Aug 5, 2022

“Affection” by Victoria Chang

Joan Biddle

What difference does affection make? Can it make or break a relationship, a family? A history? How can it help us live less for ourselves and more for others? What does it mean to live without it? How does it make us vulnerable and more whole?

Victoria Chang addresses all of these questions, though not directly, in her short obituary poem for Affection. 

Affection, she says, died on November 12, 1978, with the last picture in which her mother is holding her. The speaker has a complicated relationship with her mother, which is complicated further by her mother’s death. Once her mother is gone, the poet still hears the chiding, the disapproval, still feels the angst, but now all of that is tinged with a deep sadness that she is gone. She has no words for how it feels to lose her mother, and yet, here are all the careful words in this book.

OBIT is composed of obituaries for all the things that have died, that the poet has let go of in her life. These short, wry, justified obituaries are in place of the larger, straightforward obituary she could write for her mother. Instead, we have these narrow newspaper column gems, obits for “Logic,” “Optimism,” “Chair,” “Memory,” “Similes,” and more, interspersed with a scattering of lyrical poems.

The poems on the surface seem clinical but reveal wit, playfulness, and great depth upon further reading. The poems explore the questions: How much must we let die in life? How much must we let go of and still go on? 

In the obit poem for “My Mother’s Favorite Potted Tree,” Chang writes, “As time passes, my memories / of her are like a night animal racing / across the roof. I know it is an animal, / but I will never be able to see it or know / when it will come again.” 

These mother memories are like a half-asleep dream that’s both real and not real. Her mother’s memory is definitely there but she can’t picture it, can’t see it or touch it anymore.

In “Affection,” the poet describes bursting into tears with her children when the nurse calls to announce her mother’s death. “When I told my children, / the three of us hugged in a circle, / burst into tears. As if the tears were / already there crying on their own and / we, the newly bereaved, exploded into / them.”

Here is the magic of Victoria Chang, who conjures tears crying on their own, there, in the air, all the time – based on the turn of phrase “bursting into tears” that suggests that could be. How much truth lies in those tears that are always there, always crying, like so many hidden streams?

Next, Chang writes: “In the returning out of the tears, / the first person I dissolves a little more / each time.”

The I dissolves after the tears. After the connection, the vulnerability. It’s not easy to be able to cry, to give yourself over to that release, to connection. Grief changes us. The affection that the speaker didn’t receive from her mother, doesn't share with her sister, now she gives to her children. Now they share it, together, in a circle. Affection is resurrected like this. Affection, like tears, can dissolve the I.

Victoria Chang’s OBIT: Poems was released by Copper Canyon Press in 2020. 

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