The front page of the May 24, 2020 print edition of the New York Times, which was covered with a heartbreaking wall of text showing 1,000 obituaries for Americans who died from the coronavirus (culled from nearly 100,000 death notices at the time), chillingly portrays the grim vastness of the tragedy we’re living through. It shows the enormity and unintelligibility of our current moment, as police continue to claim Black and brown lives, and we try to reckon with it all while quarantining; protesting in the streets in the face of brutal police crackdowns; working intense, often low-paying, shifts at newly “essential” jobs in life-threatening environments; trying to avoid death amid medical rationing that excludes disabled people from receiving treatment; and otherwise just living our lives under increasingly tenuous circumstances.
Newly released from Copper Canyon Press is a timely, healing, and unifying collection by Victoria Chang, OBIT, in which she bravely examines the dynamics of death and grief and helps us all start to give shape and language to this inexplicable moment.
Through prose poems in the characteristic, rectangle shape of a newspaper column, with tankas interspersed, Chang challenges us to see the ripple effects of a single death. The poems mourn not only the death of her mother, but also, consequently, the death of everything else: her father’s frontal lobe to a stroke, a blue dress, music, and even herself. The prose poem/obituary form enables her to take a surreal bent reminiscent of work by prose poets James Tate or Charles Simic, expertly conveying the sudden, inundating silence and speechlessness associated with grief, as when she writes in this excerpt from “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” the poem that opens the collection:
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. When the
frontal lobe died, it sucked in its lips like
a window pulled shut.
Here, Chang’s use of dark humor shows the expansiveness of the prose poem form, but it also expresses the helplessness of loss.
Throughout the collection, Chang also asks us to pay attention to the difference between an obituary and an elegy. Her poem, “Empathy,” which mourns the death of empathy “sometime before January 20, 2017,” describes the “many obstacles between” herself and her mother’s illness and father’s dementia, and between the artist and “pain.” It ends with:
The artist is only
visiting pain, imagining it. We praise
the artist, not the apple, not the apple’s
shadow which is murdered slowly.
There must be some way of drawing
a picture so that it doesn’t become an
Toward the end of the book, in “The Head,” she describes the effects of her mother’s head being covered with a blanket after her death:
A sketch of a person
isn’t the person. Somewhere, in the
morning, my mother had become the
sketch. And I would spend the rest of
my life trying to shade her back in.
Again and again, Chang seems to argue, indirectly, that the obituary form allows for a reclamation of life, whereas the elegy, in being a lament for the dead, represents a helpless declaration of loss. That, taking a cue from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” writing that reclamation of life may help us avoid disaster.
She reserves the tankas, a 31-syllable Japanese form that translates to “short song,” for addressing her children about loss. Their condensed form conveys the enormous responsibility parents must shoulder to metabolize grief and loss for their children.
OBIT cracks open the silence around death and grief at a time when we all need it most.
Sarah Katz is a freelance writer who covers the intersection between disability and mental health, relationships, entertainment, and public services. She also occasionally reviews books. Her reviews, essays, and articles appear in Bustle, Elemental, The New York Times, Rooted in Rights, The Washington Post, The Writer's Notebook, and other publications. As an editor, she has worked on the mastheads of The Deaf Poets Society, which she cofounded in 2016, Poet Lore, The Writer's Chronicle, FOLIO, The Writer's Guide, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing, with a focus on poetry, from American University.