Victoria Chang’s collection of mostly prose poetry, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press, calls on a literary tradition of loss that builds from the poets whom Chang references such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and I would say more modern poets like Sharon Olds and even Ted Kooser in his discussion of the loss of his father. Chang is a Los Angeles-based poet who has reached that time in her life when she must deal with the death of the previous generation, and Obit is simultaneously about that loss and the strange position those who mourn are put into.
With the gravity of loss, any other concern seems trivial and moving on with one’s life seems wrong. She discusses that emotion most directly in “The Doctors” where she writes, “To yearn for someone’s quick death seems wrong. To go to the hospital cafeteria and hunch over a table of toasts, pots of jam, butter glistening seems wrong. To want to extend someone’s life who is suffering seems wrong” (68). Anyone who has witnessed the process of the death and dying knows what she is capturing so well here. Even acknowledging that one feels awkward seems wrong because that emotion cannot compare to death, so we, like her, are left not knowing how to deal with death because we have no training for it.
Obit also clearly shows us how long the process of dying can be; the narrator’s father suffers from dementia and her mother from pulmonary fibrosis. She has to watch as her mother loses oxygen over months and years. The knowledge of the coming death is overwhelming, and her father’s dementia after a stroke turns a once intelligent mind foggy. In “Language,” she writes, “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated” (10). It is a slow burning pain developed throughout the collection, and her poems like the reality of this condition are complex and subtle.
This was a painful book for me to read, but also a necessary one. I read it slowly having to deal with the pain that is in my life as well, but that is not to say I didn’t welcome the process. This is a healing book. Part of the problem with dealing with death is that we do not have a good vocabulary for it, and we feel that there are so many aspects that should not be discussed as though our emotions surrounding death cheapen it. That fact makes the process so much more difficult, but here, Chang is speaking about it out loud. By doing so, she is giving us a vocabulary for mourning.
John Brantingham 3rd February 2021