss, suffers a stroke and is unable to speak. A man who exacted perfection from his daughter, he wants her to be a boss too. In taking care of him, Chang has to renegotiate the authority in their relationship. She also cares for a two-year-old daughter, a little boss only beginning to learn about the world, and who Chang must guide through our unspoken structures of power.

In the first poem, “I Once Was a Child”, Chang writes:

I once was a child am someone’s child
not my mother’s not my father’s the boss
gave us special treatment treatment for something
special a lollipop or a sticker glitter from the

toy box the better we did the better the plastic prize made
in China one year everyone got a spinning top
one year everyone got a tap on their shoulders
one year everyone was fired everyone

fired but me one year we all lost our words one year
my father lost his words to a stroke
a stroke of bad luck stuck his words
used to be so worldly his words fired

him let him go without notice can they do that
can she do that yes she can in this land she can
once she sang songs around a piano this land is your land
this land is my land in this land someone always

owns the land in this land someone who owns
the land owns the buildings on the land owns
the people in the buildings unless an earthquake
sucks the land in like a long noodle

All the poems in The Boss follow this form. On the page, they are broken into uneven stanzas of four lines each, but they can be read as a single continuous line. The phrases gather momentum without rest, just like the endless tasks at the office; when one thought or project is complete, the next piles on without a break. The rhythm is relentless. Chang plays with repetitions, especially VictoriaChangwith explosive sounds such as the ‘b’ in the word boss. The stutters resemble the speech patterns of a stroke victim and perhaps, too, the stilted communication of office life. As the poems accumulate at this pace, we get a sense of suffocation, of anxiety, and of losing control.

This form also allows Chang to slide between encounters in the workplace and moments at home. In this first poem, she contrasts her rewards for good grades with her boss firing everyone despite their performance. The boss fires everyone; Chang’s father loses his speech to a stroke. “A stroke of bad luck,” she writes, both calamities seemingly random events. She slips from daughter to employee and back seamlessly; her work and personal identities, she implies, are not separate. And in the lyrics to a folk song about the American ideals of freedom and opportunity, she contemplates what it means to be a landowner, at the top of a hierarchy – that is, a boss.

Chang describes two kinds of work in The Boss, each with its own rules and rewards: the remunerative office job and the unpaid labor at home. These two spheres are not separate, despite what we might like to believe. Those with power in the office tend also to have power at home. The ability to provide gives us a measure of self-determination, which is why for decades women have been fighting for equal access and pay. But the office, no matter how collegial, lacks intimacy. Caretaking, especially for a parent recovering from a catastrophic illness, can be demoralizing and thankless. Yet it can also forge the bonds of affection that sustain us.

As Chang tries to reconcile these identities within herself, she sees her boss struggling with the same. Like Chang, the boss is also the mother of a baby girl. She is also trying to live up to the demands of the office and motherhood. In “The Boss is Back”, Chang writes:

The boss is back from the hospital is hospitable then
hostile the boss gave birth the boss
lay still on a bed to rest to bedrest to rest
the baby girl on the bed

each morning I lay my case to rest but there’s no jury no
fury I lay my baby on the bed I sponge
her I wonder whether the boss feels what I feel
for my baby a heel on a cheek

doesn’t always mean love the boss kicks up her heels
her eyes empty and eerie like a fish’s eyes
we are weary we are wary of the boss we
sleep standing up but so

does the boss miles and miles under the sea even the fish
don’t sleep they can hear the helicopters
carrying soldiers going back and forth
and back and forth

The birth of a child, especially for a woman, is a loss of control. It is exhausting, and for many women, a loss of identity. We demand perfection from mothers, but we also devalue their work at home. It is also likely that her boss, as a new mother, feels an added pressure to perform for her own boss and prove that she is capable of juggling both home and office life. She takes out these anxieties on her underlings instead. In bossing them around, she tries to regain a semblance of control.

There is another kind of work in The Boss that Chang mostly implies: the labor that goes into art. In interviews, Chang has said that she wrote the book while waiting for her daughter at her Saturday Chinese lessons. Instead of driving back and forth, Chang parked herself under a tree with a notebook and wrote for an hour each time before she picked up the girl. Over the weeks, she filled her notebook with scribbles that she realized amounted to a collection of poems. She attributes the form of the poems to these conditions: harried, on the go, and yet an opportunity to release the thoughts and emotions that she had been accumulating. In other words, she made her art in the interstices of her routine.

Art occupies a space between paid work and caretaking. Like the latter, it is underpaid. It is a labor of love. We give over our most private, emotional selves. We push past our fears. We venture into the unknown and bring back something that we hope speaks to others in an intimate way. At its best, art is a gift from an artist to an audience, another kind of love that sustains us. Like in the office, when we are recognized for our art, we gain power in the public sphere. These days, offices demand more of our time and commitment. We work long hours and are expected to be available after hours. In this environment, artists have to devise ways to clear stretches of time to make art, often at the expense of our home lives.

Making art is an act of power. We claim the authority to define our lives, our identities, our experiences, which is to say, we become our own bosses. It can be a way to regain a sense of control when we feel our lives slipping out of our grasp. On the other hand, as Chang writes in the poem “I Drive Up Hills”:

I drive up hills to see the tops of other people’s heads
at the top I can’t read books at the top
I can’t watch my own children at the top I am
dumb I am numb at the top

SalviniaMolestaAs we climb to the top, we lose the perspective we need to empathize and the emotional freedom to make art.

Chang also draws inspiration from Edward Hopper’s paintings of office life. In the early twentieth century, Hopper was a realist while his peers experimented with abstraction and surrealism. He is known for his illustrations of the everyday in rural landscapes and urban scenes, the stories often left open to interpretation. The people in his paintings often appear isolated, unable to connect with their harshly lit surroundings or the people around them. The viewer also often looks at the characters through windows, as if peeping at their intimate, interior lives.

In Office at Night, a man at his desk looks intently at a sheet of paper as a woman in heels and a tight blue dress stands by a file cabinet next to him. In the first of three poems titled “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night”, Chang writes:

The boss is sitting at the desk the boss doesn’t look
at her the boss is waiting for the black telephone
to ring she also waits for a ring from the boss he is
waiting for the files from her

her blue dress like a reused file folder around
her body her hands tight around the files
the filing cabinet might eat her might take her hand off
the boss might eat her the boss

wants her but the boss wants money more just a little bit
more the boss always seems to want
the money a bit more the boss doesn’t hear
there are taxis outside waiting

In this interpretation, the boss and his secretary dance around each other; money and social position translate into sexual power. The woman is submissive to the man. In the second of these poems, Chang turns this hierarchy around; she sees the woman as the sadistic boss who lords over her male employee, making sure that he is working before she leaves. And in the third poem, the boss is writing up performance reviews and unknown to the woman, she is going to get fired.

In the above poem based on Office at Night, Chang continues:

for all the women down on the street across the street
a boss prepares for bed another boss above him
in apartment X rotates a Q-tip in his ear before sex
despite instructions on the box we took

my father out of the paper the living will the letters
with their little capes will leave the paper
who will take care of my children later who will take care
of my father the will will take care

of no one a piece of paper cannot take care of anyone I
cannot take care of everyone on some nights
I wake in a panic and can’t tell if I am dead or alive
this year I dye my hair so I won’t have to die

The paintings allow Chang to write about office life outside of her immediate experience and consider work in a larger context. She brings it back to the personal, like in this poem, where she imagines male bosses going to bed with women and associates it with the anxieties that keep her awake at night. These ekphrastic poems follow the same form as the other poems in the book. They are also spaced out in the collection. In doing so, she juxtaposes Hopper’s portrayals of disconnection with the intimacy of her own experiences and examines how work can estrange us from ourselves.

There are times when our responsibilities, whether at our jobs or to our loved ones, seem overwhelming. The form of the poems in The Boss reflects this sense of constraint. But these poems are also playful. Chang is often humorous. Her rhymes and wordplay want to break out of the imposed order. She brings a light but no less fierce touch to the unspoken norms of power and hierarchy and critiques them from a place of compassion. In writing these poems, she gives us transcendence in the most mundane, the most absurd.

Teow Lim Goh‘s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Rumpus, The Common Online, and The Philadelphia Review of Books, among other publications.