by Dzvinia Orlowsky
80 pages—Carnegie Mellon Press, 2018
Review by Miriam O’Neal
Folding the Past: A Review of Dzvinia Orlowsky’s Bad Harvest
In Ukraine, a man and his wife attempt to disable him so he cannot be called to serve in the Soviet Army. An Uncle plays dead to avoid being shot by Nazis. In Ohio, two girls harvest plums that they sell to their neighbor, but he keeps the sacks the fruit came in because he can. Their father doesn’t mind, he has tricked them into clearing the yard of fruit. He blames a houseguest for his daughters’ use of foul language. Their mother punishes them for quarreling by making them sit, bare-assed on each other’s pillow. A girl raised on religion, folk-lore, and guilt has sex in her parents’ basement. She tries out being hip at Electric Lady Studios and blasé about an art installation of phallic forms in hats. A couple spend a weekend at a nudist camp. It does not go well. A daughter imagines her dead father returning to collect his not yet dead wife.
And that’s just some of what happens in the first section of Dzvinia Orlowsky’s 6th collection of poems, Bad Harvest, from Carnegie Mellon Press. We are introduced to the speaker’s history as daughter and wife, but also to her as keeper of the stories that are the ever-thinning tether to homeland as she loses her parents’ language along with them. She gives her readers what came across the water in the lived life of those who survived occupation and Sovietization, and the horror of the Holdomor, the great famine of Ukraine.
The prose poems of the first section gather alliteration and consonance like so many musical notes, while remaining unornamented at the same time. They gather tension via images and unexpected asides, as in the poignant, “Let the Dead Bury the Dead,” in which a daughter imagines her dead father returning for his beloved wife:
Surely she would want to hear one final song, something from the Carpathians, something folkloric about flying geese or curly hair, just to calm her nerves before he laid her to rest… He would have to find his domino cufflinks, but first he would have to find his arms. He hadn’t needed them in so long…He’d ask a distracted God not to sweep too close to the stars, the tall grass would sway in the breeze as if nothing had changed….
By the time we hear the wife’s “reticent sigh” as she brushes her hair in the closing line, we know the story of this couple’s love and marriage. By the end of the last poem in this section, we also understand the lack of such enduring love in the speaker’s first marriage. “Why I Hate Nudist Camps” lays out the issues, in unapologetic language tinged with dark humor.
Blocks of prose poems give way in the second section to sparse, haunting lyrics as we visit the Bad Harvest of the Holdomor. Ukraine’s famine/genocide of the early 1930s was created by Stalin’s policies as he attempted to collectivize the farms of Ukraine and punish all who resisted. Orlowsky feeds us terror as we learn of the ways death became the blessing of some, releasing them from the horror of starvation’s stark choices. The first time I heard the tiny poem “Want,” I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise.
Come out we have a doll for you
Never open the door.
In “Shortly Before Death,” she writes the “silk plums of your bruised feet split”—an image, vivid and ghastly, that stayed with me long after I had closed the book. With these poems, Orlowsky claims the Holdomor as a part of her heritage and honors the millions of people who died of starvation.
The brevity of the famine lyrics gradually gives way to more robust poems as she draws us forward, out of the devastation of the Holdomor past Perestroika and Ukraine’s post Soviet moments. Her lovely poem, “Hope Was a Thing with Pink Feathers,” captures the moment of Ukraine’s triumph when Oksana Baiul won the gold in figure skating in 1994. A pantoum in form, the poem’s second line reappears in the second verse and the second verse’s second line appears in the third, etc. The effect is of a circling back, just as Baiul would have done in the rink, presenting each leap and lutz before the judges, then coming around again for another point-winning move. The poem’s movement recreates the seeming effortlessness of the skater’s performance. For Ukrainians watching TVs a world away, Baiul became the symbol of their renewal, the re-placing of Ukrainian identity in the world.
The second section ends with a meditation called “Kalendar” in which the Ukrainian word for each month is translated and explicated. The first month is
Wind, do you use a scalpel
life-death’s infinitesimal point,
the soul released
for its journey?
The eleventh month is:
“lystopad”—dropping of leaves
Rain, the nervous wreck,
—always tongues the always dark
These names are rich, close to the earth, but also laden with folkloric overtones. The same might be said of the language of all of the poems of Bad Harvest. Orlowsky knows how to play with light and shadow.
In the third section, we return to the quotidian of the now and its caprices. We’re here and now. An almost blind, elderly mother paints a snowstorm with Elmer’s glue. Cricket song is carried on a breeze. A woman buys respirators the day after the US 2016 election. There is life after chemo and the question of bone density. We look back at fears faced and those unrealized. In the poem “Separate Bodies,” we witness a profound yearning to know, years after he has passed, that one’s connection to one’s parent was thus and more, years after he has passed.
At the end of Bad Harvest, the story of a new beginning stretches into the present as a woman talks to herself about how she has arrived here, in this life, at this moment. In “Folding a Stranger’s Laundry,” the speaker of all of those other poems reminds herself of the past selves created, and how,
For once you didn’t have to reinvent yourself
in the lint-colored light, the bare bulbs
and give away magazines,.
swab your lips Sax Saver red
then slip into a shiny metallic
crop top and jeans.
You just had to be there, then
no one around,
his laundry done,
except for one last shirt you left unfolded,
opening its arms to you.
The poems in Bad Harvest reflect the range of Dzvinia Orlowsky’s abilities as a poet as well as the depth of her heart. She has always been willing to approach whatever catches her very direct gaze with frankness accompanied by compassion and the occasional spark of wry humor. The range of styles incorporated into these pages work like movements in a play. The first section, full of prose poems, could be called Let Me Tell You How It Was. The second section, comprised of lyrics (mostly short, a few long, plus a single pantoum) seems to ask the reader to Handle With Care. The final section of the collection, with its narratives and reflections, could be labeled And Then, It Was Now. Through it all, Orlowsky renders images and sensibilities that remain long after the last page has been turned. This is surely her most skillful and enduring collection thus far.
Miriam O'Neal's poems and reviews have appeared in Blackbird Journal, Ragazine, River Heron Review, Lily Poetry Review, Solidago Journal, and other journals. Her collection of poems, We Start With What We're Given was published by Kelsay Books in 2018. She also translates Italian poetry and has been a Beginning Translation Fellow at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Her awards include Finalist in the Louisiana Literature Poetry Prize, the Brian Turner Poetry Prize, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council Poetry Prize. She is a nominee for a 2018 Pushcart Poetry Fellowship and was named a Notable Poet in the 2019 Disquiet Poetry Prize Competition. She earned her MFA in Literature and Writing from Bennington Writing Seminars.