Recently, in attempting to find ways to cope with deaths of friends, I took to their obituaries for comfort. Oddly, I found the opposite. The block of text which should hold a lot of weigh seems to mean nothing as a block of words/facts. I found myself distraught over the flat block of text, the bland words, the matter-of-fact language that didn’t give merit or voices to those gone. I couldn’t understand what the text was telling me.

What do obituaries do except give off biographical information and name a couple of hobbies? Not given meaning or significance. All lives are significant, but when it is someone you know, someone personal to the “I,” death has a different new brightness to it that doesn’t seem as acceptable anymore, but abrasive and uncomfortably blinding—Eric’s and Alex’s lives were especially significant to me. These were boys who created happiness and light for everyone they touched, a real-life example of “only the good die young.” The space an obituary provides is not a space of warmth, of memory, of love. The space of an obituary is desolate of real meaning and significance. While I speak very personally, I believe the way the work is presented is not esoteric, but relatable in content and experience for many. The “Or-bituary” manuscript moves through the pages like time moves through memory, slowing it down, breaking it apart, playing with pieces of remembrance that anyone who has breathed can related to. Memory is slippery, as is meaning.

Defined in the way they are, the obituaries are not legible. Muriel Leung’s quote sticks hard to my heart: “No one talks about what they have lost” (Bone Confetti, 2016). I believe part of this is due to the slipperiness of the thing that has been lost. As time goes on, the sheen slowly begins to wear away, the details become mute. Yet writing helps to stir these details up again, just maybe in different forms than previously presented, such as a different angle displayed in a poem. Writing is about describing everything I’ve lost, because everything I write about is from a place of the past, what once was that is no longer. I constantly find myself trying to splice together what is and what was to make what could be, the remnant ghost. But I think there’s something poignant in Leung’s statement. I believe no one talks about what they have lost, in part, because they can’t find the words to adequately describe the sensation or embodiment that has been lost. By undefining, we can find legibility.

So I begin with a word: undefine.
To unsettle: having no inhabitants: unoccupied: desolate
Not given meaning or significance, as by a definition; not defined or explained

As I think of poetics, I think of how I can reshape the words of the obituary, the biographical points, the lack of paying homage to these people, to solve the illegibility. In writing, sometimes I find it’s more effective to undefine in order to be legible. How do I take this definition of death prescribed by generic family lines and newspapers and redefine what the obituary does? By taking the pre-defined and reshaping it, giving it new form, highlighting the persona of the one who was lost instead of spewing out facts, but creating art/creating life from something desolate, we can reshape what these definitions mean.

I fall into a combination of undefining and defining, unsettled in my writing, unsettled thoughts and images that need to be collaged together through words on paper— It is extremely difficult to describe an emotion that lies between verbs we already know. They are just verbs. I find myself trying to make sense through words, make the pain make sense through words but I feel the same, not changing as fast as Midwestern skies: white, bleak, then gray haze… They wonder why so many teens are choosing to medicate and blink out instead of droning through the crossroads of Nowhere - Dirt Road, but is it really so difficult to empathize? And how many more are done with waking to aching sunshine, feeling half of who you are or can be, unable to wash out demands from our throats, shape incantation into action..? Trying to get words to make something, anything, make sense because it doesn’t--I see them, trying to find the soft grip of moon waning, wanting to spool threads of stars around it, their bluing fingers, their disarticulated bones without air to spiral through lungs, expel. From the heart, can’t make clay; from heartstrings, we find only witnesses with the rough touch of something faint that won’t stay in the catastrophe of the past. I was once told if someone leaves it’s best to know why, and I know why you both left, so what am I supposed to do with all the left-over drugs? How am I supposed to leave Death since witnessing her bare & raw, enchanting charm?
            Aimless.
            Down to shores of Ana Island like some wishful fools off to find the Fountain of Youth (11 Magnolia Ave.), feel flood tides crash against crumbling seawalls again and again, crash and crash again. Not getting any better at resistance to feeling or thought or needing to cope with the world around me, through words, by breaking them down and rearranging them, and hoping they will form new pictures in my heart—

a weekday outside the Magic Beach Motel: stars keep shooting off behind
Eric’s head; pink yellow white, pink yellow tings with tequila
chain-smoke while he tells us about future plans (memorials now)

another sunset down the gutter, how every Floridian’s
night begins, antique muffled voices all born unlucky

with skin (rub salt over the shoulders, repeat daily...)

I imagine littering my feathers behind, the world taking
                                                                                                            a long drag
                        sigh heaving, ocean crash somewhere nearby

 

A long drag, crash and crash again as I bring shears, tear into memories of chipping seafoam faces, tear into  s-ah-ah-oun-d: all the days thinking of those bluing eyes, thinking of those waves cross-country, thinking of giving you guys up or joining you, no longer caring about direction or light. In dreamscapes, translucent hands try breaking every expectation the sun will rise again tomorrow, so tired of circling the same track of cosmos, every day…

another Thursday, after the psychic reader on Bernard Street
performs her fifth reading flipping Ace of Pentacles

then she walks into the Atlantic, pod of sea weed washing
up in her place
                        more memorials. Mouths stay close but closed off
                        like stretched badlands along arid shores,

eyes doing more swimming,
learning to see with salt clumped to eyelashes.


There’s nothing heavier than weight of mystery: even Sun hardly glows through haze they try to convince us is sky, but we know the difference. We just stopped caring when we begin to turn to Calla Lillies, pinking toes to grab, trick us into falling (out of necessity)—
Should I have gone long ago?

 

 

From a place of desolation: I think how Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman created paintings he felt were the only way to react to a society broken by World War II, different from the still lifes and portraits, as if painting had never existed, with lines and lines and color…. Which means words have never existed, as they carry the weight of our art, how we can determine meaning with a single jumble of letters creatively rearranged together to make a picture If painting had never existed, meaning had never existed, and words had never existed—how do I write as if words had never existed? But by mixing observations of organic decay and the complicated (often haunting or resigned) psychology of the self, the themes of death or what is lost juxtaposed with color and image can creates tones of a (dreamy) reality, but when it comes to writing, or reality, what is real? What is it that is defined into reality?...

Reality, especially in writing, is a matter of ethics, I believe. It hides in the necessity of the present, to transcend each moment toward the future. Joan Retallack’s “Essay as Wager”  focuses on a poetics of the swerve where “swerves are necessary to dislodge us from reactionary allegiances and nostalgias.” My manuscript is this swerve, dislodging us from some vague reactionary display of words people put together in order to pay homage to a lost life. Jessica Down’s poetics panel referenced Vanessa Place, who believed stagnant law language was not accurately telling the stories of the people described in her readings. She says these important artifacts would be ignored in the form they were given, and by performing the pieces, she was able give the voices a new home/power of voice. My erasures, inclusions, and recreations offer a reconstruction of values, of my po(ethics) to be true to what I am trying to construct. And while Retallack’s statement was primarily about essay, she mentions a hybrid, mixed-genre, which is how I would describe my manuscript and writing. My writing while sometimes fitting the poetry genre, often even pushes against poetry, as no single form is alone creates new meaning, in my case, from the obituaries and artifacts included in the manuscript. It is a picking apart of ‘nonfiction-essay,’ like body of text and turning it into etymology, art, and poetry blurs the lines of genre, as it should. If form is to mimic art and visa versa, I hope to blur the lines of what is homage, shrine, momentum of someone no longer physically with us.

I am trying to blur the lines of life and death and what it means, what reality is can construct, not only for my writing but for these lives I am tumbling into and out of life. Retellack mentions how “mixed genres are the best way [she can] know to make sense of the kind of world in which we live. To wager on a poetics of the conceptual swerve is to believe in the constancy of the unexpected—source of terror, humor, hope” which I identify with, coming from a place of terror. Yet, I also believe the unexpected Retellack speaks of is the space my manuscript dwells in. Not only were the deaths themselves unexpected, but the language falls apart more and more then begins to morph into something else, not something I usually expect to happen in my writing. The snippets show this constancy of unexpectedness throughout my manuscript through the pictures, form variation, and the ending pieces, but they also show me, my emotional landscape and snippets of my own memories and perspectives. In this way, I do believe it is difficult not be subjective—but as I focus on the aspects of my friends in this particular manuscript, I believe I am trying to be as objective as possible—without being like the original obituary.

I believe I am a person of strong emotion, by which I mean when I feel something, I feel any emotion, I feel it intensely, with passion. There are so many emotions we feel, emotion is a spectrum beyond “happy” to “angry,” and often I find myself exploring this spectrum deeply, as I’m trying to simultaneously find the correct words to describe the in-between feeling. In this practice, I endlessly begin my work from the epicenter of some feeling, but am spiraling around it, much like the “swelling around the wound” we have often mentioned in class discussion and panels. This reminds me of one of my favorite poems (sort of) about writing:

            One day I am thinking of/ a color: orange. I write a line/ about orange. Pretty/ soon it
            is a whole page of words, not lines./ Then another page. There should be/so much more,
            not of orange, of/ words, of how terrible orange is/ and life. Days go by. It is even in/
            prose, I am a real poet. My poem/ is finished and I haven't mentioned/ orange yet. It's
            twelve poems, I call/ it ORANGES
(Why I am not a painter, Frank O’Hara).
 

This swelling/emotion, much like words, are constantly being picked at to get to the source, to find what the emotion really is, what it really means. But there are not enough words to accurately describe “how terrible orange is/ and life.” Currently, within my realm of coping with death, coping with sadness, I am exploring through words and pictures, in a way, the stages of grief—my work shows denial of death from the very beginning. This is a denial I intend to continue holding hands with. I am denying, not that my friends are gone, per se, but denying that the obituary is the finale for them. That death itself is not the end, but can be reshaped into life. There is apparent anger at the obituary form, the lifelessness of those words.

I have always turned to words, as the weight of them can be so important for communication, and more importantly, connection. From Gabrielle Civil’s Call & Response, she asks ‘What is the urgency of our invention?’ and to that I answer my urgency is me. My urgency comes my personal need to express and explore emotion. The urgency is a part of my every-day life, of living, and the invention is also intertwined in this every-dayness. And just to touch base, the bargaining I’m doing in my grief, is my invention at this moment, is to give new meaning and expression of lives that have passed. If they must be gone, then I will make them reappear as ghosts, as shapes, as words, as art. So to be shown words (obituaries) in such a flat context offends me not only for the sake of my friends, but for the sake of words. When I write, even for myself, I am trying to sift through something that needs balancing in my mind or body. I trust words to help me understand the world and space I occupy with others, and my intense feelings regarding moments in this space.

I am not at the point of acceptance, yet, which this manuscript, I believe in form displays. There are numerous breaking downs of the obituary, and the breaking down could continue, or be broken down in a different way, constantly cycling through ways to create meaning. While I used erasure to display this change in meaning, I could essentially start over, by piecing the fragments in “Fresh to Death” and “Beautiful boy won’t wait for you” back together through memory or context of the fragments that remain in the poems. In the manuscript already, there is a rebuilding of meaning as the pieces continue from this point, from a deconstruction to a reconstruction of meaning and memory and moments. I utilize erasure, mostly, to emphasize how I am breaking down this text, but also to emphasize how memory and meaning work—These pieces in particular utilize homophones and white space which causes the reader to search for words, meaning, sound, in a new way. This creates a different form of “legibility” that causes the reader to build words and meaning on their own within this space provided. Even though the full “text” is provided first, the illegible obituaries make it possible for new meaning and experiences occur. The obituaries are broken down to a point, the poems “Fresh” and “wont’ wait.” From there, literal definitions are found, the beginning of the “new” definitions for the or-bituaries. These new definitions begin a story, specifically with the first definition: “Meaning: genuinely intend to convey/•Specified importance: I send ghost flowers” (“The Sun”) This shows an exploration of definition, of meaning, and how slippery definitions are.. In the next set of poems, the new definitions begin to be fleshed out, but there are obvious bits missing from the poems “The Sun is” and “Walls of.” I omitted various nouns and pronouns to still a sense of incompletion, of rebuilding meaning to make a whole. The “new” or-bituaries come in the remaining poems of the manuscript. In a way, for now, this is how I see my cycle of grieving. In the same way I can continue to give new meaning and expression of my friends, I can continue to dwell in the space, spend time with it, as I do not see it being a negative space to be in.

In writing, I believe we are all trying to get at the core of a thing, the “skeleton,” which Renee Gladman seems to suggest of language as well, in “Emergence of a Fiction” since “To write is to turn that timeless, instantly expressed (or felt) idea into an unfolding narrative, which is to break a whole (that is unbreakable in a very real way) into approximate parts.” In order to put back together that once-complete idea or feeling, we need to begin at the center of that feeling. Regarding obituaries, Gladman’s description seems to encompass them entirely. Obituaries are a piece of writing that are meant to encompass a whole, and instead breaks this whole (a sense of life-time) into pieces of biography and hobbies. This is not what language should be used for.

 Regarding the use of language, the poetics, the becoming a “skeleton,” undefining is a way of understanding, a way of beginning again, reducing the world down to the bare bones of the self, essentially stripping subjectivity away from experience to see the world as it truthfully is. Undefining displays, instead of narrations, vignettes of emotional landscapes that impact all of us, knocking into our personal trajectories and veering us into different paths and experiences. These moments of impact are what make it possible form redefinition to occur, creates many possibilities for foundations to be able to (re)build from. To be able to redefine through words (our emotions, these obituaries, the world as we are told it is) makes it possible to sift through the pieces of the idea that are not yet whole again — Writing is how I become a skeleton. For me, this redefining space seems to take place in a setting that feels like a real-time dreamscape junkyard full of odd objects and glimpses of memory—my pieces of a puzzle that have been whole and taken apart, now trying to get it whole again.

The manuscript I turned in ended up being twenty pages because I could take a large chunk of text and break it down, rearrange it to no meaning or to create a different meaning (it seems like) forever. Beyond the text, the idea of the Or-bituary, an alternate form of obituaries, I have included snippets of who they are; Eric’s tattoos, photographs of them, photos taken through the eye of Alex’s perspective and his words joined with the picture in my poem “Satan’s birdcage (Seattle)” which is a poem of words I took from captions Alex wrote for pictures he took on a trip to Seattle; and what they are now; memorabilia like Eric’s fundraising shirt I made into a banner and poem, “ain’t the own a bar and a road,” origami art, memories and energies. I feel this manuscript could continue to grow with more pieces and become an infinite display of re/creation. Even the pieces and snippets can be reshaped, redisplayed to create a new meaning or hopefully show more accurately than an obituary who these people were.  This to me is parallel to coping. As we cope with every-day life, loss, etc., we can find new ways to take that displeasing knowledge and shape it into something new that helps to carry us through the day.          

The process of creating the manuscript has been a relatively cathartic experience for me, and gives me inspiration to continue to find ways to give my friends life. By writing for them, taking their words and displaying pieces of their lives, it shows how the dead are still very much involved in our lives and very much alive. The notion of giving new life to something literally or figuratively lifeless is pleasing to me, and I believe it can be an inviting space for others to dwell in as well; a cradle, a see-saw of death and life as they are intertwining forces...

By taking scenes or moments apart, starting from nothing, writing can demonstrate how form and imagery can evoke an emotionally-driven subject in a dream-like space of metaphorical and literal phantoms that comes with the burden of existence. I believe a process of undefining through writing reveals a glimpse of the mystical essence of human experience and the paradox of the transcendental enactment of what it means to exist among other (non)living things, which allows us to rise and fall, to face conflict every day and continue through…