Original poem reprinted online here: "We are High Performers" by Victoria Chang
Originally read: July 5, 2014
More information about the Poet: Victoria Chang
This poem plays with the idea of puns with "high" and "performers." And since is a definition poem, is the idea to have all the shifts in definition accumulate to a clearer understanding, or is this just a play on what words could possibly mean from different perspectives.
I think this poem does both and the adjusted lines for each quatrain adds to this sense of play that accumulates. "We are high performers not normal but high performers / we perform things make papers smell like perfume". The shift in senses from a mental definition to a olfactory smell depicts a change that deals with the mind and the physical which is then further defined by this list: "we are highly creative unusually industrious / exceptionally conscientious diligent intelligent". This is definitely a list I would read from someone's resume.because employers are looking for those "qualities" in an employee, and once they are on paper -- it's kind of like perfume.
The puns come in the second stanza, "we are high performers former high hopers on a high wire / balancing a ream of paper on our heads". The mixture of the visual, the repetition, the alliteration, and the various definitions of "high" (height, working, expectations) that this creates a fast pace in which, "no net under us just the boss with her arms crossed / in a knot glasses fogged" is an image that works because in this fast pace the poem emphasizes the visual becoming blurred, "we think she is smiling" and when the visual (and other senses) get blurred at a fast pace then the interpretations come in, "yes the boss is definitely smiling she has / finally found a vein on her wrist that smells of oil / we plug away".
So a poem with that plays with the olfactory twice brings attention to itself, but "oil" is such an ambiguous smell. In this instance in the "work" mood, then the oil could represent mechanization that contrasts the "perfume" image in the first stanza; yet, this image cold also go along with the image of perfume (oil and perfume) to create a common scent -- defined yet ambiguous still.
But then the play goes away to the generalities, "despite the plagues in other countries / we are still in awe of the boss and / the law and all the dollars" A hard turn to the symbolic. What this does is solidify the ambiguities in a sense. Yes, this poem is about work and the images nor the rhetoric don't stray from it. This adds to the "business" experience in the poem.
So when the poem goes personal, "the doll I once had is now my / daughter's doll she will dream of balls and / gowns and sparkly towns" this shift to this innocent time of toys is already set up to fail. The "business" world won't allow this, "when should I tell her all the / town are falling down" I know the last line confirms everything set up and, perhaps, opens up the poem in a collection to go down a different path, but, on closer inspection, who has the power to lift the veil.
The parent, not the business world.