Tess Liem’s debut full-length collection, Obits, centers on an essential question: Can poetry mourn the unmourned? In a seemingly messy but, nevertheless, effective and triumphant collection, her speaker grapples with this uncertainty by setting out to write obituaries for those who have none. Liem’s poems, or obituaries, encompass varying proximities—from those distant to her speaker, mass death victims and the fictional Laura Palmer—to the intimacy of her own aunt. Though she fails epically to complete this task, the journey is a rewarding one. Not only does it display Liem’s prowess for invoking something inimitable in her readers, it also comments on the profound nature of poetry itself. In “Call it,” Liem admits, “I wanted a poem to be a throat clearing // My misunderstanding . . . // To speak as if we all share the same loveliness, the same doom, / is not to speak // of the fact that some people have their hands / around other’s necks.” Liem’s Obits may fall short on its journey to grieve all of those unhonored, rich lives, but it more than succeeds in awakening the reader and will ultimately leave you wrestling with your own ideas about death and elegy.

Coach House Books.

—Review by Hiba Tahir