Bad Harvest by Dzvinia Orlowsky,
Carnegie Mellon University Press,
2018, 80 pages,
In her poem, “Losing My First Language,” Dzvinia Orlowsky writes,
Ya mayu dornu minu:
I wear a stupid expression
and my sister agrees.
Gone my words for pipe, for
wig for lovely daughter,
for may a duck kick you
when someone presumed
dead shows up.
Orlowsky’s latest collection, Bad Harvest, grows from an older planting while remaining rooted in family, humor, music, and pop culture. Like the repetitive action of farming a field, Orlowsky’s poems reach to the edges of trauma, and return to the familiar, creating a circularity—an inevitability—to the structure of the book. The inherited, generational scars never fade and the speaker’s original Ukranian lies just below the tongue, in “the saliva.” Orlowsky laments this dilution of language, and legacy, in “Our Names,”
Coughed into hands, scrawled
on damp surfaces, misspelled
analyzed . . . .
–who put the blame on
the lame that spewed from us
Before we fell in love. Before
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
happened to us . . .
This is a book of translations and transformations; one thing must die for a new version to emerge. The dead—relatives, famine victims, languages—are an eternal presence. In fact, the dead are so real, one wonders: who is the trespasser? In her prose poem, “Let the Dead Bury the Dead,” a poem of widowhood, “something from the Carpathians,” the husband-ghost hopes “not to disappoint her with his cup of cracked black walnuts and a blushed apple unwrapped from a white lapel handkerchief, luring her into the next world.” In the macabre and humorous, “Mahogany Box,” the speaker drives with her sister in a VW with “Baba’s” ashes, then “carry her downstairs to her basement apartment, encircle her with wooden icons. They clear their throats in the dark.” I loved the grounding in Orlowsky’s prose poems, which make up the first section of the book. The poems, while almost fairy tales, remain grounded with real imagery—walnuts, apples, VWs—allowing this movement over emotional and temporal borders.
I trusted the voice to lead me, to be my envoy, to a horrific land of famine, through the “bad harvest” of Ukraine. Orlowsky’s sequence, which follows this dense—and a times very funny—prose section, is shocking in its paucity: the white space around these “small” poems fill the pages like snow, like ghosts. Yet, this other world of unspeakable pain is equally real because of Orlowsky’s language. In “Eating Grass,” hunger, personified into rage, “would tear/out the windows.” Orlowsky conflates hunger and language through the physicality of naming and eating in her poem, “Swallow,” when she asks:
Does my name take your tongue’s
otherwise unclaimed space?
Swallow once for me.
These gooseberries are not stones,
This cup of water,
This cup of water.
The unreality in the first section, mitigated with pop culture and humor, becomes a necessary paranoia in these smaller poems, which confront starvation and its most extreme boundary. “The Weakest of Children” begins with a simple, awful question:
What part of another’s flesh
do you ask permission
for your body to be freed
from hunger . . . .
In “Want,” Orlowsky presents a tiny scene, a hunt:
Come out we have a doll for you
Never open the door.
Yet, this door is continuously opening and closing due to the echo of the poems. Orlowsky creates ghosts, remnants, spirit-photos: images shimmering through the book. The images go through a process of transformation in the way a seed is planted and becomes fruit. This binds the book as complete: there is a physical satisfaction in Bad Harvest, a book which confronts hunger of all types. In “Given Plums,” the speaker and her sister are unpaid for their harvesting, “we hoped for more praise . . . . He offered back two of the plums for us to eat, but . . . . he kept the empty sacks.” This luscious fruit re-appears in the famine poem, “Shortly Before Death,” as “silk plums of your bruised feet split,” changing the nature of want, making the need more intense. Orlowsky claims vulnerability as particularly female in her poems “Bare-Assed Hell” and, later, in the heart-breaking and funny “Pussy Riot/Want/Don’t Want.” Depicting a childhood punishment where the speaker and sister were forced to sit on each other’s pillows “bare-assed . . . . more miserable than our ancestors,” while their mother “deadheaded her roses,” Orlowsky completes the image of punishment by referencing, not only Putin’s jailing of Pussy Riot, but with the images of female vulnerability, “her skirt rising in flames/a wreckage of K-Y and Oil of Olay . . . . Can red wine stream like blood down my legs?” This vulnerability is bone-deep as well. The aging female bones, in “Age of Osteo Collosus,” betray a weakness, “it must be so, each bone depleted—/each wish revealed.” These old bones are an X-ray image of the opening poem, “Playing Opossum,” where the father, to avoid the draft, has his wife jump on his leg to break it. “Hysterical, she sobs through his curses. Forgiving her slight body, he slowly closes his hand, lowers it over his heart.”
Dzvinia Orlowsky has more than chronicled the life of a child born of the beautiful, horrific, and violent soil of Ukraine. She has, in her collection, grafted two worlds, sown the seeds of one language and created a complete world, peopled with hungry women, angry men, icons, “dirt, hunks of manure / flecked with feather and bone . . . .” The genetics of hunger, mutated by American culture—Lord Taylor, Elvis Presley—travel throughout the body, which remembers trauma, but also, how to be reborn. Bad Harvest is a living object, a book of movement, unafraid to hear, mourn, and finally understand this other language beneath the “hruden’—frozen lumps of snow and earth . . . .
snih (snow) to