Elegies for Empire
We can find reconciliation and closure in poetry, despite the forces that engender grief and dispossession. Three new poetry collections refuse the binaries and amnesia that so often characterize American mourning.
July 8, 2021
Jul 8, 2021
23 Min read time
Three new poetry collections refuse the binaries and amnesia that so often characterize American mourning.
Copper Canyon Press, $17 (paper)
Postcolonial Love Poem
Graywolf Press, $16 (paper)
In the Lateness of the World
Penguin Books, $16 (paper)
In Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, begun a day after his mother’s death, the October 29 entry reads: “The measurement of mourning . . . eighteen months for mourning a father, a mother.” While “measurement” is often spoken of in lyric theory as a metaphor for weighing and sifting through thoughts and emotions, Barthes’s diary entry suggests that he was affronted by the idea that mourning might have a prescribed time limit. Is elegy, then, endless? How can loss be transmuted if not through the grief work of mourning and of language?
Is elegy endless? How can loss be transmuted if not through the grief work of mourning and of language?
Over the past year, three poetry collections have appeared that animate these questions: Obit by Victoria Chang, Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, and In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché. Among these poets' shared concerns are the different ways we elegize loved ones, American and world history, sacred land, and the mutations and evolutions of language. Chang approaches these problems through a revision of the obituary form and our lyric rituals of mourning, Diaz through a non-dualist relationship to naming, otherness, meaning-making, and metaphor, and Forché through the point of view of a prophetic surveyor of the aftermath of human culture and twenty-first-century devastation.
Taken together, these poets work against forces of colonialism, historical amnesia, and a technocapitalist culture of distraction. Their collections give voice, space, and breath to the particularity of loved ones, and the ways we find reconciliation and closure in poetry despite the myriad forces that engender grief, dispossession, estrangement, and insolvency.
• • •
In Victoria Chang’s Obit, grief over the poet’s mother’s passing from pulmonary fibrosis and father’s declining health provides an entry into other forms of cultural and public mourning: most of the poems in the book are structured as obituaries in vertically justified verse paragraphs, and the book begins with an “obit” to the poet’s father’s frontal lobe, which died “unpeacefully of a stroke on June 24, 2009.”
Chang investigates the death of language alongside the disintegration of subject matter.
Many poems in Obit commemorate the loss of specific dimensions of Chang’s parents’ bodies, minds, and beings, from their lungs to their teeth, gait, appetite, and oxygen. Meanwhile, the collection uses the form of an “obit” to create an inventory of other, seemingly unrelated, losses: friendships, logic, optimism, tears, memory, Tomas Tranströmer, reason, hands, form, control—even subject matter and language itself. In the poem “Subject Matter,” Chang wonders whether she can ever untangle meaning-making from mourning. “I am not my mother’s story, not my father’s story. But there is a meeting place that is hidden, one that holds all the maps toward indifference,” she writes. “Can pain be separated from subject matter? Can subject matter take flight and lose its way, peck on another tree?”
As her parents age and die, Chang investigates the death of language alongside the disintegration of subject matter. Chang associates language with the materiality of the signifier, focusing on the very letter or imprint of the word as an embodied thing: in “Civility,” she describes her mother, whose lungs are failing, “using her own body as wood” to emit smoke signals instead of words. In the first of three poems titled “Language,” Chang writes: “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated. Are the dispatcher, the dispatches, and the receiver.” Speech act theory tells us that the relationship between the speaker and the listener matters as much for communication as the content of the message. The fact that Chang’s father’s aphasic words have become “the dispatcher, the dispatches, and the receiver” suggests that as the body breaks down, so too do the interpersonal relations that make communication possible.
Interspersed between Chang’s “obits” and a long lyric poem are twenty-four tankas. A subtype of the Japanese waka poem, tanka translates as “short song,” and is known by its five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form; Chang’s tankas are “doubled,” meaning that there are two five-line tankas on each page. Often beginning with the apostrophic “My children, children,” they provide a counterpoint to the obituary form as they explore the subjects of hope, love, racism, murder, God, and the strangeness of “help[ing] someone / grow while helping someone die.” The penultimate tanka reads: “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.” That last line—which suggests that death occurs within language, or possibly that no one knows the meaning of death outside of our efforts to articulate it—encapsulates Chang’s Obit, an ingenious irruption of life, hope, and love from within language, which gives life meaning even as death takes life and language away.
Obit takes Barthes’s reference to the “measurement of mourning” very seriously. Barthes’s resistance to mourning’s delimitation by a culture that refuses to mark its losses offers Chang a way, in a globalized world, to separate the different territories of grieving from the mass spectacle of necromancy. Amid a deconstruction of parenting, ambition, and beauty in the unpunctuated long poem “I am a Miner. The Light Turns Blue,” Chang lays claim to her public and private rituals of mourning: “a man / said you should be happy look at the child you have but if happiness is within the child then happiness runs away”; “the soil has no choice / because the soil is assaulted too”; “the flowers don’t represent beauty”; “the end of everything / masculine and vials and vials of joy.” The final obit of Chang’s collection reflects on the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which seventeen people were killed and seventeen others injured. In an extraordinary act of imaginative sympathy, her speaker makes space for the victims of mass shootings within her own personal tragedy: “I used to think death was a kind of anesthesia. Now I imagine long lines, my mother taking in all the children. I imagine her touching their hair.”
The poet cannot help but return to the way self and relationality are mediated by language, while recoiling at language’s inefficacy and inadequacy.
Chang also deconstructs her own life and self in the collection’s four obits for Victoria Chang, the Barthesian “dead” author. In the first of the four, the author is said to have died “unwillingly” in 2017 on her way back from her father’s assisted living facility. The poem describes the literal dissemblance of metaphor itself (tenor and vehicle), then enters a series of metaphoric descriptions of how the poet tried to translate her father’s problems “like a typist,” “the letters strung together to form sentences” that the author carried in a pony carriage one by one, until “the pony refused to move” and the letters “ran into the cornfields” where they were shot by the police. In the next authorial obit, the author died in 2011, though “her imagination lived beyond that day”: the poem describes her going to the arcade with her father, who found the basketball machine and shot hoops, “As if he were visiting his past self in prison, touching the clear glass at his own likeness. On the other side of the glass, words like embankment, unsightly, and heterogeneous lived.” Recalling these attritions and deaths (or passings, as they’re euphemistically called), the poet cannot help but return to the way self and relationality are mediated by language, while recoiling at language’s inefficacy and inadequacy.
Placed beside the other two collections, Chang’s Obit is exemplary for the formal depth the poet gives the elegy—as a poetic metaphor for the times we are living in, and as a document of witness for her loved ones and all that a human cherishes while alive. “In the returning out of the tears, the first person I dissolves a little more each time,” she writes in the obit for “Affection,” as a gesture toward greater authorial loss, or, possibly, a greater synthesis between self and other. “There are many things I can’t put into a box,” she writes in the obit for “The Situation,” echoing the struggle for freedom within containment in Terrance Hayes’s collection Wind in a Box: “wind, marvel, time, suffering. I have no answer. I have no more questions. Because when? means the situation will be over.” The gravitas Chang lends the elegy is not that of normative memorialization and consolation—by refusing any pretense to authorial omniscience, she makes space for care within a form we often imagine as ceremonial and austere.
Like all great poets, Chang marries the personal to the political, and the particular to universal, with uncanny precision. She reminds us of where we hurt most, what we miss, and will miss, most, about the people we love, and the beloved elements of our existences. Yet Obit isn’t just a catalog or taxonomy of contemporary elegies: rather, it is highly philosophical, urgent, and necessary collection on how “grief is really about future absence,” compounded by the fragility of our collective now. “Death isn’t the enemy,” she writes. “Knowledge of death is the enemy.” And unknowing, she suggests, may be impossible, just as grieving and mourning are impossible to measure.
• • •
Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, also works across multiple registers and varied forms of elegiac measurement—familial, national, and Biblical. Divided into four sections, the collection intersperses poems about American identity, institutional racism, addiction, and environmental destruction with queer love poems, such as the title poem, which are intoxicating in their Whitmanian articulation of eros and language play: “My mouth—terrible angel, ever-lasting novena, / ecstatic devourer,” says the speaker of “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips,” in a dizzying voyage between discourses, places, galaxies, and ontologies that rivetingly pleads, “Imparadise me.”
Diaz explodes the notion of a unified national American identity protected by social responsibility. "I have never been true in America," she writes.
Postcolonial Love Poem speaks not just to the author’s Native American ancestry (Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community) but to how this identity shapes her perspective on genocidal, colonialist American history, past and present. In “American Arithmetic,” Diaz explodes the notion of a unified national identity protected by social responsibility: “We are Americans, and we are less than 1 percent / of Americans. . . . When we are dying, who should we call? / The police? Or our senator? / Please, someone, call my mother.” The speaker fears becoming “a museum / of myself,” her most basic claims to corporeal identity and the lyric “I” undermined by centuries of oppression: “in an American room of one hundred people, / I am Native American—less than one, less than / whole—I am less than myself.”
Another of the many compelling poems in the collection, “The First Water is the Body,” begins by breaking down metaphor: “I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not metaphor. / When a Mojave says, Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying our name. We are telling a story of our existence. The river runs through the middle of my body.” The poem draws a line between the American tendency to mistranslate Native stories into “surrealism or magical realism” and the caricatures of the Mojave in the American imagination. “Americans prefer a magical red Indian, or a shaman, or a fake Indian in a red dress, over a real Native . . . What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth. I have never been true in America. America is my myth.” How might one’s relationship to language and history change if this kind of metaphoric thinking were suspended?
Describing the Mojave way of thinking, Diaz writes that “Unless you know the context of a conversation, you might not know if we are speaking about our body or our land. . . . You might not know we mean both.” This moment and others throughout Diaz’s collection recall Paula Gunn Allen’s 1986 book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Allen defines the tribal tradition of the sacred hoop as the understanding of life as “dynamic and aware, partaking as it does in the life of the All Spirit and contributing as it does to the continuing life of that same Great Mystery”: a notion of cosmic unity that also includes the tribal system’s shared values of storytelling, generosity, and respect for elders and the Earth. In the context of Diaz’s collection, the sacred hoop and its reclamation of female power acts as a unifying perceptual field that is accretive, fluid, achronological, and harmonizing. Diaz asserts this field as a non-Western, non-patriarchal reality, one that rejects the binary separating the literal from the metaphorical.
This “pre-verbal” point of connection between language, mind, and body was “when the body was more than a body and possible,” says Diaz’s speaker. Chang’s and Diaz’s collections collide here, at this intersection between textual bodies, particularly in their relationship to wounds, grief, and mourning. Diaz quotes Derrida: “Every text remains in mourning until it is translated”—this could also relate to embodied trauma and its textual sublimation, which unlocks new resonances that exceed literal meaning. Chang describes the maternal “first body” from whom our bodies and senses derive, evoking Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural, a text that foregrounds the primacy of relation (“being-with”) as antecedent to the cultural dichotomy of self and other, sameness and alterity. These poets’ turn to lyric subjectivity to aesthetically transcend trauma and vocalize otherness is particularly resonant in an age marked by the performance, reification, and overdetermination of trauma—a culture that rejects the possibility of radical transformation within language.
These poets’ turn to lyric subjectivity to aesthetically transcend trauma and vocalize otherness is particularly resonant in an age marked by the performance of trauma.
As she explores the interstices between texts, bodies, and subjectivities, Chang decries the absence of form in the external world, which can also be seen as an absence of rituality: “How many times have I looked into the sky for some kind of message, only to find content but no form,” she writes. In his diary of mourning, Barthes faces a similar crisis—what Edgar Morin calls the “crisis of death,” the process beginning in the nineteenth century through which death became detached from religious meaning. This “withdrawal of rites” left us with an “asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual.” When death ceases to become a site of meaning, according to Julia Cooper, it becomes “purely (and terrifyingly) literal, and a binary is entrenched between life and death, as though they weren’t intrinsic to each other.”
All three of these poetry collections refuse the binaries and amnesia that so often characterize the American processes of mourning. For Chang, death is not so much the subject as it is the hole at the center of a symbolic order around which our humanity, and Obit, is constructed. Although depression resists symbolization, Chang’s work rehabilitates the mourning process by refusing to meet the all-consuming specter of death with silence, anger, or denial. Diaz, meanwhile, is conscious of her diction as a natural resource that she must be careful to protect: “So far, I have said the word river in every stanza. I don’t want to waste water. . . . // In future stanzas, I will try to be more conservative.” Seen in the context of Native American activists’ struggle for water rights, Diaz’s stewardship of the word “river” becomes an act of recuperation, a gesture toward a recovery of evacuated meaning. Her collection makes the word “river” into a sacred place, recalling the Lakota phrase and protest anthem “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life.”
For Diaz, water doesn’t just represent, but is, an incontrovertible, salvific good—one whose commodification and contamination occurs at our peril. In “exhibits from The American Water Museum”—a poem that collages together a diorama of Flint, Michigan, an interactive performance piece called “River,” marginalia from the BIA Watermongers Congressional Records, and more—Diaz writes that “The water piped into every American city is called dead water.” Though this “dead water” may have replaced “the river and its vessel,” the speaker concludes the poem by recalling when water was a living “memoir of an indissoluble relationship with the world. / But where is water now? Where is the world?” Non-dualist religious and philosophical ideas about the interconnection between matter and language abound—in Spinozism, Romantic pantheism, and creation stories from the West and East—and new scholarship is constantly emerging about the social lives and consciousnesses of animals and the earth. Diaz’s ecstatic poetics should make us wonder whether we are entering a new epoch wherein our imperialist and anthropocentric worldviews are eventually proven to be not just tyrannical, but factually (i.e., environmentally) backwards.
The poetics of Postcolonial Love Poem show us how language, bodies, and land can be occupied and colonized—yet also liberated.
The speakers of Diaz’s poems feel the full weight of empire’s distressing paradigms. “I don’t feel good,” says the speaker of “From the Desire Field”: “I am hurting,” says the speaker of “If I Should Come Upon Your House Lonely in the West Texas Desert”: “I am riding the night / on a full tank of gas and my headlights / are reaching out for something.” In the collection’s final poem “Grief Work,” that “something” becomes a “shining devour-horse.” “I do my grief work / with her body,” says the speaker. “We go where there is love, / to the river, on our knees beneath the sweet / water. I pull her under four times, / until we are rivered.”
Until, in other words, the speaker and her horse return to, and become, the source of life itself. Diaz undercuts today’s false binaries between fact and fiction, and history and mythology, revealing empire’s diseased foundations with fluency and grace. The poetics of Postcolonial Love Poem show us how language, bodies, and land can be occupied and colonized—yet also liberated.
• • •
Carolyn Forché’s fifth collection, In the Lateness of the World, is intimately connected to Diaz’s and Chang’s collections in its acts of remembrance, mythologizing, and mourning, and also in its transfigurations of water and death. Yet Forché’s perspective, in a collection that was seventeen years in the making, is more world historical and geopolitical than personal or national. Like Chang’s, Forché’s collection is a memento mori, deeply elegiac for history and civilization. And like Diaz, she uses the natural world, art, artifacts, and Greek myth to speak to the paralysis of contemporary life.
Forché’s perspective is more world historical and geopolitical than personal or national.
The collection begins with the place-setting poem “Museum of Stones,” an incantatory list that describes the solidity of stones as a “concretion of the body, as blind as cold as deaf / all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk / with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become / a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred.” Next comes “The Boatman,” in which Charon, the ferryman of Hades, is transformed in an act of feminist revisionism into the poet herself, driving a taxi at the end of the world: “I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.” The collection that follows is a guided tour through global eco-catastrophe, its songs muted in funeral respect, or because life has become an imitation of itself: “the world has fallen / in love with a dream,” says the speaker of “For Ilya at Tsarskoye Selo.”
As with Diaz’s and Chang’s collections, In the Lateness of the World connects the threats to language’s survival with the threats to the earth and global commons. “They have cut off the water in the sinking metropolis,” the poem “Water Crisis” begins, emphasizing a disconnect from the rich, who can afford to draw water with cisterns on their roofs, sending it “singing through the pipes of the better houses.” Quiet then comes: “It is like night. We are waiting to breathe again.” The poem goes on to describe the plight of gamecocks, “forced to fight with knives taped to their feet,” drawing a connection between weaponized animals, reduced to entertainment, and the atrophy of language: “The last cloud is empty. The first death reason enough.”
Historical and environmental crises collude in many of Forché’s poems, such as “Report from an Island,” which describes a trash island, a plane crash, and an earthquake which forces some people to move into family tombs for shelter, while other survivors live “at the dumps in trash cities, where there is work sorting / plastic, metal, glass, tantalum from cell phones and precious earths.” “The Last Puppet” recalls the phrase “puppet state” or puppet government, but also the meaning of ventriloquism: that without human animation, the puppet would be silent. The puppet “has it speak / a language it will never speak again, its shadow finding the shadow / on the wall of no one else. . . . Take this puppet to America. Hold it to the light,” the speaker says, brilliantly intertwining the lyric trope of channeling voices with the problems of history, representation, appropriation, and the ongoing environmental crisis.
In the Lateness of the World connects the threats to language’s survival with the threats to the earth and global commons.
A kind of thematic-symbolic gravitational field holds each of these collections together. In Obit, this field comes from the mother, memory, language, and death; in Postcolonial Love Poem, from queer desire, ancestral knowledge, and reparation. What unites In the Lateness of the World is the oracular human voice, at once historic, aesthetic, and philosophical—less dispassionate recording angel than spirit guide out of capitalism’s wreckage. In his 1972 essay “The Grain of the Voice,” Barthes theorizes the “grain” inherent in spoken or sung vocalizations: “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” “The ‘grain’ is more than timbre,” explains Rebecca Lentjes: “it is the language of sound supplementing the language of sense; the summoning not only of a body but of some sort of ineffable essence bound to the effability of language.”
The feminine figure of the beloved, in Chang, Diaz, and Forché, can be seen as a historical witness who, voiceless, has returned from oblivion, in human, animal, and inanimate forms, to find a voice. Forché figures the beloved in “The Lost Suitcase” as “Dear one, who even in speaking is silent,” who continues to hold the suitcase, “vade mecum of the infinite, / your dictionary of the no-longer-spoken, / a commonplace of wounds casually inflicted, / and the slender ledger of truly heroic acts.” Barthes wrote that “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue, almost certainly significance,” perhaps suggesting a closer reading of Forché in which the event of signification—naming, assigning meaning, or giving voice—is the return of the beloved, the other, the you. “Be near now, and wake to tell me who you were,” “The Lost Suitcase” concludes, situating the elegy as a form not just of remembrance, but of conjured presence.
Many poems in this collection name geographical places (Rome, Seurasaari, Detroit, the Pyrenees, Portbou, Russia), but there is a sense that the “city” of which Forché speaks is also something conjured—the imaginary of the metropolis, or a Greek polis or city-state, foundational to the development of the mind. Repeatedly, the speaker describes searching for a ghostly person or text whose very particularity (through “many souls and / hungers, figs, demons, imaginary silence, and hidden phrases”) can’t quite be located, or named, as in “Lost Poem”: “I’m searching for a poem I read years ago. It was written by Cavafy, I thought . . . In one version, the olive trees go up in smoke but the bridge survives. In another, the city itself is lost, / and there is no road. It is a war poem then.” The “war” and “the city” function similarly in this collection, as placeholders that represent a multitude of wars and cities, but also as parts of a larger dreamscape still missing, one which the speaker describes so vividly in “The Lost Suitcase.”
These poems bloom where they are planted, in the ruins of post-empire eco-disaster and a twenty-first-century technocracy.
Perhaps “the city itself is lost, / and there is no road” because of the abstractions of capitalism, whose end game is globalization, outsourcing, offshoring, and automation; perhaps it is because the “road” to the future has been digitized beyond recognition. Amid the detritus of post-industrial, post-war ruins, the earth has become a “grotto of skeletons,” and the speaker recalls her last embrace with the beloved “under / the meteor showers of Perseid,” in “Travel Papers.” “Dead, you whispered where is the road?” says the speaker, “There, through the last of the sentences, just there— / through the last of the sentences, the road—”
• • •
Considering these three collections alongside one another, one can begin to see how and where the lyric imagination situates itself in times of local and global emergency. In Obit, personal and collective mourning is measured ritualistically, through the obituary form; in Postcolonial Love Poem, through the dissolution of metaphor and celebration of the multidimensional “pre-verbal” body in nature; and in In the Lateness of the World, through what might be called an accounting for oneself, not in the paternalistic, Judeo-Christian sense, but in a sense both cosmic and poetic: “You will be asked who you are. / Eventually, we are all asked who we are . . . All who come into the world are sent. / Open your curtain of spirit.”
The word “ghost” in English implies a phantom or haunting, yet it comes from the Old English gāst, which means “spirit” or “soul.” In Forché’s poem “Souffrance,” she writes that “In the aftermath, you are emulsion on paper, a corpse listening beneath / the ground to a train passing through a polaroid of clouds . . . following a ghost back through its only life.” In our unprecedented historical moment, these lines read as a benediction, particularly as the collection’s poem “Mourning” ends not with resignation but a galvanizing gesture: “For if the earth is a camp and the sea / an ossuary of souls, light your signal flares / wherever you find yourselves. / Come the morning, launch your boats.” This passage is especially profound when read alongside Chang’s and Diaz’s collections, which bloom where they are planted, in the ruins of post-empire eco-disaster and a twenty-first-century technocracy, and whose “signal flares” include a deconstruction and revolution of the signifying system itself.
Amid almost incomprehensible world devastation, these collections remind us that personhood and acknowledgement are gifts that poetry is uniquely positioned to offer.
In all three collections, poetic imagination and poetic language function as self- and other-constituting forms of witnessing, capable of restoring even the greatest global and personal losses. Amid almost incomprehensible world devastation, these collections remind us that personhood and acknowledgement by the other are gifts that poetry, with its associative, nonlinear forms of thinking and embodied forms of knowing, is uniquely positioned to offer. Thus, it seems fitting to end with Forché’s final poem, “Toward the End,” which realizes her promise in “The Boatman” to safely shepherd souls to their destinations: “In this archipelago of thought a fog descends . . . full of ghosts calling out . . . you could see / everything at once: all the islands, every moment you have lived or place / you have been, / without confusion or bafflement, and you would be one person. You would / be one person again.”
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July 08, 2021
23 Min read time