To be the last drop
of rain each night is sadness.
It shuts the last door and jumps.
– from “Rain at Night”
Victoria Chang continues to prove herself a master at crafting collections around a central theme in her latest collection, The Trees Witness Everything. Chang invokes W.S. Merwin throughout the collection, repurposing titles from his work as a catalyst for each of her poems. As she notes at the end of the collection, Chang would select a Merwin title as a writing prompt, then pair it with a randomly selected Japanese syllabic form. The introduction of dual constraints would easily limit the creative bounds of many writers, yet Chang excels again and again. The end result is a remarkably unique and poignant collection of short poems that trade on the economy of language to deliver powerful reflections on the intersection of life and the natural world.
One of the first things that readers will notice is how Chang has designed the book itself. The pages are abnormally long, which allows the author to situate two poems in conversation with each other on a single page. The first and third sections of the collection continuously utilize this method, creating a sense of reflection in the way the poems seem to mirror or echo one another. The second and fourth sections deviate from this format, with the second section housing a single prose poem and the fourth containing a series of tercets under the title “Love Letters.” Additionally, each section speaks to a specific season, emphasizing the passage of time and its effect on our understanding of the world around us.
Those who are familiar with Chang’s previous collection, Obit, will recognize a similar preoccupation with death and grief in The Trees Witness Everything. In the poem “Lark,” the speaker grapples with the reality that death is not as finite as it may seem, arriving at the conclusion that “…the dead are like the lark,/they won’t fly or fully die.” These lines exemplify one of the greatest strengths in the collection, grounding the language through sound devices and employing objectively simple phrases to communicate profound philosophical realizations. Though the poem centers death, the final tercet of The Trees Witness Everything proclaims, “Let me tell you a story/about hope: it always starts/and ends with birds.” This echos the juxtaposition of wonder and grief evident in “Lark,” and in many of the poems throughout the collection.
“In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year” is perhaps my favorite poem in the collection, and one that I immediately shared with several friends. The poem consists of just six lines, yet captures an immense well of emotion as the speaker describes the impact of a stroke on her father. “His brain found freedom,/tore itself out of his head,/now moves another man’s mouth,” the final three lines lament. Earlier in the poem, the speaker describes this as the last winter, suggesting that to witness the changes in her father after his stroke amount to a sort of death or end. Chang seems to understand the heaviness of the emotions she encounters, though, and balances grief with moments of joy. The poem “Turning” grapples with the sometimes difficult experience of remembering our dead while going about our lives: “We will love many people,/eat peaches as if kissing.”
Ultimately, The Trees Witness Everything illustrates Chang’s understanding of form and her unique ability to capture complex, often competing emotions without ever rendering her poems inaccessible. The language is often simple and direct, yet the reader inevitably confronts experiences that few are able to articulate so clearly or wholly. This is a collection that readers will return to for years to come.