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There’s a lot going on in Victoria Chang’s latest poetry collection, The Trees Witness Everything. The trees do indeed witness everything in these pages, including Victoria Chang herself, who is an arboreal bard up for the task of mutual observation. A Pushcart Prize-winner and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Chang is the current poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine. The Trees Witness Everything is her sixth book of poetry.
Given the book’s title, readers may initially expect that trees feature prominently in the poems. Yet trees stand as secondary witnesses, which compels readers to seek other conceits that can hold the book together. Motifs of fruit, desire, changing seasons, death, and clothing appear repeatedly in The Trees Witness Everything; at first glance, such motifs may present themselves as contenders for primary conceits. The poem “Snowfall” proclaims, “We say the snow falls, / but it really seizes. / Because it is light, / it takes seven years to grab.” Similarly, “No One” notes, “A church is empty. / Where are all the secrets? / Under the pew is a plum.” Such strong, declarative, and surprising verses ring like bells throughout The Trees Witness Everything.
Yet as the book itself tells us, “Lately the bell rings all the / time but the bell is empty.” These poems seemingly insist the reader must listen while, at the same time, declaring there’s nothing to hear. A first read of such poems leaves the reader with equal parts exhilaration and bewilderment.
Which is, perhaps, the point. What is the main refrain that holds The Trees Witness Everything together? The poem “The Thread” explicitly names the difficulty in finding such a common cord.
Once I thought the thread
was God so I’ve held the string
like a leash, thinking
that one day it would pull me
toward light. But what
if it’s just a string . . .
The book nonetheless tantalizes with the potential for coherence. “Fate” declares, “By the time you know / your fate, it’s too late to change. / The birds in cages / know this but still chew the bars. / Maybe hope tastes like metal.” Like such birds, tenacious readers keep chewing.
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One delectable, and quickly perceivable, pattern is the distinctive form of the book and its poems. At first glance, The Trees Witness Everything is visually striking. Its cover is neon orange, and the book is printed in the notably slender dimensions of four inches wide, by nine inches long. Such dimensions skillfully serve the narrow form of the poems, many of which are written in the ancient Japanese syllabic form of wakas. The “Notes” section in the back of the book provides helpful context for the entire collection, including a key explanation about wakas. As the “Notes” explain, a waka(a term that means “Japanese poem”) is a courtly poem of five to seven syllables of varied patterns and lengths, such as the tanka, which is (5-7-5-7-7). The same section additionally highlights how “Sometimes the term waka is also used to mean a tanka.” The constraint of five to seven syllables produces a poem that is always narrow, and often short.
Divided into four sections, The Trees Witness Everything demonstrates compact stanzas from beginning to end. Chang wrote Section II of the book, “Marfa, Texas,” in fully justified stanzas, which resemble the formatting of many of the poems found in her 2020 keystone collection, Obit. The “Marfa, Texas” stanzas, all four to six lines long, look like squares on the page. Such intentional shaping heightens this section’s imagery, with a speaker who proclaims, “I think of / my own house and wonder // when the windows can be lifted / again,” as well as, “A Polaroid is a roundabout way / of embracing time.”
The waka rules are not the only constraints that Chang imposed upon her poems. As she explains in the “Notes” section, Chang uses titles from poems by W. S. Merwin as titles (and prompts) for her own verse. Chang’s reflections on her method of combining the waka form and Merwin poetry titles will thrill readers who enjoy a glimpse behind the veil of poetic process. As Chang explains, “I chose to doubly constrain myself because formal constraints often have the opposite effect on my writing process. Terrance Hayes once said in an interview, ‘My relationship to form is that of a bird inside of a cage, moving around.’”
Here again, we find birds. In addition to the distinct visual form of the poems, birds are another key thread in The Trees Witness Everything. Birds first appear early in the book, in a poem aptly named “To the Book”: “Here is March again. / An image is a shawl. Birds / are a transcript of our thoughts.” Birds also conclude the entire collection, with these final verses: “Let me tell you a story / about hope: it always starts / and ends with birds.” Poem titles in The Trees Witness Everything include “Orioles,” “The Wild Geese,” “The Laughing Thrush,” “Unknown Bird,” “Shore Birds,” “The Wren,” and “Lark.” Throughout the book, “swallows come and go,” “the dodo spinning at dawn” is an “Antique Sound,” and “The crows have lifted / away all the question marks.” Birds and poetry overlap and echo, echo, echo.
The poet is a bird, and birds are poets in The Trees Witness Everything. “I looked at myself in / the mirror. I no / longer looked like a poet. / I had a crow’s face” declares the poem “To the Face in the Mirror.” The book’s speaker later observes, “My face is now gone. / Instead, I have a hawk’s face. / None of the poets / notice, they only want fame.” The Trees Witness Everything evokes a world where birds are also witnesses, witnesses whose “wings remember nothing” even as “The owl brings the / future.” Something ineffable courses through these poems, something that cannot be captured or adequately named. Call it desire. Call it joy. Or call it pain. Whatever it is, the birds are there. Yet they too are beyond full description.
All birds are unknown,
even if they have been seen.
We think we are watching them
but they are cataloging
us: children and the killers.
All poetry collections arguably invite multiple reads; The Trees Witness Everything demands them. Don’t be fooled by the book’s everyday diction. A first read will astound with surprising imagery, and sometimes even strain the ligaments of those same verses. Some of the repetitive striking of motifs can feel incessant for the reader not prepared for the music.
Out of the entire poetry collection, the final, fourth section of the book is perhaps less effective. The “Notes” section explains the three-lined brevity of these poems, since they were written for Mental Health Awareness Month in 2021 and displayed on the exteriors of Los Angeles County libraries. Readers may certainly appreciate the intent of this section. Yet verses such as “All the days can feel / terrifying. Until you realize / you’ve done this before” or “Do you remember where you / were last May? I do. You were / here. You were alive” fall flat, especially in contrast to the more cryptic tone of the other three sections of the book.
Most of the poems in The Trees Witness Everything, though, offer the treasures of deep linguistic intimacy and formal cohesion. These poems not only name the high demands of life, but also make high demands on the reader. And why should we comply? Because throughout and beyond the pursuit pulses that ineffable grace. “I struck a bargain / with language,” the poem “Words” declares, “That I would not / abuse it or sell it, that / I would use it for / beauty. In exchange, I will / die, while words live forever.”
Photo credit: onigiri-kun on VisualHunt.com
This review first appeared in Issue Five of The Good River Review.