Obit, by Victoria Chang. Copper Canyon Press, 2020.
(Update: For a much broader and more in-depth look at Obit, read Ilya Kaminsky’s interview with Victoria Chang.)
In her new collection, Obit, Victoria Chang address, tackles, teases apart grief—always a giant, messy subject. Here, it’s larger, as the poems explore mourning the death of her mother and her father’s stroke. The poems use the format of an obituary, with a subject and a date or a time frame, to return to all the aspects, large and small, of illness and death. She writes of the deaths, on their dates, but she includes an obituary for her mother’s lungs, which “began / their dying sometime in the past.” Another poem addresses her father’s stroke: “Logic—My father’s logic died on June / 24, 2009 in bright daylight. Murdered / in the afternoon.”
The poems circle around and return to the dates of death, the dates of the stroke, and in these recurrences embody, for me, the experience of grief and its unsettling relationship with memory. In “Friendships,” Chang notes: “It’s true, / the grieving speak a different language. / I am separated from my friends by / gauze.” She includes a poem for the dress her mother wore before cremation, a poem for giving all the old clothes away, poems about the doctors, even self-portraits (“Victoria Chang”).
It’s not just the way that she looks hard at grief’s many faces, but her imagery. In “The Ocean,” she says, “The water in / my body wanted to pour into the ocean / and I imagined myself being washed / by the water, my body separating into / the droplets it always was.”
Throughout the book are paired poems, shorter, like small interruptions, many of which begin, “I tell my children.” The middle section, “I am a miner. The light burns blue” (from Sylvia Plath), uses space and fragmentation that explodes grief open and embodies isolation.
It feels odd to say that, since first seeing some of the “Obit” poems in journals, I’ve been looking forward to this collection, just as it feels odd to call a poem about grieving “beautiful.” Because it isn’t. But these hard looks at loss, for me, spoke powerfully toward healing.