Electric Synthesis: Drakkar Noir by Michael Chang

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Michael Chang’s chapbook, Drakkar Noir, winner of the 2020/2021 BOOM Chapbook Contest, is an exploration of queer and Asian identity in America. Stylistically, Chang employs blocks of text, long whipping lines, and synaptic beats of language so that their poems resonate with the dopamine-driven rush of social media. The collection feels juiced with anxiety at times, mania at others. A nonbinary poet, Michael Chang’s poems synthesize a fluid, charged identity in the face of white America’s toxic impulses.

Historically, Chang’s voice echoes America’s queer heart. The diction of Drakkar Noir borrows ambient language from the environment in a similar way to that in which Frank O’Hara’s poems often borrowed from newspapers and advertisements, as did Hart Crane’s poems before him, but Chang’s voice also deconstructs queerness where it intersects with Chinese culture. This is important to consider when reading Drakkar Noir through the lens of coming out, and how coming out conflicts with inherited identity, both Chinese and American.

Drakkar Noir opens with “Yankee Yellow” and its block text is set off by dollar bill signs. The poem’s repetition of “Yankee Yellow” as it collects and disassembles racist language and then reassembles it against the grain of ambient culture, achieves a song-like rhythm:

Yankee Yellow problem officer Yankee Yellow Commie scum Yankee Yellow poo poo
platter Yankee Yellow Yoo-hoo diet Yankee Yellow big appetite Yankee Yellow global
warming Yankee Yellow evil cow Yankee Yellow tunnel vision Yankee Yellow

“Yankee Yellow” pops, the alliterative beat the drum machine. Contextually, “Yankee Yellow” is a maze winding around microaggressions, snapshot visuals, sound bites, and elegy, ending “without a trace.///$”

Chang continues to play with form throughout Drakkar Noir. Early on Chang delivers “关你屁事 NONE OF YOUR BEESWAX,” a contrapuntal poem, a two-column poem that can be read left to right or up and down, each column its own separate poem. Later in the collection, Chang showcases “遇见 ENCOUNTER,” which employs long double-spaced lines broken up by short __________ that stitch the page, if you will. Chang’s style imitates internet culture and the patterns of an anxious mind. But there’s also glamour. Often, the poems are accessorized by stylistic bullets, diamonds, and the use of capitalization. Additionally, Chang employs Chinese throughout the collection, adding cultural density and synthesizing with Drakkar Noir’s graphic inventiveness.

Chang also uses Chinese to both indirectly and directly address the poetry community and America. In “Strange Fruit,” the title recalls Billie Holiday, and Chang uses the opportunity to address how racism intersects with poetry’s macrocosms:

White readers love Minority writers. If anything the danger lies in writing too white—white readers will demand more exotic, more ethnic material

My life is just whiteboys saying my bad over & over again

My constant anxiety is a poem trying to claw its way out. Jennifer Hate Hewitt

So funny how a R*th L*lly finalist repeatedly & snidely referred to my language in my poetry & asked me to take it out ???? In case it wasn’t clear, she was talking abt Chinese

Though Drakkar Noir is a celebration of and expression of complex identity in America, the book draws its poetic power from eros, life energy. Drakkar Noir is sexual and sensual; Drakkar Noir also uses scatological and low humor to undercut anxiety and elegy, providing emotional counterpoints to fear and loss, engendering fluid emotions, fluid states of being.

The chapbook crescendos with “Adverse Possession,” an epic and phallic poem about trying to forget a flighty lover that builds up to a love song to Blake who has “gone back to” his “stupid girlfriend”:

These feelings, passed thru dat illusive centrifuge, lead to ???? [nowhere], my presence is a gift

If you mention birds in poems you will have hairy palms
Who among us hasn’t wished for a yacht with a sexy crew ????
Have we sent Nate Silver back under the bridge yet ????
My roommate said Brendan Fraser decided this election

A break-up requires a kind of grief, and the structure of “Adverse Possession,” its shifting moods and alternating sections of text and chat, imitate grief’s emotional landscape, the stupid moments shared with the person, the way time stretches out. Later, Chang’s use of the arrow key punctuates the breakup, as well as recalls Cupid’s arrow:

hey blake →
i know better now →
i will never jump the turnstile for you →
i will never drag my shit thru a crowded station for you →

Drakkar Noir comes to a close with “Shelf Stable,” a poem that enlarges “Adverse Possession,” the penultimate poem. Blake’s long gone, or rather the “straight” white boy is long gone, melted back into whiteness and straightness till the urge once again rises in his “deep core driller” heart. “Shelf Stable” contemplates the end of love, or perhaps more accurately, contemplates never falling in love with “straight” white boys again, even as it contemplates academic or “white” poetry:

As we enter this period of morning business,
how many poems have already been written abt Harvard’s glass flowers?
I suppose, like those flowers,
I know absurdity, thrive on abandonment.

Chang ultimately identifies with the flowers, forgotten once the quickness of their color has worn off, a comment on whiteness and tokenism in America. But Chang doesn’t end with despair; instead, emotion is inverted by humor. The poem, and thus the collection, end with “sex is good, but have you ever fucked the system?”—both a meme and Twitter hashtag, which harmonizes with Drakkar Noir’s ethos.

Drakkar Noir fuses and remixes. Chang’s shifting moods range from anxiety to celebratory, to elegiac loss, and bring into sharp relief the personal search for happiness and place within larger communities and in binary, polarized America. Chang’s use of traditional and nonce forms are in and of themselves a kind of declaration of identity and a challenge. The myth of America is one of inclusion and freedom, a myth Chang destroys over the course of Drakkar Noir, with a keen eye directed at the poetry community. In America, you are free to do what you want if you are white, or wealthy, or perhaps just beautiful. This tension underlies Drakkar Noir, sometimes sliding to the forefront of a poem or popping up as Chang’s poetic mind bounces between wonder, love, and anxiety. Chang’s heart is equally on display; love is the primary exigency in the collection, a tenderness and caution can be felt in these poems, tempered by fear of rejection. Throughout, Chang’s fluidity is infectious, warm, and energized by anxiety. The book is constructed with wit and nerve, and Chang’s stylistic choices imbue Drakkar Noir with urgency and grace, making the collection imminently re-readable.

Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the co-editor of The Broadkill Review. A teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer, Whitaker’s poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, The Shore, The American Journal of Poetry, Oxford Poetry, The Citron Review, and other journals. Mulch, a novel of weird fiction, is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2021. More from this author →