On the Other Side
Victoria Chang’s “Obit” forms a pillar of words reminiscent of a tombstone or a newspaper column—images that complement this account of mourning. “A door that / can’t be opened is called a wall,” Chang observes. “My father is on the other side / of the wall.” Her brief lines match her abbreviated title (“obit” is, of course, short for “obituary”), as well as the truncated life they memorialize.
Herself full of speech, the daughter wants to ask her father whether the tomatoes she glimpses through a window “are the new / form of his language or if they’re / simply for eating”: is he communicating from beyond the veil, or is produce just produce? Needless to say, she can’t find out. “On the other side, there / are no words. All I can do is stare / at the nameless bursting tomatoes / and know they have to be enough.” By using language to address silence, the poem embodies the unbreachable distance between father and daughter. No wonder its narrow block of text also resembles a “wall.”
In “Mansplaining,” Jennifer Militello explains herself to a man: “Dear sir, your air of authority / leaves me lost. Eases me from / a place of ease. …. / Sighs with / my breath. Wins at my race.” Phrase after phrase begins with the man’s action and concludes with its effect on her, a grammatical reflection of the secondary status a “mansplainer,” or male know-it-all, inflicts on his listener.
In some respects, this poem—an act of uninterrupted communication by a female speaker—functions as a rebuttal of mansplainers. Yet those voluble villains have staying power: “I close my eyes / to erase you and you are written / in my lids.” They’re written in these lines, too: by claiming first place in so many clauses, mansplainers appear to be “winning the race” of Militello’s sentences. Hence, perhaps, her extreme conclusion, a desperate measure to ease mansplainers from their “place of ease”: “All parts of me say shoot / on sight. Aim for an artery / or organ. Good night.”
Seven times in “Twelve,” Lynn Melnick offers the familiar parental preface “when I was your age.” Yet here, the phrase introduces surprisingly mature content: “When I was your age I went to a barroom // and bought cigarettes with quarters / lifted from the laundry money.” “When I was your age boys traded quarters / for a claw at my carcass.” “When I was your age I enjoyed a hook.” “Hook” doesn’t refer just to the aforementioned “claws.” For the music-loving speaker, it alludes also to memorable, repeated passages in pop songs—and for us, to the many refrains in this song of a poem, including “when I was your age.”
The poem’s profoundest repetition is that of childhood: the daughter is twelve, as the mother once was, too. But changes have set in for the older woman. “When I was your age I went to a barroom / and a man in a band shirt pinched my ass,” she says. “Last night I skipped a banquet // so I could stay home and do your laundry / and drink wine from my grandmother’s glass.” The rhyme of “ass” and “glass” associates the terms, emphasizing the distinction between them—and between past and present. A salacious moment in a bar has yielded to a household chore accompanied only by wine, and the memory of mothers before her.
“Tablets IV,” by Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail, is the most recent in a series of four 24-part poems (the first two, available here and here, appeared in Poetry). These fragmented works recall the text-laden tablets that survive from the ancient Near East, and they meditate on how we ourselves survive—or don’t—in a ruthless world.
One fragment reads: “Before killing them / they collected their personal effects. / Their cell phones are all ringing / in the box.” Mikhail’s grammar is striking: she moves from past tense to present, as though the phones are ringing even now—as though, while the victims of this massacre did not endure, others’ love for them did, and does.