Obits. by Tess Liem

obits

An Anna Karenina film poster at a train station stop. Rewritten Baudelaire poems. Explorations of a mixed-race heritage. How are we to understand the riddles of our own identities? How are we to find our place in the Western canon when the White Male Default considers others merely an afterthought, a sop to the forces of political correctness? If the personal is political, can the poetic be political? Obits. by Tess Liem performs a tripartite operation: confronting the self, confronting the Western canon, and confronting form itself.

Obits. opens with “Dead theories,” intertwining autobiographical confessions with an exploration of the sociocultural nature of blondeness:

“At sixteen, I tried
to dye my hair blonde. You could say
this was my mistake.”

The poem continues:

“Blonde
with an exceptional -e
distinguishing genders.”

In the same section she name-checks blondes the narrator would like to meet: Laura Palmer, Dora Lange, Alison DeLaurentis, and Lily Kane. As the poem progresses it becomes a meditation on death, recounting a memorial for the Pulse shooting (“forty-nine dead in Orlando”) and that “Hair colour is not noted in a statistic.” Later the narrator says, “I know the names of some dead blondes on TV. / […] I don’t have a dead girl theory.” The poem contemplates the damage inflicted by loss and the futility of attaching theories to it.

Obits. is divided into four sections: “Theories,” “Ibu, saudara, isteri,” “Rewrites,” and “Yesterday, in future tense.” Throughout each section there are “Obits.” One of the most powerful sections in “Theories” is the first “Obit.” Liem challenges the notion of poetic form by repeatedly crossing out the title of the poem and offering another type of knowledge. In the second iteration we get:

Obit.
Memorial
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

[NB: [NB: In the book, lines fill the entire page.]

Does one write one’s own memorial? Is this desacralizing literature by inviting an interaction with the reader? This reviewer has a bias not to write in his own books, especially volumes of poetry. But writing one’s own memorial is a type of formal violation. There’s something fundamentally wrong about writing about one’s own death. It invites the notion to “knock on wood” and all sorts of superstitions rear up. Confronting one’s own mortality isn’t a pleasant enterprise.

But these manipulations of form don’t stop there. In the penultimate iteration, “Data,” we see a graph: a rectangle with a line going from the top left to the bottom right. On the vertical axis: “Grievability.” On the horizontal axis: “Vulnerability.” The poem states: “It is a fear of certain grief, / a fear of a collection of certain data.” The final iteration is thus:

Obit.
Memorial
Proof
Story
News
Poem
Theory
Data
Finding

The poem sequence recalls the subtractive, minimalist, and ascetic output of Samuel Beckett, relentlessly reducing narrative down to a hyper-abstract nubbin. Liem keeps altering the formal constructs surrounding grief, discovering each found wanting. It represents a kind of cathartic futility. Putting one’s grief into a story is just as pointless as trying to graph it.

Society today has become over-saturated with various media delivery systems and we are constantly at the mercy of algorithms telling us what to buy, who to vote for, and how to think. The “Obit.” poem sequence offers a respite from a civilization hellbent on atomizing and anatomizing our every breath and movement.

The next section – “Ibu, saudara, isteri” – is Liem coming to terms with growing up as a mixed-race queer woman in Canada. “We are a language you didn’t learn.” When we don’t know the language our ancestors, something is forever cut off. A means of knowledge becomes restricted, especially if it is a language not taught in secondary schools. Without fluency, immigration records from the home country turn into indecipherable paperwork. But there are other ways to know, like food: “The mango in one hand, knife in the other, a slick, shrinking yellow sculpture.” Liem reveals her Indonesian-Chinese ancestry, although that doesn’t stop life’s little indignities:

A secret. Once she called you yellow,
no lie, at a yellow light on the way
to a baseball game & you let her
run across the street

The last lines resound from the insult: “she was talking about your mixed/race/face.” The last two rhymes provide an additional dig, a twisting of the knife.

Rewrites” expands the scope from the personal to the literary. Beyond the everyday experience of not-whiteness, the academic literary world reinforces this passive-aggressive others. While not blatantly racist in its presentation, the message remains clear:

I sit at the back of the classroom to which I am assigned
& a professor, whom I’m assigned to assist,
he draws a triangle on the blackboard.
This is Literature.

Some students copy. He’s dead serious,
he only reads dead men seriously. He put
Katherine Mansfield on the syllabus, but
his sympathy is with her husband who
had to deal with her bisexuality. I can’t say
I wanted to write this. Plus
I forget to note whether Milton or Shakespeare
was at the pinnacle. This professor
who has tenure, this professor, who
in the year two-thousand-seventeen,
was still worried about Lady Gaga’s influence-

The authoritative pronouncements and the Triangle of Literature with either Milton or Shakespeare at the pinnacle reminds one of the late Harold Bloom. Bloom, the ardent Bardolator, also didn’t suffer fools gladly, yet will be known for his bullheaded stubbornness when it came to modern literary theories and politically correct notions of diversity.

The Bloomian rejection to diversify and update the Western Canon brings up the false dichotomy posed by literary traditionalists: Why should we include XYZ writers just because they are not-white, not-straight, etc.? The traditionalist don’t want to politicize the Western Canon. But this is a cheap intellectual dodge. Is including a writer’s sexuality, gender identity, race, socioeconomic background, political opinions, etc. somehow cheapening the literary work? To a historian like myself, it seems absurd. It turns the literary work into an ossified husk, a dead idol. Literary works have merit because they don’t exist in some White Box Museum Reliquary Vacuum. Hell, there were decades and centuries when Shakespeare – the crown in the Harold Bloom’s gnostic pantheon – was unpopular and thought unworthy of critical study.

To take another literary titan, Liem “rewrites” three poems by Charles Baudelaire. As Liem states in the Notes: “The Baudelaire poems are based on my limited knowledge of French, translations done by William Aggeler, and a deep discomfort with the originals.” Here’s a taste:

You would fuck the whole universe,
you slut.

You, a callus, too boring to be cruel.
Man eater.

A heartless rack,
you’re pretty in an ugly way. (“After Baudelaire: I. Slut, a dialogue”)

Not only did she rewrite Baudelaire, Liem didn’t even do the rewriting, upending the notion of authorship itself. Not only are these critical translations, they are free translations, reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s freewheeling adaptations of Propertius.

Obits. ends with the section “Yesterday, in future tense.” From the titular poem: “After reading a short story about an unknown woman dying, her unknownness the story’s centre, I will write a summary & make the questions about her, which are actually about the narrator, about myself.” This could be the precis of the entire poetry collection. While death and grieving become the main motifs, we read about Liem’s mixed-race heritage, her problematic relationship with the Western Canon (and its stentorian champions), and challenging poetic form itself. Despite its earnest subject matter, Obits. is a joyous read. It uncovers a life in all its sloppy, contradictory, and beautiful manifestations.

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