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"Still Unknown and Free": Alex Williamson Introduces Victoria Chang

Alex Williamson

Introduction of Victoria Chang at her recent UC Irvine reading hosted by the MFA Programs in Writing.

It’s an absolute honor and privilege to introduce Victoria Chang.

The poems in Victoria Chang’s most recent collection of poetry, With My Back to the World are in dialogue with painting—largely the paintings by the artist and mystic, Agnes Martin. Agnes’s paintings were minimal. They were filled neatly with occluded grays, washed-out blues, and grids torqued with infinite precision. The seams between gray and blue, the rectangles enclosed within Martin’s grids, and all the component parts of her paintings that remain uninflected begin to look a little like time (if you look long enough).  The paintings are boundaries charged with the suggestion of what might wander through them, time in all its accumulations: the present—the encounter with the painting—but also the before and after.

Victoria Chang takes this implicit time and makes it palpable, nearly filmic, and impossibly material. Her subjectivity, where it has intersected these paintings, has dismantled and re-made them, so that the paintings can hold onto the bodily, the face, the inexplicable, the digital, desire, a heartbeat. The paintings are newly boundless. When Agnes disappeared abruptly from the New York art scene, she eventually settled in New Mexico and lived alone there for the rest of her life. Her paintings came to her in visions—whole and complete. Agnes entered into solitude to wait for a call. With my Back to the World reads as a conversation.

These poems are a calling back to the paintings. They are also, of course, calling in many other directions. But at the other end of the main line, I’ll bet that Martin is charmed and thrilled. Maybe she is gamely holding a mirror to double the lines, the bird in the poem, its moon. This is a dialogue between speaker and Agnes. A mutual holding of thought and grief. Beyond that, it is a dialogue about how the personal and political skew the unwieldy construction of time and vice versa. Finally, it is a dialogue between language and image. I think Agnes, now with her mirror, is at least a little in awe of language’s ability to hold bits of the world and memory but also to flatten instantaneously into line or to transform into shadow.

In a recent interview with Kate Wolf for the LARB Radio Hour, Chang states, “I think we’re all artists.” She is generously invoking the way we make pictures before we use language. In With my Back to the World, Victoria Chang redoubles and fragments the world built in her poems. In "Untitled 5, 1977," Agnes and speaker both reach towards words as a replacement for moonlight. The speaker recounts her attempts to cut down the moon, frustrated with “the way it waits for us to see it.” In the associated image, nineteen small circles shine through a deep grey. Letters of the poem hide behind these circles. The letters are blurry but visible. In this image, I see the poem and its inverse. I see the removal of the moon. I also see many small moons and a language that is always speaking. This is the poem and something the poem could never reach.

Martin was a writer too. One of her poems reads as follows:

The underside of a leaf

Cool in shadow

Sublimely unempathetic

Smiling of innocence


The frailest stems

Quivering in the light

Bend and break

In silence


She adds: “This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen, it is what is known forever in the mind.”


Victoria Chang’s voice is one that speaks unflinchingly the truth. It is a voice I believe all the more because of its blithe leaps between the truth where it is gut-wrenching, the truth where it is overwhelming, and the truth where it is beautiful. Her work with language and image pushes at the boundaries of both content and form and challenges them to make meaning in new shapes. In “Fiesta, 1985,” Chang writes, “What is art but trying to make something resemble what it was before it was made, when it was still unknown and free.” Victoria Chang’s dynamic work with the poetic and visual languages runs right up to this before. Beyond that it traces truth as it shifts. It represents a truth that is unfixed and free. It marks where truth teeters over into inexplicability with a radical honesty that not only destabilizes but stretches systems of constructing meaning.


Alex Williamson is a second-year poet in the programs in creative writing at UC Irvine. They write on art, memory, and the strange dailiness of queer embodiment. Alex holds a degree in photography from the University of Notre Dame and really loves Andy Warhol’s drawings of feet.

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