Michael Chang Creates Their Le Bain De Cristal in Latest Poetry Book Almanac of Useless Talents

In Michael Chang’s newest book of poetry, Almanac of Useless Talents, their poem “沙漠寂寞 LONELY DESERT,” poses the Rodin quote,  Oui, il faut travailler, rien que travailler. It roughly translates: “One should not think of wanting to make something, one should try only to build up.” To build up is precisely what Chang’s poetry accomplishes; their poems are a sculpture of words, dialogue, texting language, cultural references, legal history, and art theory, with a running commentary addressing racism and classism. At the center of Chang’s poetic is a portrait of queer joy drawn with humor and precision-like vulnerability centering a voice without permission, the Azn poet

Chang composes their poems using contemporary language underscored by the visual deconstruction of undercapitalized words, abbreviations commonly used in dating apps standing in as identity markers, or slang we might converse with in our daily lives but would not typically find in a piece of literature. The deliberate use of what is more or less becoming our common vernacular invites readers to enjoy their poetry, a concept that Chang plays with throughout his poems.  In their poem, “SORRY IN ADVANCE,” Chang writes:

why are other people so dark so traumatic so sad their poems are like 

abandoned trailer teeth claws death rape grease jet fuel blood gasoline walmart train tracks bodies animals coyotes ravaged etc 

my poems are like dom pérignon corn chowder lobster thermidor montauk dunes beach-reads oliver peoples two hands coffee decaf is hell etc

To read Michael Chang’s poetry is to experience the light and depth of an accessible but progressive poetic, but perhaps the overarching effect is to relish in the experience of queer pleasure. In their poem “MARCO! POLO!” Chang’s speaker says as much:

William Carlos Williams said if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem 

Kim Carnes fell in love with a poet 

I want to write strange poems abt our pleasure

Seductive in its fresh honesty, Almanac of Useless Talents delivers a fiendish delight of desire, humor, and sex unsewn together, an unzippered effect that defines a new love poem, a sex poem centered in queer pleasure, as in their poem “香格里拉 SHANGRI-LA    

A construction worker, a m*nly m*n, wants to know what’s so different abt my sex poems. Sir, I say, I am actually desirable in them. He weeps

Chang’s work continues to question the self-seriousness imposed on the poetry world, inviting readers to try on a new perspective with the allure of a fun and sharp wit. Their style can be found in full relief in poems such as “AREA CODE 886”:

u say ur communist but ur swelling like colonial ambition 

u may be an unfeeling capitalist but u really have a way wit words

Chang uses the economy of their words to take on and take down consumerism, and capitalism, but also ribs the counterculture, as with their poem “冠军 CHAMP -53”:      

Why do cans still come with those plastic rings that kill dolphins & sea turtles & such 

I thought we were past that in our post-racial society

But love and sex and a challenge of traditional poetry, is where their poetry is anchored. In their poem “DEWEY CHEATEM & HOWE,” Chang dissects the conflict inherit in poetry and the stagnation of traditional love poems:

shit-stain/worm-brain gatekeepers ,

still overly interested in white happenings ,

most poetry is “white happenings” , 

predictable as seasonal allergies ,

most love poems just fkn terrible , 

one root canal after another ,

fruit most fragrant before it spoils , 

what have u done to my melons

Chang’s love poems layer in the complicated and often unspoken issues of race and class into the bedroom. They invoke a more authentic reality that includes the conversations quickly thrown under the bed, like a pair of old panties.       

But, perhaps one of the most powerful poems in the book is the brilliantly crafted poem “零 ZERO” where they weave former official US policy on why “homosexuals and other moral perverts” should not serve in “positions of public trust” based off testimony to Congress from former Director of Central Intelligence Roscoe Hillenkoetter woven with Chang’s speaker (or several speakers) responding in kind.

IX. Homosexuals are “extremely vulnerable to seduction by another pervert employed for that purpose by a foreign power.” 

Like a champion greyhound I’ll run till my lungs collapse

While there are oppressors and racists and a continuing confrontation with white supremacy in Chang’s poems, the speakers in Chang’s poems respond with a “one-step-ahead” cleverness and an emboldened unapologetic voice that does not slow for strangers as seen in the poem “POLO BLUE”:

I’ll break you down, sell you for parts— 

I’m my own Tiger Mom, my personal Big Daddy

...or more profoundly in the poem “AREA CODE 604”:

A whiteboy asks me to interpret his dreams 

Why do I dream about my teeth falling out 

I say it means you want me very badly 

Another whiteboy heartbreaker asks what I do 

I tell him I invented whiskey sours 

I’m a sommelier for root vegetables 

I run a book club for fans of One Direction 

The screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood: “Nobody knows nothing” 

He meant that even after a hundred-plus years of filmmaking 

No one actually knows how to make a successful movie 

Sure-things bomb & longshots win big 

When it comes to us // nobody knows nothing

This is the world according to Michael Chang, according to a word sculptor, and there is only one way to exist within it, to build up. Perhaps the momentum of this sentiment is best captured in two lines of Michael Chang’s poem “LE BAIN DE CRISTAL”: 

Where are you really from 

The future

Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione writes creative nonfiction and book reviews and holds a BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is currently a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work can be found at the Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, About Place Journal, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Motherwell Mag, and Sentience Lit. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four young children.