Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Victoria Chang’s “The Trees Witness Everything”

April 26, 2022   •   By Dean Rader, Jennifer Chang

The Trees Witness Everything

Victoria Chang

DEAN RADER: Jen! Thanks so much for joining me for this special “Two Roads” column. As you know, I am a big fan of your work and am very much looking forward to discussing The Trees Witness Everything with you. Last time we talked, you mentioned something about Victoria’s books I found utterly insightful: you noted that each of her last few collections are a kind of documenting of her poetic process. I’d love it if you could say a bit more about that and if you see her new book as also an articulation of process.

JENNIFER CHANG: Thank you for inviting me, Dean! All the good feelings are mutual.

I read Obit as the culmination of a poetics that Victoria began experimenting with in her third book, The Boss, and continued onto her fourth book, Barbie Chang. The three books share an obsessive rhetorical form, syntax that recurs almost manically until the accretion of changes leads to resolution, revelation, or (often thrillingly) exhaustion. I could see she was mesmerized by the magic of repetition — magic as in not only the otherworldly but also the spells that language can ignite, and this made sense given the subject matter of each book: corporate America, the constraints of heterosexual womanhood, and grief. Each experience is at root a drudge — unrelenting, numbing — tirelessly cyclical in ways that linguistic repetition both reflects and pushes against. Obit struck me as a perfect melding of form and content, where the linguistic repetition was necessary, itself the melancholic wound of losing a parent, a wound that elegy could never adequately console.

That’s a long way to say that The Trees Witness Everything changes poetic course for Chang, and I couldn’t help but read it as the poet’s conscious effort to make writing poems new again. Although she’s still predetermining a form, she’s also writing away from and against a habit that you might say she’s mastered. I find this exciting as a reader and quite brave for a poet, who’s received much positive attention for her style. She could’ve kept going with linguistic repetition, or she could’ve conducted this experiment in this new style in secret. Instead, she attempts these Japanese syllabic forms that are tiny but, in comparison to the loose and wild circling of her previous three books, less fragmentary.

So, I do think one of the narrative threads of The Trees is the writing process itself. How does one write beyond a primal loss like the death of one’s mother? How does one write after widespread critical acclaim? It’s not easy, and I think one of the dramatic qualities of this narrative is the way the “old narrative” — that loss — emerges. Here’s “Empty Water” in full:

Once I fell in love
with the most indifferent horse.
it never heard me,
only looked at me one time.
That only lasted
forty-three years. I’ve lost my
speech four times, last time
was when my other died. The
horse is still neighing for me.

Of course, I don’t want to lean on biographical criticism, but it feels like the loss of the mother intrudes on the poet’s imagination here.

And then, rather than let us dwell, there’s a second poem on that same page. What did you think about the book’s formatting, the placement of more than one poem on a page, the skinny margins, all the spatial components that conflate format and form?

DEAN: Ha! Excellent — I was going to ask you what you thought of the book’s formatting/shape/design. For those readers who don’t have a physical copy of The Trees Witness Everything, the book is pretty unusual. It is nine inches tall but only four inches wide. Very narrow. But, as you note, the interior design is also atypical, in that there are often two poems per page. So, if you have the book open, you are almost always looking at four poems at the same time — two verso and two recto. Except for anthologies, that is super rare. There are a few pages in Merwin’s The Lice that print two poems on the same page, so perhaps there is some sort of homage there.

If the book is skinny, so, too, are the poems. I don’t think any poem contains a line of more than six words. Most are never longer than three or four. So, the poems are not only thin, they are also short. Some examples:

TO THE WORDS
When the towers fell,
a branch of the oldest tree
also fell, knowing nothing.

NO ONE
A church is empty.
Where are all the secrets?
Under the pew is a plum.

HISTORY
Today is circling,
history is transparent,
the future has no insides.

While there is an obvious visual and aural similarity to haiku, reading the poems through that lens is limiting. For one thing, unlike traditional haiku, these poems are not obviously rooted in place or season but in the poet’s psyche. The season of her imagination. The homeland of her obsessions. I keep thinking about how minimalist the poems look and feel — and that’s not just because Victoria worked on this book at Chinati. Their aura reminds me of Donald Judd squares or Eva Hesse sculptures or Agnes Martin paintings in that they evoke more than they denote. They recede into language and at times seem to be swallowed up by the negative space around them. The poems of Obit, while also boxy, are emphatic, emotionally charged, and utterly expressive. These pieces, though similarly grief-soaked, feel less laden.

At least individually.

As a totality, it’s a different story.

I counted 169 poems, which is a lot. If you consider that the final text, “Love Letters,” is made up of 34 three-line poems, that puts us over 200 fairly short poems with one pretty long one. Your question got me thinking about how all of these spare and sparse poems work as a collective, and I was reminded of a passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Kahn remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

No one poem really stands out in this collection — except maybe “Marfa, Texas” (which we’ll get to) — but even so, it doesn’t support the book. The book is supported by each individual poem and what is constructed by their accrual. The arc of the book is dependent on each poem.

I also think the titles, borrowed from W. S. Merwin, contribute to the overall tenor of the collection. However, Merwin/Chang is not an obvious pairing. I’m curious what your thoughts are about this. Why Merwin? Why Merwin titles? She dedicates the book to him. Does this surprise you? Also, if the book has an arc, what is it building toward? What is its shape?

JEN: I think you might be a better person to answer the question of “Why Merwin?” (I just don’t know his work well enough to comment fluently on the Merwin/Chang relationship!)

I was surprised because Merwin isn’t someone I’d immediately identify as one of her influences, at least not from earlier work. On the other hand, as a model of longevity, Merwin looms tall. I’m thinking of the practice of poetry, the daily ritual of making poems and of attending to a life as an imaginative source. Maybe “endurance” or “persistence” might be better word choices. The poems in The Trees Witness Everything are not necessarily meant to be distinct, in that together they enforce a practice, a timescale, in which each poem contributes — to borrow your word — to writing as always an epistemological experiment. In which case there is no arc in the conventional sense, but there is continuity. The compulsion to make poems is the compulsion to breathe. If these poems are a “homeland to her obsessions,” rooted in the psyche, then I suspect Merwin might be an animating presence, not only in the titles but also in the compulsion to make out of life poetic practices. That’s ultimately a continuity across Chang’s oeuvre and across an American literary history, and I would say she’s acknowledging the persistence of cultural pasts — the Japanese forms, the Merwinian influence, the abstract tradition represented by Chinati and Judd — in the language itself.

And isn’t that both a beautiful disavowal of the ego and a bold reclamation of the master’s tools? It’s as if she were insisting this isn’t my language, but it is my art. Recognizing these qualities connected me to an experience of the book as the conceptualism she’s embracing, and that left me kind of in awe. Here we are crafting poems as if each were “a moment’s monument,” to quote Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and trusting in the pursuit of perfectionism à la Bishop; meanwhile, one of the claims this book makes is that craft can be a hindrance to the poem as a living, breathing document. Imperfect, incidental, ephemeral, and yet radical for being wholly present rather than expertly made.

DEAN: So, so smart. I love your distinction between arc and continuity. I also like how you link Merwin and Japanese forms. I’m thinking in particular of Asian Figures, his 1973 collection of translations of proverbs from various Asian languages. At times, the poems of The Trees Witness Everything feel as though they themselves might be translations. They are otherworldly. Almost surreal. Elusive. Hard to pin down to a time or place.

Your observations about Merwin as a model of longevity and as an animating presence are spot on. I also see him as a bridge between Eastern and Western poetic traditions. When Chang’s poems talk to Merwin’s, it is interesting to think about who or what Merwin’s poems might be conversing with.

I confess I don’t know how large Merwin looms in Victoria’s poetic pantheon; for me, though, he is huge. I’ve actually written about how important he is/was to me as a young poet. I mean, the main reason I wanted to be with Copper Canyon was to be on the same list as W. S. Merwin. So, I have very strong emotional responses when I read titles like “A Door” or “When You Go Away” or “For the Anniversary of My Death” or “Rain Light.” But, where I am used to hearing Merwin’s voice after those titles, I hear Victoria’s.

JEN: Although I think unacknowledged influences are as important as acknowledged influences, I think we have to take seriously whatever a writer divulges. Not only is Chang using Merwin’s titles, but she’s dedicated the book to him! Clearly, he’s been a companion to her in process and in imagination. I’m so curious about that poetic act and curious about what you make of it! (Does it count as paratext?) Along those lines, how do your strong emotional responses to titles that you know intimately fare when reading these poems?

DEAN: Yes, interesting question.

Even a title like “How We Are Spared” conjures up a panoply of feelings for me. For instance, I have a cassette of Merwin reading his poems, mostly from The Lice, and his voice speaking this poem is forever etched in my consciousness. Here is his poem:

HOW WE ARE SPARED

At midsummer before dawn an orange light returns to the mountains
Like a great weight and the small birds cry out
And bear it up

And here is Victoria’s:

HOW WE ARE SPARED                   

The rain came last night,
gently fell down like chisels,
cut away at my
dreams until there was nothing
left but a dead girl’s
lungs. Then my breathing came out
so frozen that I
had to carry a hammer
to break up all my mistakes.

When I see the Merwin title, and I hear his voice, I am expecting one thing; but then I read Victoria’s poem, and experience a disjuncture. Her poem does not respond so much to his poem but to his title. I find that gap between expectation and transmission sort of thrilling. I find myself loving the conversation.

I wanted to ask you about the poem, “Marfa, Texas.” It appears in the center of the book. It is roughly 20 pages and is written in stanzas of five justified lines. It is quite different from (and breaks up) the Merwin poems. But then I remembered a phrase you use earlier in our conversation — “the magic of repetition.” I love that observation for many reasons, but in the case of Chang, it is accurate on the micro and macro levels. For instance, almost all of the poems in The Boss are composed in quatrains with indentations, but she breaks them up with the poems about Edward Hopper. In Barbie Chang, the poems repeat, as you note, rather obsessively, but she punctuates those with the “Dear P.” poems. Obit repeats the same obituary structure but is broken by a series of tankas (also to her daughter). And here, the short ethereal poems with Merwin titles are disrupted by the long poem “Marfa, Texas.” So, even her pattern of breaking patterns is repeated.

What do you make of this (if anything), and what do you make of “Marfa, Texas,” a kind of standout poem in the collection?

JEN: I noticed that pattern of pattern-breaking structures in her books. It makes sense to disrupt the form and flow of reading, and it also reflects a generative restlessness I see in Chang’s imagination. There’s some of that restlessness in “Marfa, Texas,” which moves swiftly and seamlessly between observation and narrative. Consider these moments that seem to reflect on the poet’s process: “There are always too / many questions to ask / and not enough time,” and “I was sorry / because I once again couldn’t control my mind,” and:

What if my images are both —
vocabulary and consciousness?
I want to work independently
and quietly, but my work is

interested in exuberance
and relationships. It needs
community, dead bodies,
wheels, beeswax, two wars,
and a queen coaxed into it.

It’s a restlessness driven by relentless curiosity, and that makes her use of repetition more than a rhetorical device but also a kind of epistemological eruption. But I can’t help but feel there’s something different about “Marfa, Texas” from anything I’ve seen previously from this hyperattentive, ecstatically curious poet. I see this in the narrative of the owl, which begins as a few stray sightings then culminates into something like parable. It’s an owl the speaker looks for as she wanders into her physical environment. She learns from a stranger that the one owl she seeks is in fact two, leading to the realization: “This whole time I / had only been looking for one. / One is my life and the other is / what it could have been.”

Prior to the intensified focus on the owl, I was alert to the lyric surrealism of the observations as cultivating an otherworldly atmosphere. Rivers are pulled at and then disappear, trees resemble straitjackets, and “every / shadow is my dead mother.” But why is she blurring the distinctions between dream and reality, especially with the emphasis that the poem exists “here,” the repetition of which insists on our presence in a place? In Marfa! I hope I’m not writing myself into knots, but the parable of the owl begins to explain what’s happening with the speaker’s vacillation between “vocabulary and consciousness.” That images are both language and experience, then, perhaps “Marfa, Texas” rehearses how the poetic act can become a life. The speaker finds the owl and tries to photograph it so that she can share it with others, but she recognizes:

            I only care
about the owl. The way it
doesn’t seek followers. The
way its face doesn’t change as
it moves from tree to tree.

The way it makes you think
that there must be only one owl
in the world and that everyone
who sees an owl sees this
very owl.

That’s not the end of the owls, exactly. They return at the end but in a general sense: “Later at dusk, I will go look again for the owls.” It is, though, an ending in that a narrative is completed, and it’s telling that this particular narrative concludes within the poem on a representation of the owl (the photo) and then a reflection on the experience. At such a remove, the owl’s presence has been subsumed by something else, an understanding that’s gently ironized. We believe in the singularity of what we see, but there are two owls and no one else cares nearly as much as the speaker. Parable of the owl, or the truth of our lives as writers?

So, I haven’t stated exactly why “Marfa, Texas” is so different, but it’s here where continuity can truly be expressed. Because of its length, the poem lets the reader into the process of attunement that this poet is always endeavoring. That process of attunement facilitates an inquiry, for sure, but it’s also the result of observation over time, during which attention can expand into understanding. I really love this poem and love when a long poem takes me somewhere I want to be but could not have gone by myself.

I’m curious to know what you think of “Marfa, Texas,” especially situated as it is in the center of the book. Why not end here? Your description of the repeated pattern structures in Chang’s books makes me wonder, too, about how the disruption of form represented by “Marfa, Texas” contributes to (or complicates?) a book’s experience.

DEAN: It is fun to watch you work through this poem. And, first chance I get, I hope to steal your phrase about letting the reader into the process of attunement …

I think my response to “Marfa, Texas” is less sophisticated than yours. Most of the poems in this book are placeless. They are abstract, dreamlike, interior. This is the only poem that is rooted to a specific location; that has an actual setting. As it happens, Victoria was in Marfa on a Lannan residency when I was at MacDowell. We would, on occasion, send poems to each other from our respective residencies. I remember her writing about her process. So, I totally agree with your observation that this poem is, in many ways, about its own making. Or is a document of its making — how, as you say, the poetic act can become a life. That is beautiful.

To me, this poem is very much an archaeology of process. I see her working through poetics. The Merwin-titled poems do this, of course, but on a micro level. The Marfa poem interrogates (and celebrates) this on a macro level. Together, the two projects make for a fascinating book. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything quite like it in American poetry in recent years.

I would like to give you the final word here. Is there anything else you would like to say about The Trees Witness Everything?

JEN: I’m really enjoying this conversation, Dean, and part of me wishes (and senses) that we could keep going on and on, which speaks to the boundlessness of this specific work. When we met in Philadelphia, I remember you observing that “Marfa, Texas” need not end here and could go on forever, and perhaps it does, given the reflective spaces we both find ourselves in now. You’re remembering sharing the writing process with Victoria, a fact I love, and I think we’re both thinking about the ways making poems has shaped our lives, who we are and who we’d like to be. That’s as Audenesque as the poet as archaeologist! It’s true that making poems has taught me how to be in the world a bit more attentively, and reading poems has been no different.

All to say, I find myself free of the skepticism I often bring when encountering books born of projects because the apparatus of the project here never feels false and ultimately gives way to our collective reflection. Placeless, yes, but boundless, open, and a little less alone. I’ll give the final word to Victoria, as the book’s penultimate stanza expresses what I think we’re left feeling:

One day you will wake
up beating. One day you will
wake up winged.

¤

Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.

Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, winner of the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award.