Certain losses change your grammar. The writer Victoria Chang lost her mother six years ago, to pulmonary fibrosis. Six years before that, her father had a stroke, then slid into dementia—there but not there, another kind of lost. In “Obit” (2020), a book of poems written in the form of newspaper obituaries, Chang observes the effect of these absences on language: “The second person dies when a mother dies, reborn as third person as my mother.” The lost loved one is no longer a “you”; she is someone Chang can describe but can never again address.

“Obit” accepts this transformation of grammar as generative poetic constraint: the obituary is defined by the remove of the third person, the brisk objectivity of someone writing about death on a deadline. The book is a catalogue of losses, from the obviously traumatic (“My Mother,” “My Father’s Frontal Lobe”) to the seemingly trivial (“Voice Mail,” “Similes”). Chang has said that she chose the obit form because she “didn’t want to write elegies.” The elegy, poetry’s traditional response to death, is a genre for mourning, usually in the first-person singular. By contrast, an obituary measures; it yields a public record of a completed life. Chang’s poems, too, attempt to contain loss. Occasionally—beautifully—those attempts falter. The book includes four obituaries for “Victoria Chang.”

A year after publishing “Obit,” Chang is still writing about her grief. Now, however, she is speaking not only of loss but also to it: her new book, “Dear Memory” (Milkweed), is made up of letters—to the dead and the living, to family and friends, to teachers, and, ultimately, to the reader. She has given up the authority of the third person for the vulnerability of direct address. If “Obit” sought a container for loss, “Dear Memory” is a messier formal experiment, an open-ended inquiry not of a bounded life but of an ongoing present, full of longing and imperfection.

Part of what makes this project difficult is that Chang feels the loss of things she never really possessed. Her grandparents fled mainland China for Taiwan, and both her parents left Taiwan for Michigan, where Chang was born and raised. Each move granted the next generation access to the kind of future the previous one could only imagine. But opening new doors required closing old ones. Even the most basic facts about Chang’s family’s past remain mysterious to her: it is only by sorting through old documents that she learns her mother’s birthday, her father’s rarely used American name. These are details of lives that cannot be straightforwardly commemorated through elegy or captured through obituary. As Chang writes, “What form can express the loss of something you never knew but knew existed? Lands you never knew? People? Can one experience such a loss? The last definition of absence is the nonexistence or lack of. See how the of hangs there like someone about to jump off a balcony?”

Chang has followed language to the edge of what she knows; the question her book asks is whether language can go further still, whether it can be trusted to secure a safe landing for that dangling preposition. In one letter, Chang asks her mother about leaving China for Taiwan: “I would like to know if you took a train. If you walked. If you had pockets in your dress. If you wore pants. If your hand was in a fist, if you held a small stone. . . . If you had some preserved salty plums, which we both love, in your pocket.” Here is a set of wishes that can’t be granted. And yet there’s alchemy in the prose: the serial “if” of Chang’s wondering becomes a kind of conjuring; the elusive conditional—the unknowable scene, the imaginary pockets—ultimately yields a tangible, familiar, “preserved” fruit.

What makes this magic possible is the form and the grammar of letter writing. Letters accept the absence of their addressee and the asynchrony of contact—and out of those constraints make another kind of presence possible. To send a letter is to believe in a time and place in which it will be read. Writing to her mother, Chang begins with hypothetical desire (“I would like to know”) but arrives at present-tense fact (“we both love”). A lonely fantasy turns into a shared reality; that “we” is the reward, however provisional, of epistolary intimacy.

“I write to you. I receive no letter.” Those are Emily Dickinson’s words, sent to friends, which Chang quotes in a letter of her own. Dickinson’s is an ordinary complaint, but Chang’s is profound: she has, necessarily, lost all hope of a response. “When she died,” Chang writes of her mother, “I thought there had to be letters to me inside her body, but someone burned her body.” The poignance here is double: even when her parents were alive and well, they kept their stories to themselves. “The only language we had wholly in common was silence,” Chang writes. “Growing up, I held a tin can to my ear and the string crossed oceans.”

This is a child’s fantasy of connection. What, then, is the writer’s? As Chang understands it, her family sacrificed “to build a better life, without the incisions of the past.” Her own project is not to erase those incisions—or even, as a child might hope, to heal them—but to retrace and redescribe them. If there are wounds in the past, she seeks to live with them as scars.

These incisions take a literal form in collages that Chang intersperses throughout the book, made from fragments of her family’s informal archive—photographs, government documents, snippets of correspondence—which she manipulates, sometimes cutting away elements of the documentary record, often adding anachronistic commentary. Over an old snapshot of herself and her sister in amusement-park teacups, waiting to spin, Chang layers two lines of poetry: “Childhood can be reduced / to an atlas.” On consecutive copies of her mother’s certificate of United States naturalization, a strip of Chinese characters obscures first the eyes and then the mouth in a passport-style photo—a palimpsest formed by the past’s intrusions on the future’s promises.

A decade before her mother died, Chang conducted an interview with her. Where the letters in the book are searching and digressive, written without expectation of an answer, the interview is a formal, real-time exchange. In excerpts that appear in the collages, Chang asks her mother straightforward questions: When did you come to America? Where did you go to graduate school? Had you always planned to stay? In one collage, the answers (“1964”; “YOU DON’T NEED TO WRITE IT DOWN”; “OH NO NO NO”) are superimposed on an architectural diagram of a suburban home, similar to the one where Chang grew up. The text and the image stitch Chang’s curiosity about her family’s forgotten dreams together with a blueprint for what became their lived reality. The result is ambiguous: the floor plan sells prospective buyers on a generic, idealized formula for Anglo-American life (“The Oxford”), even as the interview betrays the contingency of Chang’s Asian American childhood.

In one of their conversation’s most wrenching moments, Chang’s mother recalls a memory from her journey to Taiwan: “I still remember a woman holding a small child’s hand to get on the boat and then she realized it wasn’t her child.” What did she do?, Chang asks. “Brought her on the boat,” her mother replies. The simple story haunts the book, revealing a latent truth of these letters: between parents and children, there is always some radical gap—one that we must live with, and in. A child may feel as though the hand she holds will never let go; a mother may think that the child is “hers.” Neither is right. The connection between them is an invention, an experimental grammar. We make it up as we go. ♦


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