black and white x-ray photo of flowers

Dialogue

The Climate of Grief

Magnolia Branch with Four Flowers (ca. 1910-1925). Original from the Rijksmuseum. Digitally enhanced by Rawpixel. CC0

By Terry Tempest Williams

In Fall 2021, Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence and noted conservationist Terry Tempest Williams hosted a series of 10 discussions, “Weather Reports: The Climate of Now.” Williams interviewed writers, poets, researchers, filmmakers, and activists on the front lines of the climate crisis. These dialogues emerged from some of those discussions. 

Terry Tempest Williams: Tonight, the extraordinary poet Victoria Chang explores this landscape of grief. As for all of us, it is both a personal grief and a collective grief at once. We are still in the midst of this global pandemic, with close to five million of us dead. Most died alone, with their families still grieving, holding the life stories of their loved ones close. We can’t forget that. Again, we thought this was a pause. It is now a place. May it become a place of transformation.

Tonight, Victoria Chang is asking us to think about the relationship between memory and grief. This feels like an arc in our series of weather reports, because the one thing, the one aspect that all of these weather reports have had in common, be it fire or loved ones or the loss of land or species, is grief. Climate grief.

In reading her latest two books, Obit and Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief—which I love—I kept thinking: How does the grief of those we love inform our grief of a changing planet, where we find ourselves not only in the midst of the extinction but with the severe loss of biodiversity, including the land itself?

“The shape of memory is a tree,” writes Victoria. “The trees have witnessed all the wars. What is a tree but persistent and secret?” Perhaps our individual grief and collective grief are persistent and secret. Perhaps this is part of our problem, the silencing of our grief—the masks of denial, prejudice and racism, love and loss.

So much of Victoria Chang’s work has to do with what is seen and unseen. As a person of color, she has experienced both the violence of being seen and the loneliness of being unseen. What is visible and invisible haunts, informs, and enlivens her work.

Victoria Chang’s presence tonight is a gift. She’s an artist, a creator, a celebrated poet. In her five collections of poetry, each book is a visual form as well as a poetic form. Most recently, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020, received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Pen/Voelcker Award for Poetry and was long-listed for the National Book Award.

Her most recent book, Dear Memory, was given star reviews by both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which said: “a moving consideration of ancestry and loss, [Chang’s] prose is sharp and strong—memory is ‘the exit wound of joy,’ she writes—and her creativity shines in her incorporation of the collage-like visual elements, which add depth.”1

Victoria Chang is a writer of depth. Welcome, Victoria. It’s an honor to be in conversation with you tonight.

Victoria Chang: Thank you so much. That was really generous and kind, and it’s such a pleasure to be here.

TTW: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for so long. I will tell the audience we’ve never met personally, but now I just have. We need this conversation in terms of what the weather reports are.

Because, as I said, I think the one common denominator has been grief. As you know, Obit touched me deeply. I’m still haunted and stirred by your lines, in particular, “the dead are an image of wind. And when they comb their hair, our trees rustle.” That’s one of those lines where you just experience the world differently. So I thank you for that. Victoria, what’s the weather report where you are right now?

VC: I think the weather report in Los Angeles, where I’m dialing in from, literally and metaphorically, is tenuous. It’s one of transition and change.

TTW: Tenuous and in transition—that feels familiar to me. It is also what we are experiencing in the desert. The epigram in Obit begins with this line from Shakespeare: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak. . . .” So much of what you talk about is silence. I’m wondering if you can just describe for our listeners how Obit came to be both the words and the silences inside.

VC: My mother had a pretty terrible disease. It’s called pulmonary fibrosis, and it’s when your lungs gradually harden and you suffocate to death. She was ill for a long time, and then she passed away in 2015 after my father had had a stroke, maybe 15 years ago now.

He lost his language and struggles with aphasia, but he’s still around. But the burden of being a caretaker, or the gift/burden of being a caretaker, I think led to my mom’s demise. The book actually came about with me avoiding wanting to write the traditional elegy.

It’s been done before, done better than I could ever do it, in ways that weren’t maybe familiar to me. So I resisted that whole enterprise, or practice, I should say. And then I heard on NPR talk about a documentary on the obit, on obituary writers. Something clicked, and I went home and thought, gosh, when someone you love dies, everything seems like it dies in some ways.

I started writing these small poems that look like obituaries. The first one I wrote was called “The Bees.” The bees died of something. I think I changed the beginning, but I happened to open Obit to that page now: “The Bees—268 million years old from the Philippines, passed away on April 26, 2217 in Nome, Alaska.”

Somehow, that sort of act of just writing that little beginning of an obituary led me to be able to write through my grief, or about my grief, or askew, I suppose—just sort of giving some of those emotions on paper.

TTW: I loved how in the gesture of writing these columns, these obits, it becomes a book about life. Your first one in the published book is an obituary for your father’s frontal lobe after a stroke. It moves through to a blue dress, an obituary for appetite, for optimism. And in the end, America.

I’m interested in how you interspersed throughout these tankas, which are poems for your children. Can you talk about that decision and what a tanka is?

VC: I wrote these obituary-shaped poems in maybe over a two-week period. They just kind of all came out looking alike in that short period of time—and not to compare myself to the great poet Rilke, but it was a very similar process. I tried other forms of poetry—sonnets, sestinas, villanelles—but I landed on these tankas, which are syllabic forms, very much like a haiku, which is five, seven, five syllables—obviously in English syllables. The tanka is five, seven, five, seven, seven. I just wrote a bunch of them, and they were to children.

My poet friend told me, you should move these all throughout the book, and so they became a kind of conversation between loss and life. And then it sort of reshaped how I thought about loss in some ways—about grieving.

Grieving, I thought, was a way to commemorate the dead in some ways, or to see if I could explain what grief was. Then as time went on, I realized grieving is actually a form of love, that’s really what it is. I think the tanka has helped me to see that relationship between helping someone die and then helping someone grow.

Grieving, I thought, was a way to commemorate the dead in some ways, or to see if I could explain what grief was. Then as time went on, I realized grieving is actually a form of love.

TTW: I also loved the truth of it, that in the middle of our grief, as you say, or in the middle of caretaking for the dying, there’s also simultaneously life going on. And we feel those waves of movement between the living and the dying, the mundane and the profound.

I have to ask you about one poem, one obituary. It was about the ocean. Would you mind reading that one?

VC: Sure.

The Ocean—died on August 21, 2017, when I didn’t jump from the ship. Instead, I dragged the door shut and pulled up the safety ledge. The water in my body wanted to pour into the ocean and I imagined myself being washed by the water, my body separating into the droplets it always was. I could feel the salt on my neck for days. A woman I once knew leapt out of a window to her death. The difference she was being chased. Some scientists say the ocean is warming. Some say the ocean has hypoxic areas with no oxygen. Even water has hierarchy. A child’s death is worse than a woman’s death unless the woman who died was the mother of the child and the only parent. If the woman who died was the mother of an adult, it is merely a part of life. If both mother and daughter died together, it is a shame. If a whole family dies, it is a catastrophe. What will we call a whole ocean’s death? Peace.

TTW: Thank you. There’s such a powerful logic there. Those last two lines—“What will we call a whole ocean’s death? Peace.”—Can you talk about that? It has stayed with me for months.

VC: I think it’s an acknowledgment of our complicity in the earth’s harm. Once we’re gone, I think the ocean can be at peace, because we’re no longer here to destroy our planet. I think that’s probably what I was thinking when I wrote it. And I say “ocean’s death.” It’s interesting because there’s a connection between us and the ocean. When we’re not around anymore, is an ocean even an ocean anymore? So maybe there’s some sort of naming, too, in the relationship between signifier and signified.

I think I was thinking the ocean would still be around, but because we are no longer around, then, therefore, is it alive anymore? Does that makes sense? A little complicated, I know. Poets do that, so I’m not even sure what it means.

TTW: I love that peace is another form of silence in some way. I think our audience can begin to see layering, how one sentence follows another. In many ways, I felt your last sentences of every obit were a koan, almost like a koan. And it invited stillness to contemplate that. Will you read to us?

VC: Sure. I’d be happy to. I’ll just read a few of these. They’re all shaped like little obituaries. This one’s called “Music.”

Music—died on August 7, 2015. I made a video with old pictures and music for the funeral. I picked “Hallelujah” in a cappella. Because they weren’t really singing, but actually crying. When my children came into the room, I pretended I was writing. Instead, I looked at my mother’s old photos. The fabric patterns on all her shirts. The way she held her hands together at the front of her body. In each picture, the small brown purse that now sits under my desk. At the funeral, my brother-in-law kept turning the music down. When he wasn’t looking, I turned the music up. Because I wanted these people to feel what I felt. When I wasn’t looking, he turned it down again. At the end of the day, someone took the monitor and speakers away. But the music was still there. This was my first understanding of grief.

This one is called “My Mother’s Teeth.” She had dentures and so my whole life I just remember a lot of glasses in bathrooms and things with teeth fizzing all the time. After she died, I realized that she had more than one pair of dentures.

My Mother’s Teeth—died twice, once in 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. Once again on August 3, 2015. The fake teeth sit in a box in the garage. When she died, I touched them, smelled them, thought I heard a whimper. I shoved the teeth into my mouth. But having two sets of teeth only made me hungrier. When my mother died, I saw myself in the mirror, her words around my mouth like powder from a donut. Her last words were in English. She asked for a Sprite. I wonder whether her last thought was in Chinese. I wonder what her last thought was. I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to like a scent. My mother used to collect orange blossoms in a small shallow bowl. I pass the tree each spring. I always knew that grief was something I could smell. But I didn’t know that it’s not actually a noun but a verb. That it moves.

And I’ll read this little tanka here that we were just talking about. I put two on each page and I’ll just read these two.

Sometimes all I have
Are words and to write them means
they are no longer
prayers but are now animals.
Other people can hunt them.

You don’t need a thing
from me, you already have
everything you need:
the moon, a wound on the lake,
our footprints to not follow.

And maybe I’ll read one more from this book. It’s called “The Clock.”

The Clock—died on June 24, 2009 and it was untimely. How many times my father has failed the clock test. Once I heard a scientist with Alzheimer’s on the radio, trying to figure out why he could no longer draw a clock. It had to do with the superposition of three types. The hours represented by 1 to 12, the minutes where a 1 no longer represents 1 but 5, and a 2 now represents 10, then the second hand that measures 1 to 60. I sat at the stoplight and thought of the clock, its perfect circle and its superpositions, all the layers of complication on a plane of thought, yet the healthy read the clock in one single instant without a second thought. I think about my father and his lack of first thoughts, how every thought is a second or third or fourth thought, unable to locate the first most important thought. I wonder about the man on the radio and how far his brain has degenerated since. Marvel at how far our brains allow language to wander without looking back but knowing where the pier is. If you unfold an origami swan, and flatten the paper, is the paper sad because it has seen the shape of the swan or does it aspire toward flatness, a life without creases? My father is the paper. He remembers the swan but can’t name it. He no longer knows the paper swan represents an animal swan. His brain is the water the animal swan once swam in, holds everything, but when thawed, all the fish disappear. Most of the words we say have something to do with fish. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

TTW: In your latest book, Dear Memory, you talk about the relationship between grief and memory. I was thinking, is that memory in grief? Does it matter what order it is? What are your thoughts?

VC: This book is really interesting because I never really thought about writing it as a book. It got me thinking about how remembering and remembrances, and the act of remembering, is another form of grieving.

I think that, for me, they’re one and the same. They sort of tangle together. And so one doesn’t necessarily come before the other. They just sort of intermix, the way water just moves within itself. So I think that that’s how I ended up thinking about it.

TTW: You continue to deepen my thinking about grief. Does it belong to the past or does it belong to the future? What we will grieve by not having our mothers with us, certain species that no longer will be here. Or is grief in the present? Is grief like pain where, I don’t know. . . . Or is grief always with us?

VC: I think we live in a culture that is very capitalist and therefore requires us, to some extent, to fix things, to fix ourselves. And I think grief is just one of the things that our culture tries to fix. I think we fixate—pun intended—on the wrong things to fix.

I think that . . . grief is not something that really needs to be fixed. I think it just is, and I think that we learn to live in it and among it.

I think that something like grief is not something that really needs to be fixed. It can’t really be fixed. I think it just is, and I think that we learn to live in it and among it. And it’s nothing to go through, there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel.

You think of all these clichés that we have in our culture. That’s something that I’ve had to come to terms with—that grief won’t end, and it shouldn’t have to end, because my mother is still dead.

So I don’t really feel like I need to get over anything. Rather, I now live in that grief. I think we live in all kinds of griefs, just as we live in all kinds of joys. And the two are very closely intertwined, grief and joy. I think without grief we couldn’t have joy, because we wouldn’t understand what joy is without grief or pain. I’ve had to come to peace with that, versus always trying to work through things.

TTW: One of the lines you write [in Dear Memory] is—and maybe for many of us it is, as you say—“memory, for many of us, is shaped by motion, movement, and migration.” And imagination. And to me that could also be a definition of grief.

Grief too is shaped by motion, movement, and migration, imagination. We move with grief. That’s something that I came away from Obit with, and it was strengthened in this narrative, these love letters. One of the things I was wondering is: How have you come to know or understand grief from the writing of it, versus/and the living of it?

VC: I think for a writer, we write to just live. I think, for writers, writing is oxygen. I can’t imagine not doing that in my life at all. I think then I would basically be ceased. I wouldn’t be living anymore, in many ways. I may be here in body, but I’m not really here.

And so I think, for writers, that’s how we navigate the world. For a lot of these recent books, I was thinking, if I were sitting across from you at a table at a restaurant, could I explain to you, Terry, what I was feeling? Could language actually accomplish that, or are these things definable?

Ultimately, I think they’re not really definable, and they’re always moving, like you’re saying. And shape-shifting and churning and morphing and unpinnable, damnable I guess. Or not able to be pinned down is probably a better way to say it.

But through this process, I felt like, at least writing Obit, those poems, if I could get a foot away, an inch away, a centimeter away to using language as a way to articulate those feelings, knowing that there would be that slippage—I think I really enjoyed that process of creating. And that’s the medium for a writer.

It’s little letters and little words, and how we put them together in different combinations and collisions—that’s what we do. For a painter, it’s something else, oil or acrylic paints. But for a writer, it’s words. I think that was always fun for me as a writer, to try and see if it’s even possible to use words to express some really profoundly sad and deep grief.

TTW: One of the things I was thinking about is that when I was writing about my mother’s death in a book called Refuge, she was still with me. And if I’m honest, Victoria, I don’t think I really began to grieve until after I finished the book, because then I no longer had access to her in that same way. Did you experience anything like that?

VC: Absolutely. I think that’s why I kept writing. I wrote Dear Memory because, boy, when you’re an immigrant’s child and you grow up in a culture of silence, what happens when the only connection you have left to your entire history is now gone?

In many ways what that means is they are now dead and your own history has evaporated and vanished. But you didn’t know that you had that hole in you until that body, the physical body of my mother, was gone, because she held all of those secrets, all that knowledge.

So there was just another form of grieving, a deeper layer of grieving. And, knock on wood, my dad is still around. I’m sure that I’ll feel a different kind of grieving when he leaves the earth as well. I think that you just can’t know what you’ll feel until those things happen.

And even after you write these books, it’s not as if anything is resolved or there’s any greater understanding. I mean, if anything comes out of the process of making and creating, it’s that you come out of it with more questions.

I think that’s the beauty of the process of making; you’re not really trying to answer anything. That’s what makes us come back to art-making as humans, and why it continues to be a big part of our lives and our cultures around the world.

TTW: I rarely speak about this in public for obvious reasons, but you and I both lost our mothers early on in our life as writers. I often wonder what my voice would be had I not lost my mother. And was it worth it?

I mean, the death of my mother gave me my voice—because I felt free. If my mother had lived, I don’t think I would have been able to have written as honestly as I did after she was gone. I’m wondering if that has haunted you, as it has haunted me; the price of our voice was the loss of our mothers.

VC: I think about that all the time. And I actually just said this recently: boy, it is awful strange that my mother had to die for me to become the artist that I am today. And what a terrible thing I’ve done, in that I’ve basically used her death, in my own grieving, for art’s sake. And I feel terrible about that, and it’s a huge cost—I would have her back in a second.

TTW: I feel exactly the same way, Victoria. But is it for art’s sake or our own survival?

VC: Both.

TTW: I mean, our mothers created us, certainly, with our fathers. But then after their death, we recreated them. And I wonder if there is some kind of organic process in that that has to do with memory and grief and the making, even, of a reconstructed beloved.

VC: I just suddenly remembered—I loved your book, the bird book, When Women Were Birds. I feel like there’s such a connection between some of the things that we’re talking about in your books and my books.

TTW: Victoria, thinking about this makes me go back to my mother’s journals. My mother left me all her journals, and all the journals were blank. Was that her heartbeat? Was that yelling back through her silence? Was that the wildest imagination, the most open text?

And then I was so moved when the last line in your book, Dear Memory is “blank paper, everywhere with a red threaded needle.” I want to thank you for that. And, as we’re talking about our mothers, I’m thinking, what about Mother Earth?

And what role does identity play in the climate crisis? How might the climate of our own identities be shifting and changing? Who are we becoming at this moment in time? And is there a “we,” or is it only “I”?

VC: I think those are really great questions. Every day I read something that makes my bones shiver, I think about something, like even just what you mentioned in terms of the football fields falling into the ocean.

I read something every day related to the climate or environment, and I have to say that it often feels so overwhelming. Trying to figure out what one’s individual role is in trying to figure this out is really hard and overwhelming.

I do think there’s an individual in the relationship to climate, but I also think there is a “we.” A part of what we’re facing, as the people that are on this Earth right now, is: What do we do as a collective? What do we do as individuals? How do we not put all of it onto the next generations, yet how do we also stoke them to make some real change?

These are questions of the moment that I think are really important. I do think there has to be an “I” and there has to be a “we.” I think we’re egotistical. So the “I” needs to be stoked in some way to turn into a “we.” But yes, I think about that all the time.

A part of what we’re facing, as the people that are on this Earth right now, is: What do we do as a collective? What do we do as individuals? How do we not put all of it onto the next generations, yet how do we also stoke them to make some real change?

TTW: I think about the line that you wrote, that in some ways being born Chinese in America means not being born at all. Or I remember a conversation I had with a beloved student of mine who said, “Terry, my we is not your we.”

And so with these conversations around identity, with all of our different experiences, I just keep wondering, where do we find our humanity, a collective “we” at this time, when what is needed is a coming together as we face the deaths of species, the ecological decline of our Mother Earth?

These are some of the questions that your writing provoked in me, with such beautiful lines [from Dear Memory]: “I have rain in my eyes and I can no longer see. My eyelids are now umbrellas.” And the notion of fragments. I love that image of your mother, with all the fragments around her. In the making of that, where does one find wholeness?

VC: I did a reading with one of my friends, the poet Rick Barrett, and he said something that made me think about fragments and wholeness, but he was talking about silence. And he said Dear Memory in many ways seems like a journey.

The speaker goes through a journey of silence. At the beginning of the book, you think silence is something that you’re trying to fill in. And by the end of the book, you realize silence is this beautiful thing that doesn’t need to be filled. I think that’s true with fragments in the whole as well.

I think our impulse with fragments is to put the pieces together. Maybe the fragments are a beautiful thing within themselves. Instead of thinking of it as one large unit, maybe we think of it as a series of smaller units that are all nodes somehow networked in some ways that all together could build a stronger whole, but it’s not connected in the same way that maybe it used to be connected.

TTW: Maybe that’s the decolonization that is necessary. I was noticing how many times “country” comes up in your work. Maybe that’s part of a new language that you’re advocating for, the fragmentation that is its own beauty but takes out of country, as well as acknowledgment of the countries we come from or that we’ve been separated from.

VC: That’s right. I am a whole human that’s in some ways built out of fragments and silence, and not in other people’s trauma that then was passed on to me through intergenerational trauma, and things like that.

I think it takes a lifetime to come to that realization of feeling as if, oh, the parts are also its own kind of whole, and there’s no need to sort of aim for that other whole that other people have over there, because their experience is different than mine.

So I think it’s sort of reframing things or rethinking things. Building a self is not easy. It can take a lifetime. I always thought this whole gig that we have is odd. We spend a whole lifetime acquiring wonderful experiences and stacking images in our brains and all this great thinking, and then we die.

I thought, who designed this, all this knowledge at the end? And so I think it’s a fascinating thing to think about, but it is really a true testament to the journey as more important than where we end and then what we end up with.

TTW: And yet still the curiosity. I love this paragraph of yours [again, from Dear Memory]: “Maybe if I listen closely enough, the stone is a thought, the bell makes a sound without ringing, and I can hear children grow. Maybe our histories can never be known. Maybe curiosity is its own language.” And I was thinking, maybe curiosity is the underbelly of grief—you’re wanting to know the wonder that comes with the death of a loved one.

I know when I think of my brother, his death by suicide, I’m filled with wonder. I’m filled with wonder and that curiosity that also is a sibling of grief. And then with your children, when you say, “my children”: will you read it, the last tanka?

VC: Oh, sure.

My children, children,
this poem will not end because
I’m trying to end
this poem with hope. Hope. Hope.
See how the mouth stays open?

I think this culture that we live in doesn’t want us to think too much or too hard, because when we do that, we come alive. And I think that it’s better for these institutions and people to have all of us stay numb and dead, so that capitalism can continue to churn along as it does.

I think we have to stay alive. How we do that is through music, through art, through poetry, through philosophy—all the things that have been with us since the beginning of time.

Notes:

  1. Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief,” Publishers Weekly, July 21, 2021.

Victoria Chang, poems from Obit. Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Chang. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, coppercanyonpress.org. All rights reserved.

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