Dzvinia Orlowsky’s latest collection of poetry, Silvertone, chronicles a family’s history with both tenderness and irony. These remarkable poems create a paradoxical sense of intimacy and distance, employing the perspective of the spying child who longs to be part of her parents’ intimacy with the knowledge of love that the adult speaker brings to the moment. In addition, in Part I the poet skillfully sets up themes and tropes that will reoccur throughout the collection. For example, the very first poem, “Smoke on the Water” introduces music as one of the leitmotifs that weave together the book’s four sections. The title poem, “Silvertone,” begins with the speaker as a child overhearing her father playing his Silvertone guitar and singing to her mother. Drawn by the sound of their conversation, the speaker creeps downstairs:
I was supposed to be asleep
and out of their way.
But I wanted to hear my father’s voice,
see my mother fall in love with him again
as he carefully plucked the strings
This scene is followed by one of adult disillusionment when the speaker, now grown, her parents gone, takes the guitar to be appraised and learns
It was not the guitar I imagined my father bartered
from gypsies and carried through harsh winters
with barely a shield to protect it,
the one he and my mother made love next to
for the first time, the guitar
propped on the bed next to them,
the large tear-shaped guard
and wooden bridges I thought I was born of
but a 1950’s Silvertone ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. The ending of the poem captures the incongruity of the outcome as the speaker leaves with the guitar, now “so light I can barely carry it.” Over and over, Orlowsky manages to honor her family’s narrative while deflating her own sometimes overly romantic vision of their story.
The final poem in section I, “Roses in Their Hands” sacralizes the erotic and provides a bridge to poems in the next two sections of the collection. The mother wants to be cremated with “her stack of black and white photographs my father took of her leaning slightly forward as she opens the door of a shrine-sized refrigerator wearing only a baby doll nightie, her nipples cold and erect in the diffuse, almost holy light.” The role of religion and ritual in family life is threaded through poems in sections II and III with Orlowsky’s customary spare but intense imagery. In “Baptism” the speaker describes her infant self as having “ a few spiked threads of hair//the color of beeswax” and her mother as clutching a candle “as though it were a bowed and twisted/rose scraped of its thorn.” In “God’s Language,” “Each liturgical word/hung like a sun out on a branch.” Other poems explore the uneasy co-existence of acknowledging a painful ethnic heritage while adapting to contemporary U.S. culture. “What I Inherited” juxtaposes scenes of the political refugee’s “rehearsing for, or altogether avoiding disaster” with a gas station attendant’s suggestion for simplifying the poet’s first name:
Let me give you a little advice…keep it simple… friendly, American. He looked back at me appraisingly, and after a few seconds he nodded his head, saying, She looks like a Peggy. . . yea, Peggy.
Just in time for first grade, my father agreed, his eyes beaming at me from the rearview mirror as he pulled out of the station.
Despite her investment in her family’s history, the speaker must overcome her initial reluctance to fully understand the dangers her parents faced fleeing their homeland. Only then can she decipher the true messages of “Illegible Postcards: “Bone where we once misread stone, /fear rather than dear. //They dragged our neighbor outside, /not we met our new neighbor, shared bread.” As we move through the final section of the book, we see the speaker examine her own adult life with an honesty that can be expressed only through the most exact language and imagery. In “Size Zero,” as she considers the pants she no longer desires to fit into, she describers her former body as “a bluish flame/I perpetually gave birth to.”
“Still as I Was,” in the book’s final section, provides a counter-point to “Silvertone.” If Silvertone moved us gently from romance to reality, “Still as I Was” is a journey of recovery from an abusive relationship and from illness to a deep and mature love in which the mystery and sensuality of her parents’ relationship is now present in her own marriage:
Our mouth’s seal
to one another’s breath.
We’re done with spoken words.
onto the floor, answers
undress more slowly, stop,
unbuttoned at the waist.
Each poem in Silvertone, along with the collection itself, is artfully structured. Orlowsky’s imagery continually surprises and delights. She uses language so economical that her poems seem spare, understated, although they contain a wealth of detail. In Silvertone, Orlowsky’s fifth collection of poetry, we find a poet in full command of her craft, her voice, and her subject matter. Thus, this book rewards many re-readings. Read once to follow the thread of its implied narrative, a second time to observe its art, then read again and again for the mystery and wisdom its beauty reveals.
Reviewed by Kathleen Aguero