From death in pop culture to those dead from hate crimes to processing personal grief, Obits. by Tess Liem pushes death beyond the scope of obituaries. The reader follows the narrator’s grief for the queer, racialized, gendered dead, as well as mourning for the living.
The book opens with “Dead theories,” a nine-part poem that asks how we mourn for people whose faces appear on TV as numbers. The speaker considers how mourning differs when the victim is white, blonde, a woman, like Alison DiLaurentis or Lily Kane, as compared to missing and murdered Indigenous women, those dead from the Pulse shooting, police brutality against Black people, and school shootings. In the second part of the poem, Liem writes:
After the screens above the metro platform reported
forty-nine dead in Orlando,
someone told me
a man with platinum hair
& his own TV show
broke down crying reading their names.
What did that do?
What does expressing grief do? This is the dilemma that Liem confronts throughout Obits. Liem’s poems materialize the sense of apathy and helplessness that I know I have felt when it comes to grieving someone I never knew. We have candlelight vigils and memorials every year to make sure victims of hate crimes and terrorism are not forgotten. But what tangible effect does this have? How do we ignore the real lives of the people who have died from hate crimes in our efforts to show our grief?
Each poem is in conversation with every other poem in the book. Liem writes 11 poems titled “Obits.” which are scattered throughout the book, as well as lines of thought continued from one poem to the next. This narrative creates a contrast between who we mourn for―public versus private mourning―and presents a queer, racialized look at grief. In “Inheritance,” Liem evokes a sense of loss for language and oral tradition. The poem ends with the lines, “My unknowing crushed into a paste, / kept in the fridge, & inheritance; a wok.” These closing lines carry the same weight as an elegy for a dead person.
Liem crafts lines that make us think about these expressions of grief that are common in our lives, like writing poems for the dead or crying for strangers. Why do we act or react to death in certain ways? In “Dead theories,” Liem writes, “I doubt they want to be poems.” Later, in “I can’t say I wanted that,” Liem writes, “I want praise, not grief. / I want this poem to be an affirmation.” The speaker acknowledges the act of writing poems while also asking what the purpose is. In Obits. we confront our mourning habits. But the speaker does not judge the poem-writer or the mourner but rather pushes the reader to take these actions out of the routine of the everyday.
Liem’s poems are reflective of the intersections between grief, memorializing, and writing. Obits. is a phenomenal debut collection that will have you coming back to read each poem many times around.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.