Chester Wilson III reviews Michael Chang's Drakkar Noir
In all art, as artists, we give ourselves away. To the world, to our audience, even to ourselves, we give out these pieces as if they were infinite. Whether in public or private, this exchange of the body is an act of giving, for which the author can show their true self. There is a tenderness in this. Michael Chang’s debut chapbook, Drakkar Noir, winner of the Bateau Press 2020/2021 BOOM Chapbook contest, advocates for this expression, this distribution of the self and love. Its poems work with such brutal honesty, and awareness of the world and of the self, that the reader is thrown in and is confronted with the transformation of the speaker.
Michael Chang acknowledges this unveiling of self in poems like “Sean★Lennon”, “We contain multitudes, you know, / lemon drops & melon balls, sweet & sadistic, turkey & ham.” Chang’s speaker he gives us is made up of many conflicting truths, so many that identity becomes messy and warped. The answer is never as simple as we may make it seem. “Is it true that to everything there is a season” as with the changing weather, there is a time and place for the specific and the vague, the necessary and the unnecessary, that identity is but in its infancy and growing, dying, and changing.
...I remember having a very nice, sit-down kind of breakfast,
at a place called Six Furlong, relatively close to a similar,
more formal establishment named the Gallop, where
the waitstaff went unchanged over decades,
& I was reading an English newspaper & having tea
& being bothered that our breakfast trays were too big,
they clearly didn’t fit the table & bumped up against one another...
Growth and change are a necessary part of existence, and what of those who don’t “contain multitudes”, those who remain unchanged? They fit improperly, unassuming and ill-prepared for the change that will take place with or without them.
The mysticism of the body in “Moose Knuckles” follows with this “Adam”, and the biblical and sensual imagery of his “apple-bobbing” and “tongue swimming between my cheeks.”
The body takes on new meaning as the fantastical language translates the speaker’s perception of the body and bodily actions. As togetherness and sensuality take control of the poem, the body becomes malleable, as in “Sophomore Slump”:
...show me your familiar ass
skin soft suck on me like a juicebox
push my insides around with your average size
rearrange my guts & stick the landing
In the desire of the known, “he announced he was impotent/when he meant omnipotent”, the speaker puts himself at the mercy of the deific, to be transformed, substituted, and consumed.
The book speaks about this omnipresent “you”, a revolving figure the speaker calls to. At no point are we to believe that this “you” is the same person throughout the book, but there are similarities in the way the speaker uses vulnerability to interact with the “you”. “遇见 ENCOUNTER” specifically calls to this projection of the self:
Why is it taboo to project your feelings onto someone, assuming they are worthy?
The speaker takes this poem to work with feelings of “fraudulence” and providence, of eventuality, and ideas of mutual destruction/creation. “One of our most beautiful words is reciprocity,” the very act of shared experience and the vindication of this encounter puts the speaker on a path to realization. “Did I say “poem”? I meant life.”
Now the poem of the book’s namesake, “Drakkar Noir”, is a departure from this focus on the sensuality of the body. This vulnerability of the figure transforms into a vulnerability of the artist and their art. The artist’s own collection becomes the vulnerable focus and the reader is given a train of thought interpretation of the speaker’s openness and willingness to be judged.
I wonder if this means I am old & white now
I’ve been thinking abt my book cover,
how advised it would be to use the color scheme of a failed airline,
“Drakkar Noir” deals with the frustration and uncertainty of putting art into the world, especially when that world is constantly shifting.
I read somewhere that our taste buds dull as we age
I remember watching the aging French actor
staring as he wolfed down steak tartare & freedom fries
wrinkly & disgusting
Similar to the way the speaker dealt with change earlier in the book, this poem confronts the feeling of change with apprehension, as the change in something like taste may not always mean for the better. Once again we return to the consumption of the “sinewy rawness” and the sensuality associated with this act of ingestion.
Throughout Drakkar Noir, Michael Chang works with the actions of eroticism and physicality, while grounding the reader in the digestive act of living. The body and the role of our audience, whether that be our lover or our reader, each take parts of ourselves. The brutality of that honesty comes through, especially as we rely less on the speaker’s relationship to the “you” of the poem, and focus more on the power of “I.” Michael Chang’s Drakkar Noir doesn’t so much ask the audience to question itself, instead, it’s the speaker who feels the need to question themselves. Like their audience, I felt, above all, that my role was to follow the speaker’s journey, both physical and emotional.
Chester Wilson III is a queer black student in the process of obtaining his BA in Creative Writing at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His poems have been featured in publications like Parallax, Poetry Magazine, Levitate, FreezeRay Poetry and others.