In Obit, Victoria Chang writes about the death of her mother, her father’s stroke that took his ability to speak, and the various aspects of her life that appeared different after these losses. She makes obituaries into poems, punctuating them occasionally with tankas about her children, what it means to raise children with the too-close knowledge that one day we’ll all die. The middle section of Obit is one long free-form poem, using caesuras to both spread out the words, daring them to take up more space on the page, from margin to margin, and highlight the gaps between the words, calling attention to the isolation of grief.
She mostly writes obituaries for apostrophes, solidifying non-tangibles like Language, Time, Grief itself, and Friendship. She personifies solid objects and kills them off in the same breath — may The Clock, The Blue Dress, [Her] Mother’s Teeth, and [Her] Father’s Frontal Lobe rest in peace. She writes several obituaries for her mother and herself, pairing her knowledge of a slow, painful death to her uniquely human knowledge that one day she too will expire. Chang explores what it means to grieve the loss of life at the same time she herself is dying. “In hangman, the body forms while it’s being hung,” she writes in “Home.” “As in, we grow as we are dying.”
Making obituaries into poems about grief is so obvious, it’s a wonder no one has thought to do it before. This is one of those times when I read a book and felt a little angry, asking myself, Why didn’t I think of that? I felt irrationally jealous of Chang for her ability to make her readers care about the important dates in her life. I know that her father had his stroke on June 24, 2009, and that her mother died on August 3, 2015. She also used these as death dates for the inanimate, and I flipped through the pages to confirm which real-life event sparked the death of things like Language and Voice Mail. How did she do that? I wondered while reading. How did she make people care about something so personal? I’ve attended workshops on writing, attended writing seminars, and I’m getting my MFA in creative nonfiction now (Chang is my program director at Antioch), and I’m told, over and over, to find the universality in my own experience. The specificity of these dates is not universal. How do they work in these poems?
Remarkably, the poems that impacted me the most were not the obituaries but the interludes — the free-form work at the center of the collection and the occasional tankas.
These lines in particular made me sob for over an hour: In “I Am a Miner. The Light Burns Blue.”, Chang writes:
“I want a fixed income of you so I can tell you I don’t want you to stay I want to wake each morning and find your cloth figure next to me I want to prick you and paw you I want to be your inseam to tailor you to wear you to be you”
There is no punctuation and the spaces left behind do not mark the ends of statements. There are gaping holes in the grief. This part hit me especially hard one night because this is grief about loss of control. She wants a “fixed income” of this person, something steady and constant, so she can have the freedom to reject it. The speaker of the poem is in such a scarcity mindset about the addressed person, the leaving could never be a choice they would willingly make. Here again, Chang plays with form, making things like salaries and clothes into tactile representations of existing, being alive, being loved.
Chang’s tankas usually include the phrase “My children, children,” addressing them directly. There’s a removal, though, an emotional distance, and there’s a reason for this, a sense of self-preservation. She writes, “To love anyone / means to admit extinction. / I tell myself this / so I never fall in love, / so that the fire lights just me.” This stanza appears in a tanka that does not address her children; in context with the surrounding obituaries, it’s about her parents, about how losing them (to death and to a stroke) has caused her to feel guarded about her love for others. Later, with the repetition of “My children, children,” it’s clear that the distance she means to maintain is with them. It’s not until the last tanka, the last poem in the collection, that she opens herself up to vulnerability.
“My children, children,
this poem will not end because
I am trying to
end this poem with hope hope hope,
see how the mouth stays open?”
When I read this, chills appeared in a wave over my entire body. The repetition — the insistence of hope was so fragile and tender. These lines seem to say, “This is where I’ve been hurt. I trust you.” There’s a wisdom here too that suggests the speaker understands the pain surrounding the death of a loved one is inevitable, that to love someone intimately means, eventually, to suffer. Understanding the inevitability of this pain is the same as understanding one’s own impending death.