Poetry Review: Victoria Chang’s “With My Back to the World” –“What if I’ve spent my whole life wanting to be seen?”

By Nicole Yurcaba

Victoria Chang’s collection proffers a valuable invitation to readers to look at realms of the self that they would prefer to ignore.

With My Back to the World by Victoria Chang. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 112 pages, $26.

The poems in Victoria Chang’s With My Back to the World explore unwelcoming metaphysical depths, fearlessly probing the self, existence, life, death, and depression. Her lyrical strategy in this volume is to draw on the writings and artwork of abstract artist Agnes Martin, which allows her to create a new space, a place where depression and grief can be accepted rather than rejected or stigmatized. Hopelessness may consume the speaker, but art, and the time spent with making or encountering it, serves as a strange form of salvation.

In “Untitled #3, 1994” an eerily disengaged speaker guides readers by “Calder mobiles and / twisted metal by Picasso.” The minimalist couplets waterfall one into another, and the careful enjambment reinforces words like “ceiling” and “rope.” The word “depression” repeats four times throughout the poem; “melancholy” appears twice. The present and past tense forms of “wander” generate a looseness, an apathy, that collides with the repeated “depression,” creating a sense of deeply personal isolation. This aloneness solidifies at the poem’s conclusion:


But the attendant told me that I needed to keep my depression


separate from the room’s depression. I realized that I needed to

return on a day when I too could rope off my sadness.


The personification of the room, as well as the emotional, even physical, seclusion, dominates; the speaker’s confession erupts with a Virginia Woolf-like pathos.

The intimate isolation spawned by depression reappears in “Untitled, 1960.” The opening narrative is initially descriptive of the artist’s work; the speaker discusses how Agnes Martin “drew 15 semicircles on each double line” and that “The trouble with 15 is that / it can only make 7 circles.” The speaker characterizes depression as “the final semicircle,” “the first, second, and third / person” that “grabs all the perspectives.” The speaker’s reflection on Agnes’s circle art — and how it pictures dejection — suggests the frequent, and harsh, depressive cycles that overtake both artists. Choosing the circle imagery seems to fortify the seeming inescapability of the blues, though, by the poem’s conclusion, the speaker hopes that this mutual “depression will flatten.” But the speaker also acknowledges that, should their depression “flatten,” there will be an immeasurable cost. Their “words will also disappear.” This creative Catch-22 reflects Chang’s fear that the speaker may not be willing to lose this dark aspect of the self.

“Leaves, 1966” is an exploration of the various ways depression manifests. It opens rather peacefully: “On some days, my depression is over there in a picnic basket while I am / over here looking at art.” A sense of distance and displacement emerges as the speaker imagines ants being closer to the depression and then eating it. Still, despite the ants’ consumption of desolation, they are not depressed. That means that the speaker has been unable to transfer the condition of sadness elsewhere. The depression remains in the speaker, who is forced to take ownership of her sadness. “I miscalculated my depression,” confesses the speaker, admitting “The last time I saw it was at 10:00 p.m.” This leads to one of the speaker’s most powerful statements regarding melancholia: “I always think it’s gone. But it regrows each night. It has skin.” The depression is personified, transforming it into a constantly present, ineliminable entity.

“Play, 1966” also toys with the concept of depression as a consistent, unshakable entity. It becomes a force which has “reorganized into grids.” The interesting element of this poem is how the speaker has begun to develop agency over dejection. The act of writing is an important part of this process: “Once I write the word depression, it is no / longer my feeling. It is now on view for others to walk / toward, lean in, and peer at.” Visibility, the speaker’s act of articulation, engenders vulnerability. The poem then takes a philosophical turn, the speaker posing such rhetorical ideas as “Maybe we are / small pieces without a whole, and there is no one self, just / the old selves alongside the newer selves.” This contemplation about the self leads the speaker to believe that perhaps looking “for a whole is depression.” By scrutinizing depression in a painting, the consciousness of the emotion takes on a different form. The speaker asserts that it “isn’t actually on a canvas” but “it is in the air and / illegible.” These lines assert a delicate balance: they posit depression’s intangibility, but concede its stubborn presence.

Throughout the collection, the speaker invokes the spirit of Agnes Martin by directly addressing the artist. At certain points, the speaker makes objective observations about her paintings, such as “The minute Agnes put the brush to the canvas, they / became indescribable.” At others, the speaker implies that Agnes’s role in their life is an intimate one, that the speaker and Agnes are somewhat inseparable, so much so that Agnes’s presence determines the speaker’s actions: “And the way I went ahead of everyone so my day with / Agnes wouldn’t end.” This intimacy is quiet and insular, echoing the isolation established in the collection’s first few poems. With My Back to the World ends with the haunting lines, “Suddenly there were two dark shadows on the gold. I asked him to / step away but when he said, No, it was Agnes’s voice.” The supernatural resonance of this final image is powerfully distancing, even disorientating.

In this volume, Victoria Chang pushes at linguistic and stylistic norms, challenging the boundaries between visual art and verse. She also graphs the psychological calibrations of a life shrouded by depression. Chang meditates on the darkest parts of the self, the places society prefers to gloss over, embracing toxic positivity and plastic happiness. In a sense, With My Back to the World is a deliberate experiment in exercising freedom: an individual can choose to accept — or reject — pieces of themselves. It proffers a valuable invitation to readers to look at realms of the self that they would prefer to ignore.

 Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press, Lit Gazeta, Chytomo, Bukvoid, and The New Voice of Ukraine. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.

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