Guest Poetry Blog Series #15 – Canadian Poet Catherine Owen Features American Poet Victoria Chang – Part Two of Two

American poet Victoria Chang: Photo Credit: Jay Glendenin, Los Angeles Times

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

Victoria Chang from OBIT, Copper Canyon Press, 2020

Elegies are my most exquisite addiction. No, obsession. And possibly, the most essential task of poetry is commemoration. And yet, we live in a self-consciously apocalyptic time in which everything seems to turn elegy. So how to make the sub-genre sing again, become rupturous, rapturous?

Victoria Chang’s 2020 collection OBIT has been that form-shaker for me, transforming what is often a typically lyrical response into a puncturingly interrogative one that points to how worlds perish when people do, even if they remain alive in body as her father has, but erased mentally through dementia.

Beginning with her father’s stroke, then her mother’s death, Chang then turns to what we rarely consider in elegies: the eradication of memory, friendships, ambition, empathy, home. It’s not only people who are taken from us but their contexts, their signifiers. And our responses to them also.

Each of these pieces in OBIT is a prosey-slam of tombstone proportions. The epigraph poem for this post above is a good example.

The use of the verb “died” in Tears to describe any kind of loss in general is both surreal and utterly accurate, giving the poems their unheimlich aura. Chang’s line breaks add to the jolting feeling of multiple recognitions and strainings towards definitions or distinctions. The whirling pinwheel of possibilities, meaninglessness.

OBIT is so perfectly attuned to its tunings. These poem blocks slam slam slam and then paired tankas on her children are interspersed to provide breath-notes amid a central long meditation full of gasps and lacunas called I am a Miner. The Light Burns Blue.

But it is the strange elegies for elegy almost itself that I return to. As in this one on grief:

Grief – as I knew it, died many times. It
died trying to reunite with other lesser
deaths. Each morning I lay out my
children’s clothing to cover their grief.
The grief remains but is changed by
what it is covered with. A picture of
oblivion is not the same as oblivion.
My grief is not the same as my pain. My
mother was a mathematician so I tried
to calculate my grief. My father was an
engineer so I tried to build a box around
my grief, along with a small wooden
bed that grief could lie down on. The
texts kept interrupting my grief, forcing
me to speak about nothing. If you cut
out a rectangle of a perfectly blue sky,
no clouds, no wind, no birds, frame it
with a blue frame, place it faceup on
the floor of an empty museum with an
open atrium to the sky, that is grief.

Victoria Chang, ibid

No one else can define grieving and one grief is not the same as another. The blues multiply, yielding precise and endless mourning. Chang’s poems in OBIT are fragments of irreconcilable absence one can return to ad infinitum. And the final lines are:this poem will not end because/I am trying to/end this poem with hope hope hope/see how the mouth stays open?

By Catherine Owen, May 2023

Note from Recovering Words: OBIT was the recipient of numerous awards and nominations. These include: 2021 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry; 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry; 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Short-list, 2021 International Griffin Poetry Prize; longlist, 2020 National Book Award in Poetry; Finalist, 2020 National Book Critics Award in Poetry; finalist, 2021 Firecracker Award in Poetry


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