Poetry Sunday: “My Father Used to be Selfish,” by Victoria Chang


My father used to be selfish

My father used to be selfish he used to like fish
……..now he can’t identify fish I wish
….I were selfish I used to be selfish on some days
………….I think how easy to sell fish on a boat

in another ocean shucking cussing some days
……..I think how easy to finish what I started
….what I started to be the boss to write letters to let her
………….let him work for me to promote him to

demote her to protect him to eject her to read
……..of developmental needs of opportunities
….to be important portable skills from company to
………….company portable like a lunch box

my four-year-old wants a Scooby-Doo lunch box
……..maybe she can solve the mystery of the missing
….mother missing woman missing boss the mystery
………….of the missing father


From The Boss (McSweeney’s 2013), reprinted with permission of the press. Order this book at McSweeney’s or from Amazon.

Victoria Chang_11-10-15  Victoria Chang Book Cover_The Boss_11-10-15Amazon-Buy-Button

Victoria Chang‘s third book of poems, The Boss, won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award.  Her other books are Salvnia Molesta and Circle and a recently-released children’s picture book, Is Mommy?, illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.  Her poems have appeared in various places like American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Narrative, New Republic, POETRY, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Southern California. For more information, visit www.victoriachangpoet.com and on Twitter @VChangpoet.


Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Notes on “My father used to be selfish”

The poem uses ring construction, opening and closing with “father,” but the journey it takes is not merely circular but also spiraling; to envision the shape of its movement, imagine a ring comprised of a coiled strand. Propulsion comes from associative leaps that are cognitive and also sonic, sounds generating others in a repetition-with-variation pattern similar to that heard in jazz improv. To get a sense of this, listen to the poet read her poem aloud below:



Before the poem even begins, the title reveals two of its central preoccupations—the “father,” and loss (“used to”). The second syllable of “selfish” prompts the speaker to think of the word “fish” and reminds her that her father has lost something in addition to his selfishness, viz., his fondness for (and even ability to identify) fish. This daisy chain progression, partly lexical and conceptual and partly sound and phoneme-driven, mimics the way the mind works when it is free-associating. Note how the absence of punctuation reinforces the movement, allowing words and ideas to surge forward without impediment.

The process continues as the speaker wishes she were selfish, a word her mind breaks down into the homonym, “sell fish,” that leads to the idea of selling fish on a boat. The short-u sound of “shucking” yields the word, “cussing,” which yields the assonant “some days.” Being on a boat generates the idea of the sea, of “another ocean” (life) in which the speaker finishes what she started, one where she is “the boss.” What follows, all the way down to the end of the third stanza, can be read as an appositive that elaborates on what it would be like to be the boss, having mastery over the fates of employees, etc. What begins as a power fantasy, though, devolves into the new boss seeing herself as a corporate cog, fungible, a set of skills portable from one company to the next. Through a spiraling association of sounds and concepts, the speaker leads us through a labyrinth that reveals not just her father’s powerlessness, but also her own.

The notion of being a portable set of skills leads this quicksilver mind to think of another portable item, her daughter’s lunchbox. By now we know quite a bit about the narrator of this poem: she is the adult daughter of a once autocratic but now failing father, she had dreams of power that were mediated by actual experience into disillusionment, and she is the mother of a four-year-old daughter whose own desires are shaped by product branding (wishing for a “Scooby-Doo” lunch box). We see in the speaker a version of her father’s desire to be the boss and in her daughter a version of her mother’s buy-in to the corporate vision of power. There is a sense of circularity, of repetition in widening circles of what shapes desire and motivation. The speaker’s focus on her daughter at the end—“maybe she can solve the mystery”—gives the speaker a way to articulate her own feelings of loss: “the missing / mother missing woman missing boss the mystery / of the missing father.”

The speaker’s father is “missing” because some part of his brain is not working the way it used to, but could also refer to the little girl’s father, not otherwise mentioned in the poem. The boss is missing in at least two senses: an incapacitated father no longer able to wield power and a disillusioned daughter unable anymore to believe in the concept or value of a being a boss. The “missing / mother” might be the speaker’s mother, not seen at all in this poem, or it could be the speaker, missing from her daughter’s life because she is gone all day at her corporate job. Who is the “missing woman?” Is the speaker recalling the woman she was before she was a mother, the woman who imagined herself capable of plenary power? Or is it the abstract idea of a woman, a feminist commentary on the absence of women in corporate power hierarchies? The poem does not answer these questions. It moves in a way that mimics thought and, as thought can do, traps the speaker in an endless loop leaving  the questions unresolved in concentric circles of loss that feel endless, inescapable, and profound.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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