July 17, 2020KR Reviews

Victoria Chang and the Elegy/Anti-Elegy: On Obit

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020. 119 pages. $17.00.

When I was in high school, I was offered a job at my local newspaper to cover junior high sports. When I arrived in the newsroom for my first day of work, however, I was not tasked to write about football. Instead, I was assigned an obituary. I don’t recall who the obit (both revealing and a bit depressing) covered, though my memory is that I knew the person, or at least knew of him or her (I can’t even remember the gender), as the deceased had been friends with my grandparents. My editor handed me a piece of paper with some basic details of the person’s life, and from these scraps of data, I was to compile what would probably be the last living text about someone many people loved. I remember asking my editor for some kind of guidance. At my question, he turned and walked away. A few seconds later, he Solomoned over his shoulder, “Well, don’t screw it up.”

Sage advice.

I have often wondered about both the rationale and the symbolism of an obit as my first paid writing gig. The latter is for another time, but in regard to the former, I assume it was meant to teach me a lesson about writing, ethics, detail, accuracy, and most importantly, that getting things right actually matters.

I did not read Victoria Chang’s remarkable new book of poems through the lens of this formative experience, but it was always present—sort of like a dangling monocle. Obit, Chang’s fifth collection of poems and her most ambitious, forces us to rethink two genres—poetry and the obituary. Both are marginalized, and neither is particularly fun to write; nor is either particularly fun to have written about you, though I guess most of us would prefer one over the other. The obituary has to be one of the least poetic forms of writing. Obits can be both predictably bland in their recitation of established life details and often overly sentimental, sometimes to the point of insincerity. However, these obits take the genre in an entirely new direction—Chang inverts the impersonal third person perspective, creating a reliable/unreliable first-person speaker who mourns and commemorates the death of a variety of ideas, objects, emotions, and people.

Traditionally, when poets want to mourn the dead, they turn to the elegy, a form that has done pretty well for itself since, say, Milton and his Lycidas. An elegy lifts the poeticized subject, not only commemorating their death but also celebrating their life. And while Chang certainly channels the elegiac mode in this book, she uses the journalistic mode of the obituary and its long, thin, columnar structure to create a new hybrid that reimagines the personal and the public. For example, the opening poem is an obituary for her father—but not for his death-death—for the death of his frontal lobe:

My Father’s Frontal Lobe—died unpeacefully of a stroke on June 24, 2009 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego, California. Born January 20, 1940, the frontal lobe enjoyed a good life. The frontal lobe loved being the boss. It tried to talk again but someone put a bag over it.

Of course, when a frontal lobe dies, a part of the person dies. Post-stroke, Chang’s father is not who he was. That person is gone. And yet part of that person lives on, both in body and in spirit. That last phrase is a cliché, and I apologize for that, but one of the painful realities of life is that at times the truth is cloying.

Not these poems, though.

The gallows humor of “The frontal lobe enjoyed a good life. The frontal lobe enjoyed being the boss” followed by the brutal image of “It tried to talk again but someone put a bag over it” lets us know we are not reading a conventional obituary. Later in the poem, Chang informs us that she and her father had argued about her miscarriage. A death within a death. An obit within an obit. Suddenly, all bets are off. The playing field has changed. The rules have changed. We know we are in the hands of a master.

Restrictions in form can often lead to aesthetic and thematic liberation, and I was wholly engrossed by how much Chang accomplishes within the confines of the obituary’s obituary-ness—whether it’s the intense justified verticality to the use of dates, to the mix of objective and subjective intelligence. The poet cannot really rely on line breaks or typographical spacings or even the built-in structures of a received poetic form, like a sonnet. Instead, the poet must work within the confines of the obituary and in so doing, transform it—but not too much. That these poems do such complete work with so few tools from the poetry toolbox is humbling. Each poem is a masterwork of compression and compassion.

Consider the second poem, which in some ways, an actual obituary for Chang’s mother but with some twists:

My Mother—died unpeacefully on August 3, 2015 in her room at Walnut Village Assisted Living in Anaheim, California of pulmonary fibrosis. The room was born on July 3, 2012. The Village wasn’t really a village. No walnut trees. Just cut flowers. The hospice nurse silently slid the stethoscope on top of my mother’s lung and waited for it to inflate. The way waiting becomes an injury. The way the nurse breathed in, closed his eyes, breathed out, and said, I’m sorry. Did the blood rush to my face or to my fingertips? Did he reopen his eyes before or after he said, I’m sorry? The way memory is the ringing after a gunshot. The way we try to remember the gunshot but can’t. The way memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking. Victoria Chang—died unknowingly on June 24, 2009 on the I-405 freeway. Born in the Motor City, it is fitting she died on a freeway. When her mother called about her father’s heart attack, she was living an indented life, a swallow that didn’t dip. This was not her first death. All her deaths had creases except this one.

Only a poet would begin such an obituary with a meta-moment taking down Walnut Village, but there is something about that observation, about the lameness and insincerity of names, about their unveiling, that is also a bleak metaphor for our lives. They are not what they are. Or worse, they are less than what they claim to be.

Within this poem though is, again yet another death—that of Chang herself at the news of her father’s stroke. Here Chang’s micro-death—her many micro-deaths—is one of the great themes of this book, the way such passings are the great themes of our lives. The little deaths we die throughout our lives as we keep living. Among those fatalities for Chang are language, civility, privacy, friendships, her father’s gait, her mother’s logic, optimism, ambition, grief, blame, and even time. Chang writes obits for all of these and more. Doctors. Friendships. Tomas Tranströmer. All are memorialized. Is memorialized the right word? Elegized may be more accurate. Implicated even more so.

I say implicated because not all of Obit is obits. Sandwiched between the two main sections of obituary poems is a somewhat experimental long poem (or series of untitled short poems) collected under the rubric, “I am a Miner. The Light Turns Blue,” a phrase borrowed from Sylvia Plath. The unpunctuated lyrics in this section are marked by intense caesuras between words and phrases. And, unlike the obit poems, they stretch from left margin to right margin, taking up a great deal of white space, yet giving it back with the eternally recurring lacunae. Here Chang’s language pivots away from the more conversational tone of the obituary and steps fully into the language of the lyric. If the obituary poems tend to explore Chang’s relationship to her parents, then these poems tend to explore Chang’s identity as a parent. Yes, there is grieving, but there is also groping. A yearning to fill the voids (exemplified by the poems’ architecture) opened up by the dual acts of observing and mothering:

Yesterday I had my                  own room with      my own

milkweed but I didn’t            want            to be      there

downstairs a baby rolled            across the floor for

the first time   like dawn    she laughed        clapped

then cried as she        rolled into        the couch      in gaining

control she            loses control      I dreamed          that I

could finally            leave the house            but I had to

travel through                  an alley of bees

What is more revealing: writing about one’s anxieties as a parent or writing about one’s anxieties about one’s parent?

Chang takes this one step further in a series of tankas that appear rather randomly throughout the collection. In these ten-line poems that operate a bit like mini-sonnets, the poet writes openly about her daughters, the future, and her fear of death. Death, as it happens, is everywhere in this book. In every poem, in every absence. In the margins, in between the words, in the spaces between the pages, in the caesuras, in the written, in the unwritten.

The one poem I have been thinking about most is perhaps the one Chang wants readers to remember as the ultimate obituary in this collection. Not surprisingly, it is the final obit. Its dateline is February 14, 2018—the date of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which seventeen people were killed and seventeen others injured. Here, the obit is for America. The poem begins: “America—died on February 14, 2018, and my dead mother doesn’t know. Since her death, America has died a series of small deaths each one less precise than the next.” Readers can fill in their own series of small deaths they believe America to have suffered, as well as any number of large deaths.

Again in an obit within an obit, Chang manages a poetic resurrection in which a parent and children are reunited. Like some sort of miracle, Chang’s mother welcomes the line of children, almost like an Angel Island of the afterlife, into a new land.

My dead mother asks each of these children if they know me, have seen me, how tall my children are now. They will tell her that they once lived in Florida, not California. She will see the child with the hole in his head. She will blow the dreams out of the hole like dust. I used to think death was a kind of anesthesia. Now I imagine long lines, my mother taking in all the children.

One of the many marvelous accomplishments of this book is how Chang makes private mourning and public mourning part of the same process. The obit is the public acknowledgement of private loss. And, at the same time we all engage in private mourning over public tragedies: 9/11, school shootings, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and of course the staggering death toll of COVID-19, one of the most globally public tragedies in decades.

I don’t know how many actual obituaries from COVID-19 I have read, perhaps about as many obits that are in this book. It has proven impossible not to think of these two modes of obituaries as some kind of cosmic intertext. How fitting that this otherworldly book of tributes to the no longer living lands, at this moment in this world, in our collective hands.