"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Monday, May 29, 2023

Review: OBIT by Victoria Chang

If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you should have noticed that I enjoy reading poetry. Not just any poetry, but good poetry. Or more correctly, good poetry that I can understand. That, my friends, is a tall order -- how to locate good poetry that is also understandable by the average woman (me)? My usual techniques often involve 1. Standing in front of the library shelves that house poetry (Dewey Decimal: 811, 821, 831, etc.) at my public library and attempting to divine which are the good volumes of poetry; or 2. Reviewing bloggers' suggestions on-line then ordering a copy from the library; or 3. (And this is what I did this time...) Reading through the award books in the poetry category, deciding which collections sound good and once again ordering up a copy from the library. That is how Obit by Victoria Chang ended up in my hands. I noticed that it made the National Book Award Longlist for Poetry in 2020 so I added it to my TBR.

This is how the publisher summarizes Obit:

After her mother died, poet Victoria Chang refused to write elegies. Rather, she distilled her grief during a feverish two weeks by writing scores of poetic obituaries for all she lost in the world. In Obit, Chang writes of “the way memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking.” These poems reinvent the form of newspaper obituary to both name what has died (“civility,” “language,” “the future,” “Mother’s blue dress”) and the cultural impact of death on the living. Whereas elegy attempts to immortalize the dead, an obituary expresses loss, and the love for the dead becomes a conduit for self-expression. In this unflinching and lyrical book, Chang meets her grief and creates a powerful testament for the living.

I used to read newspaper obituaries more frequently than I do now.  When I did I'd often notice how dispassionate most of them were, written as if standing back a few steps from the deceased person and in a way to create space for grief and privacy at the same time. As a member of a church with an aging congregation I have attended many memorial services where elegies are spoken aloud about the deceased. They not only commemorate the death but celebrate the life of the person often with eloquent, even sometimes, long-winded stories. In Obit Chang does write elegies, sort of, but also uses the more journalistic style of the newspaper obituary, with it's narrow columns. In the opening poems Chang writes an obituary to her father's frontal lobe, which died the day he had a stroke:

My Father’s Frontal Lobe—
died unpeacefully of a 
stroke on June 24, 2009 at 
Scripps Memorial Hospital in 
San Diego, California. Born 
January 20, 1940, 
the frontal lobe enjoyed a good 
life. The frontal lobe loved 
being the boss. It tried to 
talk again but someone put 
a bag over it. *

Of course. We are allowed to mourn the loss of abilities when a loved one has an accident or an infirmity. It makes sense to write an obit for her father's frontal lobe. I often found myself laughing when I read the poems, only to stop myself mid-giggle. "This isn't funny," I'd say to myself. Gallows humor, I guess.

It took me several poems/obits to settle in and figure out how to read and appreciate the book. In fact, I contemplating setting the whole collection aside but decided to give it one more try before sending it back to the library unread.

Her second poem in the collection about the actual death of her mother is more like an actual obituary but it devolves into an odd observation about the misnamed assisted living facility where her mother lived, Walnut Village. "The room was born on July 3, 2012. The Village wasn’t really a village. No walnut trees. Just cut flowers."

In the midst of the obituary poems, Chang changes form and writes open spaced, almost erasure-looking, poems about her own parenting, before returning to the obituary style. I had an even harder time reading these poems that the obituaries, until I read an analysis by another reviewer who realized that these poems were about Chang's own feelings of inadequacy of her parenting skills. "What is more revealing: writing about one’s anxieties as a parent or writing about one’s anxieties about one’s parent? (Kenyon Review) I might add, as a grandmother of young children, there is certainly a mourning which takes place for parents (grandparents) as children move through phases of development, never to be experienced again. Remember when __ used to ___? Sigh.

Interspersed throughout the collection are tankas, little mini sonnets-like poems about Chang's life, family, and her own fear of death. This is a form I am much more familiar with since I often write them myself, sometimes even reviewing books in tankas.

The last obituary in the collection really hit me hard. It was titled the date of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The obit begins: “America—died on February 14, 2018, and my dead mother doesn’t know. Since her death, America has died a series of small deaths each one less precise than the next.” Sadly we are continuing to live this death over and over again in America with no end in sight.

This collection of poems/obituaries is super powerful and has given me cause to pause and think of all the small deaths I have experienced in my life, many related to my own parents.

I highly recommend it but admonish you to be patient with the collection. It will click but it may not happen right away.

* The poem should be justified so that the spacing between words is increased so that the length of each line in the obit is identical. I couldn't figure out how to format that in html. Sorry.


No comments:

Post a Comment

I look forward to your comments and interactions! Join in the conversation.