In show one of two, Victoria Chang discusses writing poetry that gets close to human feeling, while knowing that language will never be able to get to the entirety of that feeling. Written after her mother died, Obit, her new book, is an inch from sorrow; it’s a remarkable book for anyone dealing with grief (as we all are during the pandemic). Obit is as interested in consolation and acceptance as it is in the fearsome expression of the unbearable aspects of grief.
An excerpt from “Obit,” by Victoria Chang.
Ambition—died on August 3, 2015, a
sudden death. I buried ambition in the
forest, next to distress. They used to
take walks together until ambition
pushed distress off the embankment.
Now, they put a bracelet around my
father’s ankle. The alarm rings when
he gets too close to the door. His
ambitious nature makes him walk to
the door a lot. When the alarm rings,
he gets distressed. He remembers that
he wants to find my house. He thinks
he can find my house. His fingerprints
have long vanished from my house.
Some criminals put their fingers on
electric coils of a stove to erase their
fingerprints. But it only makes them
easier to find. They found my father in
the middle of the road last month, still
like a bulbless lamp, unable to recall its
function, confused like the moon. At
the zoo, a great bald eagle sits in a
small cage because of a missing wing.
Its remaining wing is grief. Above the
eagle, a bird flying is the eagle’s
memory and its prey, the future.
Copyright © 2018 by Victoria Chang. Originally published in West Branch. Used with the permission of the poet.
The Clock—died on June 24, 2009 and
it was untimely. How many times my
father has failed the clock test. Once I
heard a scientist with Alzheimer’s on
the radio, trying to figure out why he
could no longer draw a clock. It had to
do with the superposition of three
types. The hours represented by 1-12,
the minutes where a 1 no longer
represents 1 but a 5, and a 2 now
represents 10, then the second hand
that measures 1 to 60. I sat at the
stoplight and thought of the clock, its
perfect circle and its superpositions, all
the layers of complication on a plane of
thought, yet the healthy read the clock
in one single instant without a second
thought. I think about my father and
his lack of first thoughts, how every
thought is a second or third or fourth
thought, unable to locate the first most
important thought. I wonder about the
man on the radio and how far his brain
has degenerated since. Marvel at how
far our brains allow language to
wander without looking back but
knowing where the pier is. If you
unfold an origami swan, and flatten the
paper, is the paper sad because it has
seen the shape of the swan or does it
aspire towards flatness, a life without
creases? My father is the paper. He
remembers the swan but can’t name it.
He no longer knows the paper swan
represents an animal swan. His brain is
the water the animal swan once swam
in, holds everything, but when thawed,
all the fish disappear. Most of the
words we say have something to do
with fish. And when they’re gone,
Copyright © 2018 by Victoria Chang. Originally published in Kenyon Review. Used with the permission of the poet.