Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
OBIT by Victoria Chang is a long elegy for the poet’s mother, the kind of poetry collection that creates a genre all its own. A reinvention of form? A symphony? A manifesto? All of the above, and then some. It is heartbreaking in its use of the obituary form (“My Mother’s Teeth — died twice, once in 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. Once again, on August 3, 2015. The fake teeth sit in a box in the garage. When she died, I touched them, smelled them, thought I heard a whimper. I shoved the teeth into my mouth”) and also enthralling. It sings and instructs (“I tell my children / that hope is like a blue skirt, / it can twirl and twirl, / that men like to open it”). It is an elegy also for our country, for our way of life. This brilliant and inimitable book is a world all its own, but one that changes ours.
QUESTION: Your book, OBIT, offers elegies for so many things around us, for your mother, for yourself, for your country, for a myriad other things. Can you speak about this? And, what is the relationship between language and grief, for you?
VICTORIA CHANG: I’ve been asked a lot of questions since this book has entered the world, and since then, I have come to think that the book came to be from my circumstance, meaning the circumstance of illness and death, which is unique in each situation. My mother had been ill for a very long time. Then my father had a big stroke about 12 years ago, and her illness immediately started worsening. While both of them struggled through these challenges, and my mother ultimately died, I’ve witnessed the long slow illnesses of both of my parents (and the death of one). Twelve years is kind of a long time when I think back on it. A lot can happen in that time. A lot of little deaths when compared to say, a three-month illness and death or a car crash. I think that fragmentation of death is how this book came to be. Death and illness ended up being (and still is) a part of my daily life. My own illnesses and chronic pain, along with raising two small children, led to a flood of different emotions and small elegies, pain, (and joys) every day.
Language is many things to me. Perhaps it is everything. It may mean different things to different people, but it is what I have that is truly wholly mine. Yet it can also never be wholly mine because it is always coming and going, and changing. In some ways, language is a form of grief because it is so slippery and can never match any meaning precisely. Yet it is one thing we have to describe grief. Tears can serve that function too, but so does silence. Now I’ve forgotten the question! Perhaps language and grief are cousins then — in that they both interweave through everything but exist nowhere.