BOYFRIEND PERSPECTIVE, a debut collection of poetry by Michael Chang, reviewed by Stephen Scott Whitaker

Queerness, in Michael Chang’s Boyfriend Perspective, expands infinitely outward and inward in this full-length collection by the non-binary poet. Chang not only navigates western culture dominated by norms inherited from the patriarchy, but also Chinese culture and its own restrictions with regards to gender and sexuality. And we are challenged by Chang’s poesy and content, which makes Boyfriend Perspective re-readable. Chang’s data-dense poems roast Western culture, roast past lovers, and roast the establishment, all while offering up their heart in a collection that manages to be both cynical and earnest.

The collection opens with “Admission” which begins with an epigram from Rick Ross’s “Tears of Joy”. The poem sets the tone for the collection:

The Grand Jury has returned an indictment
Gary Indiana, the man, not the place
When I look at my thin wrists
I can’t help to think of some thick dick
I remember first becoming aware that I was talked abt, with feverish zeal,
Just like sports
A football player in tight jeans, the way he filled out the front
Popular boys in shiny loafers they ordered through the mail…

My poet brain is dumb today
Great titles are, like, my life
I hate Christmas shopping !!!!
Baby bake me a cake
Tell me the habits of the petite bourgeoisie
Sign off on the plea agreement
How will you let freedom ring?
Everyone carries with them the capacity to wound, to disappoint

In under a page, Chang’s zips us from high school lust to crafting to poetry to inward self-reflection, leaping, perhaps, anxious, perhaps, or simply ADHD, regardless, Chang offers poems that change direction. Throughout Perspective, Chang allows the emotional landscapes to be littered with ambient noise or cognitive interruptions. Identity is the question Chang proffers to us throughout. However this is not a question of who we are, but rather, how doo we authentically live in a capitalist culture that is antithetical to life? As online and real-life living threads together, each informing the other, these poems weave together online and real-life in America.

Much of the poesy of Boyfriend Perspective leaps and pops with anxious energy. Chang employs long lines, double columns, and prose. Chang’s fluid style as a poet, in terms of structuring verse as well as structuring the collection, reinforces their own gender fluidity, for Chang moves between more traditional western modes of poesy to expansive constructions, such as in “ 零 (Zero)”, or “遇见 Encounter”, or “Fishsticks.” Chang also employs prose as lyric essay, in “Seven Nation Army” which allows Chang’s wit and lust and anxiety freedom to curl and stretch and gracefully engage in acrobatics: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to please me, keep me entertained, talk to me about Title XI and due process. Hart of Rawls on liberty and Dworkin’s bedroom habits.” Chang’s stylistic mutability is simply part of Chang’s ethos of queer literature, to de-colonize ideas of the love poem, and traditional forms, all while challenging the status quo, white boys, and their “head-games.”

The collection’s exigency lies in the body, the preening, the posturing, the posing, and the overall tone is celebratory, revelatory; that’s partly due to Chang’s speed. They capture the dopamine-powered rush of social media or going down a rabbit hole of information. Chang’s poems move, dash, fall in blocks, and align left, creating a visual field of dizzying text. Chang also accessorizes these poems with stylistic diamonds, bullets, dashes, and Chinese characters, all of which add to Boyfriend Perspective’s sense of fun. Lovers of scatological humor will enjoy how Chang undercuts seriousness with silliness, a way for Chang to wink at the reader while continuing to explore the outer culture of America and the inner queer experience.

Throughout Boyfriend Perspective, Chang reminds readers that overthinking relationships is one of humanity’s quirks that keeps on giving. Chang’s queerness contrasts with the white patriarchal closet culture, throes of straight men, some married, some not, who seek male lovers for their side relationship. The closeted lovers of Chang present a jock confident all-American persona to the world while chasing Chang on dating apps. Why Chang continues to date these men is part of the sub-plot of the Boyfriend Perspective‘s overall narrative. A romantic heart with a dirty mind, Chang’s after what every person on the planet is after, authentic partnerships in the bedroom and in life.

In “非凡 EXCEPTIONAL”, a tender moment in the Perspective’s exploration of love and lust, Chang folds his love poem into a political poem and then folds both into a meditation about poetry:

Delicate like a poached egg, he asks:
Do you know America’s secret, leaning in
I stare back blankly
The more you love her, the more she loves you back,
he slumps in his chair, satisfied with himself
I stare some more, distracted
By his, I don’t know, manly ambition
We don’t break eye contact
In my head I’m saying
Don’t slow the proceedings,
I object to a continuance
We ravish one another

Here the tension between the speaker and the possible white privileged lover is subtle; Chang’s speaker keeps their thoughts to themselves before lovemaking. Is it a question of survival? Or lust? Perhaps both. Self-deprecation is armor Chang uses throughout the collection, one that protects them from lovers who deny their own queerness while chasing the speaker from poem to poem. Later as the poem continues towards the conclusion, Chang writes:

Poetry for the miracles
Like the one who left, coming back
I want to need him: sex familiar & unfussy
Am I your 친구 (chingu)?
Poetry for the cures to the saddest words
“I want what they have”
“I could love you but I don’t”
“I don’t love you anymore”
Poetry for the fixes
I’m commandeering this vehicle
I intend to arrive

The final image of the poem, commandeering this vehicle for arrival, is both violent without bloodshed, and representative of the state, a state that does not have queer people’s best interests at heart, but here Chang’s quipping at the poetry community. Chang, like June Jordan, or Audre Lorde, marries sex and resistance together, and like other queer writers before them, Chang commandeers poetry to both forge identity and to craft poems in the manner of their own queerness.

Identity is evolving personal growth, a quickening that continues throughout one’s life. Identity is created, Chang reminds, it is forged by passion and love and choice, and Chang’s Boyfriend Perspective is engaged passionately in that struggle. Throughout the collection their sharp tongue lashes through these poems, their voice glamorously booming through a DJ’s megaphone as a team of hunky jocks enters the party, the champagne popping. Michael Chang’s Boyfriend Perspective pulses; rooted in eros, life spirit, Chang undercuts loss and wonder with humor, and wit.

Boyfriend Perspective, by Michael Chang. Seattle, Washington: Really Serious Literature, September 2021. $15.00, paper.

Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and a grant writer. Whitaker’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Great River Review, Fourteen Hills, The Shore, Crab Creek Review, Oxford Poetry, and other journals.

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