June 28, 2020
Chang’s latest collection, Obit (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), has received a number of very positive reviews. You can find one such review by going to Carol Muske-Dukes’ article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, available on-line. Or you can just read what I have to say in just three words: Buy this book. Seriously, just do it.
If you are tuned in to the poetry world on a regular basis, you probably already know that the majority of poems in this book are shaped precisely like an obituary — thin columns with perfect borders. You might think “gimmick.” But you’d be wrong. The immense power of the language in the work quickly dissuades you from any notion of cuteness or manipulation. Each poem deserves to appear in the form Chang has created for it. This book literally stunned me with its depth of emotion, emotion that can only be relayed by someone like Chang, a woman with a wide open door to human experience who allows it in, who can tap into what Lorca calls duende to pull us in with her.
And lest you think that this collection is about one death, know that most poems begin with a different death, though they’re all connected. Yes, her beloved father’s frontal lobe died as the result of a stroke, yes her mother died, but also “Tears died on August 3, 2016,” “Yesterday died at midnight,” “Voice mail died on June 24, 2009,” and more.
In responding to these poems, I had to ask myself if I was drawn to them solely because my mother was paralyzed from a stroke for the last 5 years of her life. Certainly there is a type of call-and-response effect here. Personally, I get the pain. And, yes, both of my parents (one whom I didn’t know) have died. But there’s more than the shared experience here. There’s a profound appreciation of how Chang has created a perfect collection of perfect poems. Publisher’s Weekly says “Chang is emerging as an exciting voice in contemporary poetry.” Emerging? No. She’s here.
My “program” will not allow me to present her poems in those tightly structured obituary shapes. With apologies to Chang I ask you to please imagine those borders as you read. And then go get the book; just a few poems here will not be enough.
Tears-died on August 3, 2016. Once
we stopped at a Vons to pick up
flowers and pinwheels on our way to
the graveyard It had been a year and
death no longer glittered. My ten-year-
old putting the flowers perfectly in the
small narrow hole in front of the stone.
How she somehow knew what the hole
was for, that my mother wasn’t really on
the other side. Suddenly, our sobbing.
How many times have I looked into the
sky for some kind of message, only to
find content but no form. She ran back
to the car. The way grief takes many
forms, as tears or pinwheels. The way
the word haystack never conjures up
the same image twice. The way we
assume all tears taste the same. The
way our sadness is plural, but grief is
Appetite-died its final death on
Father’s Day, June 21, 2015, peacefully
and quietly among family. We dressed
my other, rolled her down in her
wheelchair. The oxygen machine
breathing like an animal. They were
the only Chinese people at the facility.
The center table was loud again, was
invite-only again. Like always, I filled my
mother’s plates with food. Her favorite
colored puddings, contained in plastic
cups. When we got up to leave, her
food still there, glistening like worms.
No one though much of it. There are
moments that are like brushstrokes,
when only much later after the ocean
is finished, become the cliff’s edge
that they were all along Death is our
common ancestor. It doesn’t care
whom we have dined with.
Friendships-died a slow death after
August 3, 2015. The friends visited my
father. They sat in chairs and spoke
Chinese. Wore dictionaries for coats.
Strange looks between spouses. The
friends went home feeling good that
they had done their duty, picked up
odds and ends of words. Each had
memories of offices, of seeing the other
side of the sun. The visits lessened and
lessened. They were being pursued by
their own deaths. I wonder about the
leaves and their relationship with fruit.
Do the leaves care about the swelling
of the fruit? Does the fruit consider the
leaves while it expands? Maybe the
leaves shade the fruit as it grows and
the fruit emits fragrance for the leaves.
But eventually, each must face its own
Sadness-dies while the man across
the street trims the hedges and I can
see my children doing cartwheels. Or
in the moment I sit quietly and listen
to the sky, consider the helicopter or
the child’s hoarse breathing at night.
Time after a death changes shape, it
rolls slightly downhill as if it knows to
move itself forward without our help.
Because after a death, there is no
moving on despite the people waving
us through the broken lights. There is
only a stone key that fits into one stone
lock. But the dead are holding the
key. And the stone is a boulder in a
stream. I wave my memories in, beat
them with a wooden spoon, just for a
moment, to stop the senselessness of
time, the merriment, just for a moment
to feel the tinsel of death again, its dirty
I am ready to
admit I love my children.
To admit this is
to admit that they will die.
Die: no one knows this but words.
My children, children,
this poem will not end because
I am trying to
end this poem with hope hope hope,
see how the mouth stays open?
Victoria Chang’s prior books are Barbie Chang; The Boss; Salvinia Molesta; and Circle. Her children’s picture book, Is Mommy?, was illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster. It was named a Notable Book by the New York Times. Her middle grade novel, Love, Love, was published by Sterling Publishing. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Residency Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles and is the program chair of Antioch’s low-residency MFA program.