“We moved him upstairs to memory care,” Victoria Chang writes in her new poetry collection Obit, speaking of her father, who suffers from dementia. “As if strangers could somehow care for his memory.” Chang attempts to access lost familial memory in Obit, a series of poetic obituaries composed as Chang grieves for her dead mother—and for the myriad deaths that followed her mother’s passing. Chang fills out skinny, journalistic blocks of prose poetry as launchpads to perform a kind of “memory care” for her parents while also being aware that transcribing such grief into words is utterly impossible. Chang tackles grief by composing obituary after obituary, and Obit reckons with death by swimming inside it: mother, father, the self, relationships, logic, time, and memory all die and are obituarized. By killing herself multiple times, Chang exercises authorial control as well as a literary ego death, writing out of life’s endpoint rather than driving towards it.
Obit revolves around the August 2015 passing of Chang’s mother, but it is her father, specifically her father’s “Frontal Lobe,” that gets the first obituary in the collection. Chang’s father, whose dementia has eroded his capacity to string together words, floats through the collection and can be read as Chang’s poetic avatar, a macabre embodiment of a person unwilling to put up with their speechlessness. Chang’s father, as a poetic subject, works tragicomically: in one representative instance, he responds to a neurologist asking “What’s your name?” by saying “What what the system is…” Yet Chang is careful never to romanticize nor objectify her father, and instead highlights the similarities between them. She writes, “I think about my father and his lack of first thoughts, how every thought is a second or third or fourth thought, unable to locate the first most important thought.” Chang’s poetic expression of grief works around these same constraints, unable to encapsulate that “first thought,” albeit with different stakes: in an obituary to the “Subject Matter” of grief, she writes, “what we are left with is architecture, form, sound, all in a room, darkened, a few chairs unarranged.”
Structurally, Obit as a collection is deprived of narrative telos, or a smooth progression through the stages of grief, and instead digs itself further into this “darkened room,” the “unarranged chairs” a messy collage of obituaries. However, many of these obituaries contain narrative elements within, often landing on an epiphanic moment; for example, “[…]death is simply death, each slightly different from the next but the final strike all the same,” or “We read to inherit the words, but something is always between us and the words.” Although these epiphanies are often cryptic and abstract, they provide glimpses into Chang’s own process of reckoning with the onslaught of deaths that occur concurrently with the death of her mother. Each obituary also pushes the reader further and further into Chang’s poetic grief, though we’re given an occasional moment to catch our breath with the sporadic insertion of a tanka, the Japanese poetic form of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line, as well as a series of pseudo-sonnets that divides the two chunks of obituaries. These interruptions often dwell on Chang’s children, offering both her and the reader the potential of life amidst the assurance of death.
Chang, like her father, struggles toward a “first thought,” often through poetic paradox, just like how “memory care” itself is a paradox, especially as the relationship between mother and daughter painted through Chang’s poems is fraught with holes. In an obituary to “Music,” for example, Chang attends her mother’s funeral and plays the song “Hallelujah” to accompany a montage of old photos. Afterward, “someone took the monitor and speakers away. But the music was still there. This was my first understanding of grief.” Memory is similarly expressed in paradoxes that traffic in an absent-presence, like “the ringing after a gunshot,” and imagination, too, becomes the task of “having to live in a dead person’s future.” These images show us that Chang is grieving not only for her dead mother, but also for the incapability of language to give her grief and dying its due diligence. “No word exists for about to die but dying,” Chang writes. For Chang, figurative language proves unsatisfactory when compared to the depth of her grief. She writes, “When language leaves, all you have left is tone, all you have left is smoke signals.”
Obit’s most trenchant moments arise out of this realization that “all you have left is tone,” and for Chang, the tone is often raw anger. There is the aforementioned anger toward the limitations of the English language, but also a real-life, unadorned anger emanating out of Chang’s grief. Chang expresses frustration towards the caretakers who half-heartedly watched over her parents, the distant doctors who couldn’t possibly know how to properly tend to her father. Chang takes down Updike’s rhapsodizing of death—he writes, “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”—with a straightforwardly brutal, “Updike must not have watched someone slowly suffocating.” Yet, once more, Chang is quick to express her own complicity within the poetic grief industry, writing in the same obituary, “The living seem to be the only ones who hypothesize about death. The only ones who try to lift it up.”
Chang also expresses dissatisfaction towards the elegy, the traditional form writers have used to poeticize death. She writes, “There must be some way of drawing a picture so that it doesn’t become an elegy.” Chang even composes an obituary for the “Obituary Writer,” in which she writes, “The obituary writer said the obituary is the moment when someone becomes history. What if my mother never told me stories about the war or about her childhood?” All of Chang’s rejections and negations point us back toward the intrinsic nature of grieving, that it is an altogether different language, a defamiliarization of available forms. That it is not just a person who dies, but the ecosystem surrounding her. For Chang, small blocks of prose tucked into a slim volume is all that remains: piecemeal memories of touching her mother’s hand, of feeding her Taco Bell, of changing out her soiled clothes, and of visiting her mother’s grave with her own children. With her father, who remains physically present but is lost to dementia, Chang calls back to similar memories, mundane but sacred: her father erecting a slipshod basketball net, or putting on his pants backward in a fitting room.
At the end of Obit, the survivors left standing are Chang’s children and the reader, placing Chang in a position where she is helping “someone grow while helping someone die.” It is within this “sandwich generation,” as sociologists have deemed it, that Chang is constricted in her middle age, attempting to take responsibility for three generations of her family. “Memory care” works in concert with this responsibility, as Chang pries memory from the past and chooses which recollections to repackage and push into the future for her children, who “sleep with framed photos of my mother.” And just as difficult is Chang’s care for herself, which she mediates at least partially through poetry, responding to the dilemma she cannot escape from, wherein “my father’s brain won’t stop walking, and my dead mother is everywhere.”
“My children, children, / This poem will not end because / I am trying to / end this poem with hope hope hope,” Chang writes near the close of the collection. The feigned gesture reads humorously and absurdly given what has transpired in the past hundred pages, the heaviness that coats the reader in secondhand grief and thirdhand memory. Yet Obit does end, and what lingers are glimpses of hope, of Chang’s dry and piercing humor. Left in my mind are the fleeting “framed photos” of care that Chang distills, small moments like, “I trimmed her nails one by one while the morphine kept her asleep,” or an illustration of her mom tending to “her bonsai plants each morning, snipping gently, adjusting tiny sprinklers, beckoning them with her breath.” These mundane acts neither save Chang nor bring her to some capital T-truth, but they capture the tone of these obituaries, where grief is tended to and given space. As for her own children, Chang cares for them through a tragicomic reflection that, “I am ready to / admit I love my children. / To admit this is / to admit that they will die.”