Victoria Chang’s “Dear Memory” is a multimedia exploration of mourning

In addition to family photos, Chang shares marriage certificates, translated letters from cousins, even floor plans, though not all of these images sound the same. Indeed, the photos and copied and pasted documents are, in most cases, awkwardly juxtaposed to the text. There may be a clear connection point between the picture and the words – in this first collage, the phone Chang notes ringing is the phone hanging on the wall in the photo – but those connections are either too literal or virtually nonexistent. Despite the intimacy of the images, they often feel ornamental, included to involve the story and depth without providing any new information or emotional grounds that Chang doesn’t already explicitly cover in his letters.

And in these letters Chang’s stubborn attachment to form is admirable, but the epistolary format often stifles the work. Sometimes her handwriting is as tender and precise as the form warrants, as when she asks, with fantastic fanfare: “Dear Father, why does Mother keep dusting the stars?” But in most other cases, it is aimed at friends and acquaintances – for example, the teacher who had a miscarriage or a childhood bully or another Asian American poet in a lecture – to talk about a personal lesson she learned from her time with them, always simply identifying them with a capital letter, such as “C” or “G” or “L”. Of course, the reason for this is anonymity, but it also indicates how Chang uses these characters; they are largely irrelevant, only necessary insofar as they serve as a tampon, or a bit of a throat clearing, before she gets to the heart of her thoughts on herself.

There is a palpable tension here in Chang’s language, which is not typical of the poet, who established herself as a sort of Steinian modernist, using relentless repetitions, rhymes, puns and Distorted variations of the same basic syntax to emphasize both the vital importance of language and render it unnecessary. She associates her tenacious pun with the many bizarre but mundane circumstances of life around the world – especially in America, especially as an Asian American wife and mother. There are times when she recounts that she was told to “go back to China” and mistaken for another Asian writer, and she reflects on how her family’s restaurant, Dragon Inn, has met American expectations of what Chinese cuisine should be like. In her previous books, she explored the claustrophobia of suburban white America (“Barbie Chang”), the monstrosities of capitalism (“The Boss”) and the untouchable absence of mourning (“Obits”).