Congratulations to Tess Liem, Vallum contributor and former employee, for winning the Lampert Memorial Award for a debut book of poetry for her book, Obits.!
OBITS. by Tess Liem
(Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2018, $19.94, 88 pages)
Tess Liem’s Obits. opens with an epigraph from Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric: “There is no innovating loss. It was never invented, it happened as something physical, something physically experienced. It is not something an ‘I’ discusses socially.” It’s such an elucidating way to enter the book that I must open the same door to begin this review.
But before I go further, I notice my use of the word “enter,” as in “to enter the book”—is it invasive? And now I am aware of my own body, the ways of entering it, ‘it’ being “nothing as a reference / to zero where zero means a vulva,” according to a critical gloss of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The speaker in “My body in three movements (one)” continues wryly, “how nice: / one of my body parts, in being nothing, / is some- thing.”
‘Nothing’ is a symbol standing in for an actual, embodied ‘something.’ Zero for vulva, sound bite for tragic death, and so on. But as the speaker demonstrates, it’s easy to get stuck at an intersection between the two. Throughout her stunning debut, Liem’s self-implicating speaker deepens the reader’s awareness of how statistics, data, news footage, obits, even poems themselves, fail to encompass the complicated and physically experienced ‘something’ of grief and death.
“I was concerned that in writing poems for or about the dead I would turn them into objects or tropes in service of my own feelings of loss or loneliness,” Liem elaborates in an author’s note published on the Coach House blog. The speaker in Obits. asserts that “[s]tories about the dead will be about the dead” in an attempt to unburden those lost of the symbolic baggage often foisted upon them. The book also resists the impulse to universalize this most ‘universal’ of experiences—especially in a world where “some lives count & others are counted”. “Call it” puts it another way:
To speak as if we all share the same loveliness, the same doom,
is not to speak
of the fact that some people have their hands
around other’s necks
Many of the poems in Obits. are centre-justified on the page, giving the impression of making direct eye contact with the reader. Interesting, then, that the speaker worries over the possibility of navel-gazing. In “Aesthetic distance” the speaker observes “how I circle back on myself continually” despite the speaker’s attempts to centre others. A distant but formative aunt who died, Thian Hoei, “steps in & out of my memory again, again, my grief, a timid animal.” The speaker’s sadness is especially acute “[w]hen the object of my mourning is missing” // when no obit. is print- ed.” In the case of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, not only is there no obit printed; one can even agree on the numbers.
Obits., then, raises the complicated question: is there a line between grief and wallowing, mourning and morbid affixation? Who gets to draw it? Does it have to do with proximity, with kinship? Throughout Obits., the speaker grapples with grief both privately (prostrate on the bedroom floor) and publicly (contemplating Obitsarchive.com while riding the metro), trying to parse its uses and applications. “Aesthetic distance” ends on a frustrated, exclamatory note: “What to make of this sadness! // What does it do!” The speaker wants to use sadness and the experience of trauma to do actual good in the world but is often depressed by the feeling of futility.
That’s not to discount futility on the part of others, often in more unforgivably powerful positions. In the collection’s opening poem “Dead theories,” the news of “forty-nine dead in Orlando” is broadcast in the metro and “a man with platinum hair / & his own TV show / [breaks] down crying reading their names.” Of the forty-nine dead in the Pulse nightclub massacre, the majority were queer latinx people of colour. The man with his own TV show, presumably Anderson Cooper, does have a personal stake in the tragedy. He’s gay—he’s also a rich cis, and white. In response to crying on TV, the speaker again wants to know: “What did that do.” These questions aren’t exactly rhetorical, though Liem’s failure to answer them creates some of the collection’s generative energy.
Also propelling the poems forward is the sense of dailiness created by the backdrop of the metro platform or train, and of course the refrain created by the several “Obit.” poems. Public transportation seems to be the perfect liminal space to contemplate death while implicating the body—crowded in with strangers, touch without intimacy, being moved from one place to another. There’s also the physical proximity to death, as the speaker reminds us while contemplating a poster for an adaptation of Anna Karenina during her commute: “her ending is before you / every morning, every evening, on the platform of the metro.”
Of course, the beauty of Liem’s language (“The mango in one hand, knife in the other, a slick, shrinking yellow sculpture”), the deft motion of her mind, and her keen sense of humour (a self-serious professor who only reads and teaches dead men is, “in the year two-thousand-seventeen, // …still worried about Lady Gaga’s influence”), make a book about death undeniably alive. There is also room for hope and tenderness, a space that almost feels more fraught for Liem than death. The first poem in the book ends, for example, with the speaker admitting: “when I look forward to spring / it feels like a risk,” and the last lines of the book acknowledge: “I’m taking a risk / when I don’t know the dead.” Hope and grief, connected through shared emotional risk.
In fact, I’d say Liem’s willingness to risk failure and implicate herself (and others) so fully is part of what makes Obits. distinct. If there is truly no innovating loss, Liem doesn’t allow herself to simply “[s]tep over the potholed thing” and “[c]all the step a poem.” The speaker in Obits. under- stands that “[t]here is a point at which you must jump into the hole / in order to keep digging,” no matter how dark that hole may be.
Domenica Martinello is the author of All Day I Dream About Sirens (Coach House Book, 2019).
To view other content published in this issue, 16:1, please visit Vallum’s website.