OBIT by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I wrote my first and only obituary in 2018, for my uncle. His name was Thom. He died quite suddenly, at 48, after decade-old cancer cells appeared again in his colon, took over his liver, swallowed him up.
Which is to say that I am no expert in the articulation of existence. And anyway, how do you go about writing a single document that might convey the precious, imperfect, complicated, wonderful nuances of an entire life? For Victoria Chang, the obituary is not just a death notice, but a mode. In her latest collection, OBIT, she asks: What continues to live when someone we love dies? What dies with them?
“I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to a scent” (18)
In this collection, Chang has crafted an entire book of obituaries for an endless array of objects and emotions and experiences, some tangible and some not (see: “Gait” “Empathy” “Reason” “Oxygen”). All of these obituaries, however, tie back to pivotal moments in the decline of her parents – her mother, now deceased, and her father, whose memory has died but whose body lives on in a care home. In this sea of losses, we find meditations on death, and love, and forgiveness – the normal fixings of elegy. But we also find resentment. We find fear, and irritation, and uncertainty. We find poems which speak to a more full experience of death – poems which don’t shy away from the flaws of the dead, the inconvenience and expense of dying.
“Is language the broom or what’s being swept? When I first read I love you, some hand spun a fine thread around my lungs and tightened. Because my father had never said that to me before” (9).
Chang’s obituaries are interrupted by tankas, which are written to and for her children. In these short poems, she reflects on the troubling, beautiful, painful experience of motherhood:
“Do you see the tree?
Its secrets grow as lemons.
Sometimes I pretend
I love my children more than
words – no one knows this but words” (66)
In these poems, Chang finds connection and communion with her parents, and the contradictory ideologies of parenting – that belief that we should love our children more than anything, and the fact that love is finicky, and we are all inherently selfish. As Chang writes about her parents’ decline, and their lack of love, she also writes about her own struggle to be a mother. These moments, in which Chang embodies the role of parent in a critique of parent-child relationships, allows her to develop a more nuanced definition of love throughout the collection. Chang blames her parents, and knows her children will blame her: “Blame is just an echo of pain, a veil across the face of the one you blame” (71). Despite this, love persists. It is apparent in every poem in this collection, a sigh or a breath between words, a certainty.
As we face death head-on as a nation, and as a planet, Chang’s poems can speak to all of us. I love this book because it allows grief to exist alongside anger, permits our living, imperfect emotions to sit beside our love, our reverence, the confusion of our loss. Chang reminds us that when we lose someone we love, we lose a part of ourselves – the person we were with them. She insists on expressing grief, though we will always do it imperfectly, through obituaries and through the breathless lines of Part II, where words tumble over each other, seeking permanence:
“light is not happiness I seek the underside
of you the mossy dark follicle side light includes
everything it is perfectly bound and because perfect
darkness is impossible to create I seek it as an eye
seeks the black cavity of another eye” (56)
Chang describes the feelings we have for the dead as formless, a dead loved one as a sketch of themselves that we are trying to fill with color. We will fail, and that is the point. We cannot get back what we lose, and we cannot fill our many absences. And though this is a collection rooted in grief, it is also about what we give each other. The pain of loss can’t exist without the urgency of love. Chang captures this, in all its perfect mundanity. She allows us to look at “the underside… the mossy dark follicle” and see for ourselves what it means to know another person.