Tess Liem knows how to work wiring. Every bit of her debut, Obits. (Coach House Books, 2018) is meticulous, sliced. Dense as grief, its pages are ridged like a blade right before it gets sharp—or like the last poem’s commuter’s corduroy pants. Its clustered images—which start stacked like a spine, then waver and drift—pulse and reach for each other, a somehow-whole. Which is the mystery of life, I guess: how it is, exactly, that amalgamations can think and move and hurt. It will be impossible to name Liem’s every precision, but here. Some.
One: hazelnut. First, glowing hair that makes a death known, then a botched dye job, then “a compassionate hard pain / a hazelnut in my shoe,” each of which pulls around like a hook in the cheek. It shapeshifts into a “chestnut”—a nut in your chest! God!—later, the pit is a “skipping stone.” Finger-worn, crossing water. Becomes a mango, “a slick, shrinking / yellow sculpture” with a hardness at its core; becomes a “pebble, supposed to take pleasure / in not being totally weathered.” Firm pricks that force the reader to notice, that siphon unfathomable enormities — death, grief—into something clenched. Tight.
Two: Obit.’s abbreviative period, sown throughout the book, the opposite of a caesura—not a breath, but the loss of one. Stops the eyes, like halting sadness in the middle of the street. Try to take it out of your shoe; it’s under the skin. (This poppyseed, of course, is no mistake. Her late aunt’s “was” doesn’t end with a period. Liem knows when punctuation sharpens, and when it will only mask the unfinished as complete.)
Three: E’s that insert gender in blonde and Dutch colonialism in Liem’s own name.
Four: Scarves. “If you are blonde, / studies show someone will pick it up for you.” Another, knotted around the speaker’s neck as she peers down into darkness.
Five: “Opo tumon hayo?” a Javanese saying which sort-of-translates to “Have you ever seen such a thing,” which is recontextualized and consolidated when we hear it again, later—in the same way that we learn Liem’s French and English words anew as they repeat and contort.
That’s the thing. It isn’t repetition so much as agility, flexibility, a finger flick with the impact of a full body landing. “I am allowed distance / I am a loud distance.” Her aunt’s name, Hoei, “like oui like yes like we,” a free association like eyes flickering for meaning in the face of death—yes, the face—and finding patterns and rhythm at least.
This feels like at least two kinds of movement. The first: wielding inherited misunderstandings—how “we spelled her [aunt’s] name wrong repeatedly,” how she “never learned how to spell bakwan/batwan, / (but when),” how these loved ones could look like anything—to generate new, more, every meaning. She’s covering every possible misunderstanding—“two trees, two syllables, / two things, too many things I don’t know I mean”—veering to miss in order to outline a shape.
The second: When “late August” becomes “late aunt,” a number “revised, rises,” a “non-notice/ is anon,” she’s watching the fine shift between near-twin sounds, between a person dead and living, waiting for the skitter of their elusive source—the soul, some answer.
She strains, too, against her own nimble eye, calls some repetitions just that: “I will go back to sleep and wake up and sleep and wake up.” Calls some things really just dead, and unmetaphorable: “I will not turn her into a plant // I will not unearth her like that” (“unearthed, we say and never earthed instead of buried”). Sometimes a commute is “not a daily funeral, // it’s just what it looks like.” Her skepticism itself repeats: “What did that do.” “What did that do.” “What did that do!”
To be able to say something was done, the speaker imagines doing, really making, as an electrician fashioning neon sculptures. “& I’ll try not to romanticize this / literal electricity. But I’ll probably fail.” And she does fail—she can’t help it. Her poems are the things wrought and bright, “lit and bending,” “bent into the shape of a girl,” “shaped like no thing in particular,” “welded into the wrong shape.”
Abrupt about failing, she often speaks with failure as the starting point. “Having failed, I.” And every day is a failure in the sense that there’s no way to surmount its forward surging. Death and grief seep into her anyway. The swallowed nut makes a home in her chest. What else to do then but let them take time, their time, as they make their daily way through.