Obit by Victoria Chang

obit
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Written in the slender, right-justified form of newspaper columns, so familiar to readers of obituaries, these poems are no less lyrical for their journalistic form. Two events inform these poems.  “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” the first poem, begins:
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My   Father’s   Frontal  Lobe  –     died
unpeacefully  of  a  stroke  on June 24,
2009 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in
San Diego, California.
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The second poem, “My Mother,” begins:
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My Mother died unpeacefully  on  August 3, 2015 in her room at Walnut Village Assisted Living in Anaheim, California, of pulmonary fibrosis.
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These two dates, June 24, 2009, and especially August 3, 2015, recur again and again as Chang writes the obituaries for what has been lost – “Victoria Chang” died June 24, 2009: “Because he did / not die but all of his words did.”  In the first poem, “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” she has written:
.                                                   When the
frontal lobe died, it sucked in its lips like a window pulled  shut.  At the funeral for his words, my father wouldn’t stop   talking, and his love passed through me….
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“Voice Mail,” “The Future,” “Civility” (“Maybe / this is what happens when language / fails, a last breath inward but no breath / outward.”); “Reason” (“My father’s words / taken out of his brain and left downstairs.”), “The Clock” also died on June 24, 2009, the circumstances of their loss and the questions their loss provokes noted in separate obits.
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Things that died August 3, 2015, for which she writes obits, include “My Mother’s Teeth” (“…died twice, once in / 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. / Once again on August 3, 2015.”); “Ambition” (“I buried ambition in / the forest, next to distress.”); “Chair,” “Approval” (“I love so many things I / have never touched: the moon, a shiver, / my mother’s heart.”); “Form,” “Optimism,” “Friendships” (“…died a slow death after / August 3, 2015.”) ; “The Doctors,” “Time,” “The Situation” (“at least part of the situation; my father / was the other situation.”); “The Head,” “Hindsight,” “The Priest,” “Similes” (“There was nothing like death, just / death. Nothing like grief, just grief.”); “Language,” “Clothes” and “The Face.”
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There are plenty of other dates and other things whose passing is noted in their own obits, because the overarching themes in these poems are grief and language and their intricate intersections. “Grief,” indeed, gets its own obit (“Grief – as I knew it, died many times.”).  But there are so many insights into the grieving process throughout these poems.  “…our sadness is plural, but grief is / singular,” she writes in the obit for “Tears.” In one of the several obits for “Victoria Chang” she notes, “When someone / dies, there is a constant feeling of / wanting to speak to someone….”  In the obit for “Oxygen,” she recalls her mother’s difficulty with breathing that the pulmonary fibrosis caused (“I’m not sure / when I began to notice her panic / without the oxygen….”) and reflects:
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Like   grief,  the   way   it  dangles   from
everything like earrings.  The  way   grief
needs oxygen. The way every once in a while   it   catches   the  light   and   starts
smoking. The way my grief will die  with
me.
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Juxtaposed against her obit poems for the death of her mother and the crippling of her father are tankas written about her own motherhood, for her own children. This Japanese five-line form is so appropriate for these brief reflections. Each of these intervals contains two such stanzas. Several of them begin with the line, “I tell my children,” and several others with “My children, children.” The very first of the tanka intervals reads:
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My children, children,
there’s applesauce everywhere,
but it’s not for you.
It is strange to help someone
grow while helping someone die.
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*
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Each time I write hope,
the letters fray and scatter.
The hopeful poets
never seem to have dreams,
never seem to have children.
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Indeed, “hope” is so entangled with “grief” that it’s tough sometimes to distinguish the two. In an obit for “Hope,” which “died on October 15, 2014 when / the FDA approved two drugs, Esbriet / and Ofev for pulmonary fibrosis,” Chang alludes to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) when she writes:
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                    Hope is the wildest bird,
the one that flies so fast it will either
disappear or burst into flames.
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OBIT concludes on a wider angle, as if, as in a movie, the lens widens to include a more expansive vision.  For the final obit is for “America,” which “died on February 14, 2018, / and my dead mother doesn’t know.” That’s the date of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, in which seventeen people, most of them children, were gunned down, and over a dozen others were injured. Though certainly not the last school shooting, in many ways the Parkland shooting marked a change when the children themselves said enough is enough and began to protest the insanity of guns in the United States.  And thus, after so much grief, so much noting of loss after loss after loss, Victoria Chang concludes her collection on a redemptive note, with the final tanka:
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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.
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*.
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?
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –
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