Grief is difficult to explain, to share, and to shake off the shoulders like the heavy blanket it can be. Poets have long sought to verbalize grief: to celebrate what’s been lost as well as to mourn through both elegy and ode. The pages of Victoria Chang’s 2020 collection OBIT are filled with such grief, but in unexpected ways. For fear of cliché, Chang initially refused to write elegies for the father and mother that she lost. It wasn’t until she heard the word “obit” that she felt moved to describe the anguish of her loss. On the Poetry Society of America’s website, Chang calls these narrow, obituary-esque poems shaped rectangularly like newspaper column an “attempt to see if I could get to the bone of grief, to see if I could describe it, as if I were telling an imaginary friend about my grief, trying to explain it.”
The obituary poems of OBIT circle wide to encompass all that dies with a person. Poems like “OBIT [Frontal Lobe]” break the existence of a loved one into a collection of nouns, each piece to be mourned using this textual form created to encompass a person’s whole. What Chang has done here is refuse the narrative that a person’s death is a disappearance. It absolutely does not happen all at once; rather, which each passing moment, each task of mourning, comes another small casualty.
It’s another death to go through your mother’s closet with the intent to give up her clothes. “OBIT [Clothes]” catalogues this grief, as the poet stuffs “shirt after shirt” into lawn bags to donate. Chang remakes the obituary into something more than elegy; she expands obituary into a whole new form of storytelling, and I can’t help but think back to Edgar Lee Masters.
In his book Spoon River Anthology, published 105 years before OBIT, Masters does something completely different to (with?) the obituary. Set in a fictitious midwestern town, the book’s Table of Contents reads as an index of names, listing each resident in alphabetical order, last name first, the way a list of obituaries may appear in a newspaper. As if culled from obituaries, each of these poems is a dramatic monologue in the voice of the dead, often examining the intersection between celebration and loss.
In “Fiddler Jones,” the speaker questions what he has left behind in the world after his death: “I ended up with forty acres; / I ended up with a broken fiddle-- / And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories, / And not a single regret.” This feels optimistic, perhaps unrealistic. Maybe the form of a dramatic monologue swings too close to elegy to properly face grief head-on, or maybe grief wasn’t what interested Masters so much as elegy and celebration of the life lived before death.
A certain unshakeable grief has hold of many of us right now, however. There is no denying the loss, anxiety, and straight-up grief we hold close to us every day as we struggle through life in a pandemic. On the PSA website, Chang describes such a grief as an object that scatters. She says, “It’s like smoke, it gets in your hair, your clothes, everywhere, but you can’t touch it, and it never really goes away.”
So what can we do with it?
Maybe we too can write it down, verbalizing the pain as a means to let it go. I think the two poetry collections discussed here light a few different paths for doing so, as both methods of writing death combine fact and fiction, distance and intimacy. Inspired by both Chang and Masters, here is a writing prompt, based in grieving and loss but meant to help us understand what has gripped us so tightly for so many months:
Part 1: Write an obituary for an inanimate object. Think of Chang’s obituaries. What small thing have you lost recently, a favorite pen? A cloth mask? A coffee mug? In prose, describe this object as if it were a loved one. Use two colors, one temperature, one abstract noun, and three action verbs. Think of a sport. Incorporate a childhood memory.
Part 2: Write an elegy based on your obituary. Think of Masters’s persona poems. What voice would this object take on? What narrative would it tell? Incorporate a sound and a type of food. Think of how it feels to breathe.
My hope is that when we put pen to paper together, we can shake off some of that grief that has scattered all around, over, and through us. It may never really go away, but facing it, writing it, may help us understand it better, or at least create something we can share.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/