Dan Chiasson’s “Obituary” was first published in the January 6, 2014 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
Dan Chiasson’s “Obituary” is interesting but difficult. I am not exactly at sea with it, but neither am I safe on shore. This is an accounting of some of the thoughts I had while studying the language of the poem, and, because I am attending to the language, this piece is long, no way around it. My accounting of the poem’s many tentacles is detailed, but my accounting lacks a neat and beautiful conclusion. I offer my thoughts, nevertheless, in hopes of a conversation.
The poem’s stark title “Obituary” tells us there has been a death, but after several readings, I am wondering if the death could be one of several, or also, simultaneously, the death of an opposing force or movement or enemy. The recent notable obituary would have been that of Nelson Mandela. Whether or not the obituary in question is Mandela’s is not clear. Someone has died, for sure, but it could any of a number of people, or all of them together, or the life force that drove them.
What the poem will not be is emotional, personal, or lyrical; it is no traditional elegy. The flatness of the title warns us that we should not be surprised to encounter a similar flatness in the poem. The title is serving notice, and the poem may be serving notice as well.
Stanza one of “Obituary” begins:
Dawn awoke and rose one person down that day.
Across the universe, the obituary and I
Engulfed a granola-and-yogurt parfait.
Despite the rhyme and the conventional meter, the poem maintains throughout an awkwardness that fights any ordinary beauty. The rhyme of “day” with “parfait” is an example; line one goes from the sublime to the ridiculous in line three. Awkward.
Someone has noticed a death in the morning paper, but has also noticed the lack of reality this death has for them. The death feels a universe away. Perhaps the death is actually half a world away, but the person is preoccupied with eating breakfast, or with having just made a delightfully perfect confection of layers of granola and yogurt. But then, the parfait on the table is swamped by, or in a chasm between, the person and the newspaper, perhaps because the person is holding up the paper, or looking at a lap-top. The “perfect” construction of the parfait is swamped by death.
Somehow, “parfait” also reminds me of the perfection of some elegies. In this case, however, the person may feel too swamped to communicate in a delicately layered and perfect manner. This poem is layered, after all, but it is not transparent, as the container of a “parfait” often is.
The first line in stanza one says: “Dawn awoke and rose one person down that day.” I notice lots of things about this ambitious, awkward, sentence. The poem reminds us of Homer and his heroes and his rosy fingered dawn, but we already know this will not be a “parfait” piece of writing. There may be heroism, but it will be cloaked, fragmented, and mirage-like. Awkwardly, Dawn, who begins the poem, could be either a person, personified dawn, or the goddess of Dawn. Despite the shards, rubble, and fragments that make up the poem, it does ultimately bear out such an ambitious beginning.
The first line of the poem has a lovely sound: the d’s of dawn, down and day heighten the formality as well as a sense of doom. There is also the word “rose,” a word with the connotation of the color of dawn; a word that is also a symbol of love; a word that also has religious associations, in Christianity with the five wounds of Christ, in Islam with divine love; and a word that in politics as a symbol of European social democratic parties. (Wikipedia-“rose”) the poet has placed this word in his poem on purpose. Obviously, rose is a word best avoided if you don’t want any of that baggage attached. So I am surprised by its appearance and that baggage, straight off in the first line of the poem.
The second line of stanza one opens: “Across the universe.” The poem seems to be awkwardly asserting that it will address something larger than the scene at hand, or that the person reading the paper is dwarfed by the significance of the obituary, or both. There is the obvious contrast of the yuppie’s yogurt parfait to the universe, and there is the obvious contrast of the yuppie to the regal “Dawn.” There’s a sense of “Wake up!” here.
In addition, there’s an awkward suggestion of “uni-verse,” the idea that all verse ought to be the same, serve the same goals, sound the same, etc. Obviously, this poem is across the universe from that.
Stanza 2: The poem has another drop dead line in
I found my focus in his rifle’s sights.
This feels like another person speaking. Perhaps it is a quotation in the obituary of something the dead person said. It is a line that is appropriate to many a martyr: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, just to name three. Again, there is a neat alliteration in “found my focus” that supports the idea, as well as a neat reversal around the idea of sight: from “my” focus to “his” gun sight.
At any rate, King, Gandhi, and Mandela were all in danger from the white society’s guns, real and symbolic. While King and Gandhi preached civil disobedience and non-violence, Mandela risked guerrilla warfare and violent retaliation. The reader hears explosive, threatening language in the repeating f’s of “found my focus in his rifle’s sights.” At any rate, the lives of whoever is being mourned were determined by the “sights” of the enemy.
The poem goes on to say,
I was crossed out in the list
Of his next of kin
and the reader senses a great divide, as if between two peoples or two races or two cultures, a great denial. The denials of Apartheid were a kind of “crossing out”; Apartheid was an outright denial of the kinship between all men, an outright denial of the brotherhood of man. Racism in any form “crosses out” the people’s identity; in a racist society, some people’s humanity is made to be invisible.
The puzzle of stanza 2 is “Halifax black-and-white.” Halifax is a rare type of flowery font, as if Apartheid were printed in an ancient, outdated, impossible, almost illegibly flowery print. Halifax also reminds me of “Holy Facts” — whatever those might be. For instance, those who espouse Apartheid or any similar exclusionary policy often consider their policies to be sanctioned by God, and so such laws would be holy facts. But that’s a stretch. As for “black-and-white,” I hear in this phrase the rigidity of such societies, as well as the reminder that we often see humans as “black or white” or whatever other dichotomy we wish to choose — as able or disabled, for instance.
Stanza 3 makes an abrupt switch to the pronoun “He,” but he is never called by name. The poem is definite about that when it says, “He changed his name.” Stanzas 3, 4, and 5 all refer to someone as he, but each stanza refers to a specifically different person. The implication is that the people represented in stanzas 3, 4, and 5 share something universal in common.
The “He” of stanza 3 appears to be Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1953), who was a French “paleontologist turned priest.” According to the poem, “He bowled frame upon frame of erect Jesuits.” According to Wikipedia (you can’t write about a poem like this without Wikipedia), Teilhard de Chardin’s writings about evolution and original sin threw him into conflict with both the Jesuit hierarchy and the Vatican. Although Teilhard’s ideas have a complex philosophical structure, one strand has to do with the actions of man in the world as a means of drawing closer to God. Within the frame of this poem, Teilhard de Chardin brings the work of a man like Mandela into the scope of drawing closer to God.
But the phrase “erect Jesuits”? Yes, I see the self-important piety being skewered here, but I am confused by the sexual connotations. The rest of the poem supports a sexual reading of that phrase only if you see that it is important to confront the sexual sins of the clergy. But the reader has to make that leap. The poem only skewers the priests, doesn’t really explain why.
The poem says that this speaker “changed his name.” Perhaps it means from scientist to Jesuit back to scientist again. Or perhaps it is the poem’s method of scrambling identities, given that others in this poem have changed their names. Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela and given the Anglicized name of Nelson at 7. But I remind you: Mandela’s name is never mentioned here. I only surmise he might be the subject, or perhaps the occasion.
Stanza 4 says, “He taught the Inuit [. . .]” I think this stanza refers to the Canadian Metis agitator and leader Louis Riel (1844-1885), who was executed by the Canadian government for his role in the North-West Rebellion. He was a passionate supporter for the rights of the Metis, the mixed blood people who were descended from white Canadians and Native Peoples, among them, the Inuit. He stood for equality of civil rights in land ownership, language, and religion for the Metis. While Riel’s execution shows how much he was feared, Riel’s beliefs, if not also his violent actions, are now viewed as heroic and defensible.
Thus the poem combines Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with Riel, and by extension, men like Mandela, Gandhi, and King. Louis Riel is tough territory; it’s a little like arguing that John Brown is a hero.
Stanza 5 continues in this stratosphere: it appears to be talking about Pope John-Paul II, who “flew to Seoul” and who also once on a trip to Slovakia blessed a pair of (formerly) conjoined twins. The poem says, “He flew [. . .] to twin Filipinas with my features.” I note that a speaker is interjecting the idea that some twins had his features. Who is speaking? Another person with the same condition? When the pope (embraces) any disabled person, there is an echo of Mother Theresa saying that her dying patients in Calcutta were Jesus in disguise. I hesitate to go there, except that the poem appears to be, reluctantly, leading me there.
The idea of conjoined twins is important, as it echoes the idea of kinship and brotherhood, but it also echoes the idea of peoples and cultures other people want to erase.
I do not know what to make of the “pope” going to an “Icebreaker mojito outing” except that the mojito is a signature Cuban cocktail, and the pope did go to Cuba, perhaps as a gesture of “icebreaking.” Again, Cuba is an isolated nation, almost disabled in its isolation.
One long sentence stretches through Stanzas 6, 7, and 8, thus suggesting that this is one speaker speaking. Who is this speaker? Not clear. That the speaker is Jesus-like is suggested by his reference to the “cock-crow cul-de-sac alarum,” reminding the reader of the warning to Peter that he will betray Jesus three times before the cock crows; the “cul-de-sac” reminds the reader of Jesus being apprehended.
Getting the gist of this long concluding sentence (and gist is about all I am able to get) is difficult.
Midway through this long concluding sentence is a play on the word “loot.” The speaker says he is the looter and the loot, as if he has raided something precious and there is a price on his head. Jesus raided the authority of both the Jews in charge at the time and the Romans, and there surely was a price on his head. Mandela “looted” the authority of Apartheid, and there was a similar price on his head. If you were to include Martin Luther King, the price on his head was death, like Jesus, and like Louis Riel. As for Teilhard, he looted the authority of the Vatican, and the Vatican’s price was that he lose his teaching job and have his books silenced.
Stanza 6 does somersaults with the words “sentry,” “reentry,” and “absconded.” To abscond is to go into hiding. Mandela went into hiding, and when he came out of hiding he was absconded into prison. While in hiding in prison, Mandela also was secretly absconded from prison to conduct negotiations with the white government. I cannot make this riff fit any other scenario, but it fits Mandela only awkwardly. Louis Riel also went into hiding and was also taken into custody, but in contrast to Mandela he was executed. Because of the reference to the cock-crow, an idea of Jesus floats in this stanza, being particularly alive in the sentry — reentry business because of the cave, and also because of the riff on absconded, given that his body disappeared. But don’t assume I mean any of these parallels in any rigid manner.
As for the beauty of the language, I notice that the riffs on loot, sentry-reentry, abscond, and theft all remind me of rap, a poetic form distinguished for its verbal virtuosity and concern for the empowerment of the disenfranchised.
The last lines read:
and so concludes
My offensive, possibly illegal, vaudeville act.
“Vaudeville” is the people’s theater, and Wikipedia suggests that it has been thought that the origin of the word was “voix de ville,” or voice of the city. So in this vein, the speaker’s “vaudeville act” is action on behalf of the people.
But the speaker wryly describes his work as “offensive” and “possibly illegal.” Part of Mandela’s work was simply speaking from prison, thus making the self-deprecating lines ironic.
Here’s the thing. The poem expresses itself in a few Christian words and one famous Christian philosopher and at least one one pope. Rose, cross, witness, the cock crow, and alarum are all echoes from the story of Jesus. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggests that we should make all of our actions sacred acts.
The last word of the poem is “act.” The poem begins with the word dawn, and it ends with the word act.
In the words of the poem, all of these people: Gandhi, King, Mandela, Riel, and Tielhard de Chardin were engaged in “offensive” acts; they were on the offensive, and their acts were offensive to people — more offensive to some than others. And these acts were “possibly illegal” in one view or other.
The last lines refer to the cock-crow and to the “curtain” falling, both of which refer to death more than anything else.
I hear a lot going on in this poem: someone has died, possibly someone who should be celebrated, possibly Mandela. Instead, others are praised in a roundabout way; no heroes are elected, no dictators selected. Ego is discouraged.
The lack of soaring language is shocking; the confusion regarding just who this poem is about is shocking. When Whitman wrote of Lincoln’s death, it was oblique, but not this oblique. If this poem is about Mandela, then he is praised by his company: Teilhard, Louis Riel, the pope(s), and echoes of Jesus.
It is the anti-elegy elegy. What is perhaps the most curious is the sense that on the occasion of this one man’s death, the opportunity is seized to celebrate the group of men to which he belongs — as if the reader is being encouraged to think that it is a group he ought to think about joining.
If the poem is about anything, I think it is about making whatever work you do in the world sacred, or about the few who have managed to do that.
If this is Chiasson’s obituary for Apartheid, he surely got my attention, but I still question the excessively opaque nature of the style. It’s a leap of faith to think this poem can achieve a wide readership, given that it has taken me a week of inquiry to get as far as I have with it, with quite a few wrong turns along the way. Surely someone will write to me and say I’ve gone about reading the poem in the wrong way, that I’m not supposed to “think too much” about it. But that’s the way I’m wired. I just hope I have thought and written about the poem Chaisson wrote, not the poem I wish he wrote.
So this poem speaks in ambitious terms. I hope I have read it fairly. I would welcome any more light anyone else has to shed. This is a style of poem that invites discussion — as if shock and subsequent discussion are the very purpose of this poem’s style and inception.