APRIL 15, 2020
OBIT BY VICTORIA CHANG is a book of poems that arrive in waves of grief, tidal but truncated verse paragraphs. Grief here slides at times into dark humor, revealing the expansiveness of the prose poem form. Here we have unmitigated heartbreak — but heartbreak mercifully free of the usual “death etiquette”: platitudes of “after-lives” or “better offs.” Thus, Victoria Chang has created something powerful and unconventional. These poems are zinger curveballs, and often come from the graveyard’s left field.
The casual abbreviation of the book’s title — refusing the lengthier “obituary” (along with other formal crepe-hanging) — is reaffirmed by the casual shock of the author’s face printed on the book’s front cover. In a Warhol-like series of faux “obits,” the reader reviews the same repeated portrait of “Victoria Chang,” the book’s author, “unknowingly dead,” flattened against a familiar newsprint background. These funny/sad reproductions of the fraction-of-an-inch “obit” (not elegy or eulogy) stand in for the fragmentary death notices of countless life stories, billed by the letter. Yet Chang gathers these fragments and their limitations — reanimating entire lives within the form.
The “unknowingness” of death itself underscores each poem in the book. We get it: all that is mortal dies. But in Chang’s Obit, death makes a vaster clean sweep — the “smaller deaths” attached to grief are inventoried. Rooms die, privacy dies, control, optimism, clothes, ocean, and friendships die. Memories die, along with memory itself. The author “dies” with each erasure of a once-vital life of a loved one. Many poems meditate painfully on a mother’s death, others on a father’s slow physical diminishment.
The following brilliant leap embodies all of this in a riff of non sequiturs: “Once my father erected a basketball net, mounted it onto a wooden pole from the lumberyard to save money. With each shot, the pole moved a little […] until I had to shoot from the side of the driveway. Now I avoid semicolons. I look for statues whose eyes don’t move with me.”
As in a stroke victim’s loss of the brain’s complex map of familiarities; mortality’s obliteration edges out all hopeless traditional defenses against oblivion — religious, political, familial, cultural — overridden by DNRs or hospice documents. Death is the great equalizer and “ender” of all arguments. (The inspired flashes of mordant wit, however, continue: we note the poet’s children carrying “GET WELL SOON” balloons to the cemetery!)
Still, Victoria Chang’s argument in these bold poems is not with death, but rather with language itself — in particular the typically inadequate language of grief. In the current onslaught of arm-chair pseudo-shrink-ish “How to Mourn” screeds, there are few credible revelations. Between the clichéd “wellness” blather and “turn the page” stop-watch mentality, grief eludes all, having neither clock nor calendar. In her obit poems, Chang composes the darkness, the attempts of grief itself to articulate what cannot easily be expressed — perhaps only felt.
This existential helplessness requires us, along with Chang, to recognize the grim reality that most of our lives matter less than the fact of our deaths. And the fact of our deaths hardly matters at all. We are given a quick official nod of language — a handful of words, a handful of earth tossed on the lowering coffin.
“When language leaves, all you have left is tone, all you have left are smoke signals.” Chang’s “smoke signals” float upward and disappear like the ongoing losses of our daily lives, the unarticulated grief-count of existence.
Significantly, the word “obituary” comes from the medieval Latin obire — to fall down, to go down, to perish, pertaining to death, as in “setting of the sun.” That planetary predictability, that same diurnal horizon event that hides the enormous unchanging reality of earth’s surviving relationship to a dying star can be likened to the “obit.” Or the obit-fact: the summing up and predictable end to each lost miracle, each daily vanished complex untold life.
Chang knows what is lost: “The way grief is really about future absence. The way the future closes its offices when a mother dies. What’s left: a hole in the ground the size of violence.”
What, finally, is the “size of violence”? Unknown elegy to forever absence, Kaddish of endless mourning — a grave made of words.
So here is the “final notice”: “Victoria Chang died on June 24, 2011, at the age of 41. Her imagination lived beyond that day though.”
The poet’s imagination and its pained empathy indeed “live beyond” as it continues to record and reimagine death after death, long after her own “loss” has occurred.
Yet the resolve to “Write it!” (as Elizabeth Bishop exclaimed in her canonical poem, “One Art”) is to face doubt and dread in forbidding unknown territory (“the bourne from which no traveler returns”). This act demands not only literary mastery, it demands courage. It is an “obit” of a size made great in the violence of poetic imagining.
Obit’s main epigraph is the eloquent command from Macbeth’s Malcolm: “Give sorrow words, the grief that does not speak / knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”
Here then is Victoria Chang, up to her task, seeking to “give grief words,” seeking to articulate the impossible: “That darkness is not the absorption of color but the absorption of language.” “Grief is wearing a dead person’s dress forever.” Or “Imagination is having to live in a dead person’s future.”
These are fragments of a whole lyric that will be remade in mystery, from the soul. The loss of those we love means the loss of a language — the words we shared. “There is only obsession after death, one after another,” Chang remarks, adding: “The irreversibility of rain and millions of little blue flowers.”
The millions of little blue flowers occasionally remake themselves as “tanka,” a form that Chang intersperses throughout the collection. The tanka present as traditional syllabic enclosed conversations, often about parenting or speaking to children, to the future. The form fulfills the book’s need for small engines of living — like flowers, the rain, a shirt.
I put on a shirt,
put on a pair of work pants
because I will die.
How the snow falls to its death,
how snow is just dressed-up rain.
Where do they find hope?
Sometimes the city has pleats,
sometimes the body
rings with joy shaped like violets,
sometimes the night wind tingles.
Perhaps the poet’s most startlingly precise and original observation about grief in Obit is this: “Sadness is plural, but grief is singular.”
We sense that it is pointless, trying to parse or “manage” grief, yet there remains a defiant purpose to words about the collective nature of “sadness” (that emotional way station where we all band together to face the darkness). And her even more defiant insight into the lone and broken hallejulah of the “singular” — each one of us, alone at our singular end. One by one we exit, as the poet reports: perhaps each of us with our souls like unlikely balloons imprinted with the words “Get Well Soon!” The epitaph: Write it!
Carol Muske-Dukes is an award-winning author of nine books of poems, four novels, two collections of essays, co-editor of two anthologies, and professor and founder of the Creative Writing/Lit PhD Program at USC.