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STARRED Book Review: Obit

OBIT by Victoria Chang compresses the immense grief, emptiness, and the peace and passion of existence into coffin-shaped obituaries. Check out what Yu-Hsuan Wu has to say in this Copper Canyon Press book review.

STARRED Book Review: Obit

Reviewed by Yu-Hsuan Wu

Peel the heart of death, grasp the language of life

The death of a loved one takes root in us, breathes our sorrow, wraps our memory around tightly, and strangles blood. How are we going to live with this part of us dead? Faced with her father’s stroke and mother’s death, Asian-American poet Victoria Chang’s 2020 collection of poems Obit vacuum-compresses the immense grief, emptiness, and the peace and passion of existence into coffin-shaped obituaries.

This entire collection is composed of obituaries. The middle of each page is neatly placed in a writing format that imitates a newspaper obituary, listing the deceased, the date and place of death, and the cause of death in sequence. The length of the text varies from about 110 to 180 words. Victoria Chang mourns 55 dead things: Father’s frontal lobe, voicemail, mother’s lungs, secrets, doctor, mom’s teeth, appetite, logic, yesterday, mother’s favorite potted tree, civility, future, blue dress, America….

The obituary’s farewell object is Victoria Chang’s handling of her and their entangled histories, a process of power dialectics that penetrate and sculpt each other. For example, this obituary she wrote for “Language:”

“Language” is here as an object of gaze, and Victoria Chang focuses on “how the relationship between language and me is broken.” In nearly every obituary, she describes a fatal moment: the futile attempt of survivors to contend with fate. The suffocating details of life scratched at her heart. She felt pain. She tried to restore the dignity and weight of life, and in the end she always had to learn from death—“poetic” cannot change the wounds of death.

The obituary format, far from poetic at first glance, has become a guiding path for emotional release. A flustered and disordered heart needs something like this: dryness, indifference, restraint, and outspokenness. This limitation in the form of writing leads to a new sense of freedom in writing, which makes all the flat narratives have bizarre twists and turns, and retains the complex traces of frustration, resentment, paranoia, attachment and forgiveness in the face of death.

Victoria Chang is no longer delusional about death, neither seeking redemption nor rejecting scars. It seems to me that every obituary is asking: Have I, who survived, died with the dead? At the same time, my children have not stopped growing up, so how can we survive with hope in the shadow of death? How does the death and life of a loved one force my love to be born out of fear?

“Love” is the endless pursuit, the endless leaning toward understanding. As she writes in “My Mother’s Teeth:”: “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 like a scent. …I always knew that grief was something I could smell. But I didn’t know that it’s not actually a noun but a verb. That it moves.”

The cover of the book features a photo of Victoria Chang and her own obituary, which underscores the eerie and intense writing position: My mourning has also given me death, and I draw the dynamism of life in these sticky things of memory, to find meaning to attach, to gain the power to understand and define.

The first of Obit goes from the death of her father’s frontal lobe after a stroke into the death proposition of this collection of poems: a person is not dead, but all their words are dead.

Stroke aphasia, unable to utter a complete sentence with meaning to express feelings and thoughts, even if I open my mouth, I can only spit out broken words, saying I love you as I’ll fold the juice. The father of the stroke cannot be revealed by words, and there is a rift between the world and his existence. Isn’t this also the state of division that Victoria Chang, who lost her mother, fell into? Aphasia is not a language problem, but a loss of the ability to connect with yourself and the world. Her father’s aphasia is also her aphasia, “As if he were visiting his past self in prison, touching the clear glass at his own likeness.”

Exhausting the boundaries of expression in order to describe death and take a step closer to death is the spiritual core of these poems. Victoria Chang is not afraid that the description will inevitably distort and reconstruct the appearance of the object, the words are born one by one and the real image will fade little by little. She is not afraid of falling into the danger of such a paradoxical definition. She can sharply point out how everyday rhetoric stifles emotional weight and how everyday rhetoric absurdly saves emotional ruptures in an overwhelmed atmosphere.

In between the long and heavy obituaries, Victoria Chang occasionally intersperses tankas she wrote to her children, blowing light and warm air: “You don’t need a thing / from me, you already have / everything you need: / the moon, a wound on the lake, / our footprints to not follow.” And in the center of the poetry collection are 12 pages of fragmented words and long poems that contain countless blank spaces. From the structure of the whole book, these free and disordered murmurs are like the heart of the obituary, propping up the symmetrical body of the obituary on both sides.

Long poems have no punctuation, and verses start at the left edge of the page and flow to the border at the other edge. Intermittent words occupy the entire space, and there are a lot of blanks and pauses between words and phrases, so in terms of visual and semantic advancement, each word is so isolated, surrounded by blank spaces, as if refusing to generate meaning.

Each obituary in the collection occupies only a small space on the page, but it is full of emotions, experiences, reflections, and poetic associations, while the long poems that occupy the entire page seem to attack meaning with blanks and pauses. Victoria Chang struggles through the blank spaces and aphasia before she can figure out her own words bit by bit. Her every word is struggling to get it back from the blank. Writing and placing her own being is not at all easy, not even coherent. The establishment of meaning is full of gaps.

The three written forms that make up the book—obituaries, tankas, long poems—also have three different levels of intonation and emotion. The obituary is interspersed with inquiries: “Is language the broom or what’s being swept? At what point does a raindrop accept its falling? The moment the cloud begins to buckle under it or the moment the ground pierces it and breaks its shape? I wonder who lifted her up into the fire? I wonder what sound the body made as it burned?” This is the question of Victoria Chang as a daughter. The focus is not on the content of the question, but on the attitude of the question itself, revealing the self-positioning of children looking up to their parents and looking up to the huge world to seek answers.

The tankas presents a stark admonition: “I tell my children / that hope is like a blue skirt, / it can twirl and twirl”, “My children, children, / remember to let me go, / delete my number, / save the number of the trees. / Remember, the lemons speak.” This is the ardent call of Victoria Chang as a mother to her children. Through the absoluteness of sentence patterns and emotions, she lays out a way of living, eager to open up the boundaries of imagination or the horizon of action for her children.

Throw uncertainty on parents and give certainty to children. Victoria Chang’s private self-talk is a long poem at the heart of the poetry collection. There are no demanding questions, no irrigation warnings, but random whispers without any scruples. Because of the loss of the role given by the relationship, she can allow herself to be broken, out of focus, fluid, and void.

It’s hard not to notice that the inscription in the first chapter of Obit cites William Shakespeare’s “Give sorrow words” from Macbeth as a clear indication of the emotional drive to write these obituaries, tankas, and long poems, but I think the last poem’s existence can better highlight the faraway place that Victoria Chang’s writing intends to reach:

She unearths all forms and meanings of death, calls them by new names, and reposes for them. She counts the unknown death events of her life. Death in death and new life in death are the central themes. If “sadness” is the starting point of writing this collection, then “hope” is what writing itself desires to leave behind. When Victoria Chang writes down the time of death of everything, she also marks the point at which she ends her relationship with them. In those moments, she regains her newfound freedom.

Freed from her relationship with mother, secret, memory, time and language, she is no longer bound by mother, secret, memory, time, and language. Victoria Chang went into a state of orphans, and the book of mourning became the book of liberty. Love and hope are born from the scars of death. She knows the dead are an image of wind. And when they comb their hair, our trees rustle.

Publisher: Copper Canyon Press

Genre: Poetry

Print Length: 120 pages

ISBN: 978-1556595745

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