The Shadowless Gravedigger: On Victoria Chang’s “Obit”

The prose poems and tankas in Victoria Chang’s Obit are less traditional elegies than a series of verbal proofs through which Chang investigates those aspects of experience—grief, pain, love—that seem beyond our capacity to represent them. “Language fails us” more than once in this collection (it gets three obituaries of its own), and yet words are what the speaker of these poems must use both “to calculate my grief” and to convey it. These poems’ generous, meticulous record of grieving is inseparable from Chang’s retooling of poetic form and language.

Chang has described her thinking as “a pinball machine,” and in Obit a reader ricochets through the non-chronological series of poems, panting to keep up with literary references, contemporary events, and philosophical investigations of identity, representation, and memory—all amidst the deaths of “Voice Mail,” “Home,” “Ambition,” “Tomas Tranströmer,” “My Mother’s Lungs,” and “Victoria Chang,” to name a few. Reread chronologically, the poems resolve into the shape of a blast—a kind of grief bomb—with a majority of deaths occurring on the same day Chang’s mother dies, August 3, 2015. Looking back to July 11, Chang’s speaker notes, “Sadness was still indivisible. In twenty-three days it would detonate and shower us like confetti.” Shrapnel from the blast both reactivates past losses, like her father’s language before his stroke, and reverberates into the future. For all of their compulsive “factoring,” then, the written and re-written obits have a static, ground-zero quality that echoes the father’s obsession with walking, which “never died after the stroke but grew instead.” Structurally, the primary drama of the book becomes one of suspense. For how long can the obit writer keep this up?

The stalemate between words and the ineffable is at no point fully resolved in Obit. Chang is too honest a writer to declare a false victory, and the real fascination of this book is in slight shifts that tip the contest first one way, then another. The smallest components of language are examined for how they make and unmake meaning. Parts of speech like pronouns and verbs behave in unpredictable ways, precluding resolution: “[T]he second person dies when a mother dies, reborn as third person as my mother.” Grief is “not actually a noun but a verb . . . it moves.” Rhetorical tools like “Form” and “Similes” also fail: “There was nothing like death, just death. Nothing like grief, just grief.” Obit remains curious about our alienation from language, and thus from our own experience. Images of shadows, animals, photographs, faces, hands, and clothing are reworked as the speaker tries to convey inexpressible inner states.

Perhaps the most insistent metaphor is rain (or snow as “dressed-up rain”), which allows Chang to rework the traditional elegy, with its basic metaphors of darkness, winter, and falling, and to look heavenward and railagainst loss that is inevitable and irreversible. At the end of “Blame,” the speaker from Chang’s third book, The Boss, makes a cameo in order to underline her subordination to grief: “Blame is just an echo of pain, a veil across the face of the one you blame. I blame God. I want to complain to the boss of God about God. What if the boss of God is rain and the only way to speak to rain is to open your mouth to the sky and drown?” This new injection of embodied feeling into Chang’s characteristically cerebral poetry turbocharges her work in Obit. When her speaker relaxes the parry and thrust of existential questions and rests on simple statement, the results are piercing. “[M]y ten-year-old wrapped my dead mother’s bracelet for her own birthday and said it was a gift.” “[My father] called my dead mother over to see his score, hand waving at me . . . I walked over because I wanted to believe him.”

Always Chang has concerned herself with form. And yet the question Obit raises, “How do you walk heavily with subject matter on your back, without trampling all the meadows?”—i.e., how do you write poems that don’t collapse under the weight of their own grief—is answered with a description of a gravedigger at her mother’s site, who “didn’t have a shadow. And when he walked away, the grass didn’t flatten . . . . I suddenly recognized this man as love.” It is hard to imagine the driven speakers of Chang’s first four books giving such an answer. And it takes the speaker of Obitthe whole bookto accept that she must admit grief in order to admit love––and to break the obsessive run of obituaries. Obit, which opened with her father telling her that her miscarried fetus “is not really a baby,” closes with the death of “America” during the Parkland shooting. In this penultimate poem, the speaker imagines an afterlife for the first time: “My dead mother asks each of these children if they know me, have seen me, how tall my children are now. They will tell her that they once lived in Florida, not California. She will see the child with the hole in his head. She will blow the dreams out of the hole like dust.” In the final tankas, the speaker, finely and finally balanced between death and hope, can say “I am ready to / admit I love my children.” As a lyrical case study of a person coming to accept the hard terms of such love, Obit offers both instruction and solace.