by Victoria Chang
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
Victoria Chang’s collection, Obit, seems to have anticipated the prolonged good-byes of 2020. In it, Chang says good-bye to loved ones, feelings, objects—everything we feel and know, who we were and where we’re heading—especially when someone we love is dying, and our sense of awareness is heightened. Saying good-bye is never easy when love is involved and immense in measure, but when the leave-taking is slow, painstaking, and momentous, the expectations of the end of lives are cyclically reinvented with each new farewell.
…the writer of an obituary should be compact and precise…Try to get as much meaning into as few words as possible.*
Most of the poems in the collection fit the parameters of the obituary form—the narrow column in a newspaper, the text right and left justified, the beginning with a name. In each poem something is missed, mourned, remembered “the way memory is the ringing / after a gunshot. The way we try to / remember the gunshot but can’t.” The first two poems announce the deaths of a father’s frontal lobe and a mother, these followed by two poems reporting the death of the poet. In the first of the two, the speaker tells us that “this / was not her first death” and in the second, “When someone / dies, there is a constant feeling of / wanting to speak to someone, but the / plane with all the words is crossing / the sky.” This begins a grieving of language that seems to fall from someone after a stroke or the onset of dementia, and we hear the daughter attempting to help and understand, visiting a parent in assisted living who has “difficult nights” and wanting “the night / person to write in a language” she “could / understand.” The language in the poems of Obit attempts to understand death and those who stay on afterward, confronted with their own mortality, and offers images and memories as solace or enlightenment.
Each section of the collection opens with a quotation that serves as a thematic anchor for the poems to come. Section I opens with lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, beginning, “Give sorrow words,” which anticipates the ruminations on language and how it lives and dies, and how we use them when we grieve. In obituaries, those left behind try to find the right words to capture the life that is now missing from theirs, try to hold on to memory long enough to express in words what the presence of someone has meant. In Chang’s collection, obituaries also serve as signposts for when objects and feelings die along with loved ones and how it is all connected in grief. By the time we get to the third obituary of the poet, there is an understanding of the death of the self and what came before and what might come after as well as how imagination and language continue the work of the deceased long after they’ve died. A future is anticipated without the loved one, “the way grief is really about future absence,” ironically in an obituary for “The Future.”
To write a great obituary, it’s important to capture the spirit of the loved one who has passed.*
In Section II, Sylvia Plath is channeled in a stream-of-consciousness of images, feelings, and thoughts—of death, grief, babies, and bees, as well as lines from Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” that introduce and title the poem that comprises the section. Images and phrases are conduits to Plath’s work in lyric bytes of meaning spread across the page in lines that allow space and time for a slower reading pace and a deeper understanding. The syntax is unexpected and the search for sentence structure is futile since the imagery lies on the page, allowing us to fill the spaces with whatever we bring to the text and to understand the words the poet has chosen. We find “what’s left . . . thousands / of wingless bees” reminiscent of Plath from the start. The speaker refers to a place “here” where “the pages are . . . turning but no one is . . . reading,” where “we are . . . not talented” but “torrential,” and where “babies are always growing.” Throughout Chang’s piece, Plath’s life unfolds in waves of recognition of her work and her death. We feel the weight of her death as we read how “each day . . . we try to . . . push our / selves . . . back together . . . like grass,” and we grieve for her loss and all loss in every place death has touched, where we learn “how to divide . . . sadness into . . . small . . . parcels” and deal with living with babies and distance and bees and joy. This section of the collection is pivotal in making the transition from giving sorrow words to changing language to fit the realities of life and death.
Section III of the collection calls on T.S. Eliot to take aim at “last year’s language” that moves through more obituaries where sadness, blame, doctors, obsession, and home all die. Although “Guilt—never died,” for the speaker, it “still lies in a heap on my chest at night like a pile of frozen pigeons.” The language of Chang’s obituaries goes beyond noticing that someone has passed to considering all of the ramifications that accompany death and all of the things that a person leaving this earth abandons to the living. In an obituary for “The Obituary Writer,” the speaker asks, “What if I die before my father?” and ends with the realization that “Death isn’t the enemy. Knowledge of / death is the enemy.” In mourning grief, the speaker recognizes her attempts at managing her grief which she says “is not the same as my pain.” The obit for grief ends with a visual definition that distills sorrow and mourning to a color, “a perfectly blue sky, / no clouds, no wind, no birds.” Chang explores all of the many ways in which humans grieve their losses throughout the course of their lives and how they attempt to endure.
Throughout the collection, Tanka poems appear and wring out emotion in their few lines, referring to the speaker’s children, imploring them to understand how life and death intersect and acknowledging that “To love anyone / means to admit extinction.” The speaker understands that life is a continuation of death, and that we are all dying:
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.
The short form offers refrains and gentle repetition of a mother’s wishes for her children, what she wants them to know.
An obituary is often referred to as a notice of death; it can be a daunting task. There are many things to consider. **
Finally, Virginia Woolf’s voice rises from the page before the fourth and final section, noting that “The canopy of civilization is burnt out,” where America is mourned, and the speaker is “ready to / admit I love my children,” in the final Tanka, acknowledging that this means “they will die.” With reverent repetition, Chang guides us further: “Die: no one knows this but words,” but as she speaks to her children, her “mouth stays open” in “hope hope hope.” Chang’s collection elucidates and enlightens with poems that won’t end because there is no way “to stop the senselessness of time” and “maybe nothing is an elegy.”
* “How to Write a Great Obituary.” Funeral Basics, 2 July 2019, www.funeralbasics.org/write-great-obituary/ .
** “How to Write an Obituary and What Information Will Be Necessary.” HealGrief, https://healgrief.org/how-to-write-an-obituary/?gclid=CjwKCAiAtK79BRAIEiwA4OskBjfJ-63O7NcxZOqgoqluIVFUZzb6dtjO0SPkWehcrvVfDujSEcLtpxoCHhQQAvD_BwE