March 25, 2024

With My Back to the World

By Victoria Chang
From the first poem in With My Back to the World, the magnetism of Victoria Chang’s language will draw you in: “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world.”
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Each of the poems in Victoria Chang’s latest collection responds to a painting with the same title by abstract artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). If you aren’t familiar with Martin’s work, or typically feel unmoved by minimalist paintings, this conceit could seem like a barrier. But turn to the first poem in With My Back to the World and the magnetism of Chang’s language will convince you of the power of her project. “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world,” Chang writes, “The best thing about emptiness is if you close your / eyes in a field, you’ll open your eyes in a field.” Should you be suddenly filled with a desire to see that emptiness swarm on a canvas, you can find the titular painting online.

Many of the poems directly reference their painting’s shape, color and structure. Martin was known for painting grids, and Chang’s accompanying illustrations evoke this: scraps of poem arranged in a grid, or obscured by ink drawings. To organize a book of poems so tightly around a concept and a form isn’t new for Chang. In her 2020 National Book Award-longlisted Obit, written after the death of her mother, each poem took the form of an obituary. Chang’s father has since passed as well, and the middle section of With My Back to the World is a guttingly specific grief sequence.

As the collection unfolds, Chang lets us in on the intense relationship an artist can form with another through their work. Some poems deliberate on Martin’s dictates about solitude, while simultaneously longing for attention, connection and an audience. Other poems describe the risk of violence that comes with being visible for women, especially Asian women. “On a Clear Day, 1973” responds to the 2021 murder of eight people, six of them Asian American women, by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta.

Like Martin, Chang etches meaning into her chosen structure down to the smallest detail. Again and again, there’s the moment of recognition that readers come to poetry for: Here is a feeling you know well, but have never been able to witness outside of yourself. Isn’t it liberating to put these words to it? Don’t you feel less alone in your loneliness?

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