Stinging Nettles: Bad Harvest by Dzvinia Orlowsky

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


Bad Harvest by Dzvinia Orlowsky (Carnegie Mellon Press, 2018).


The title of Dzvinia Orlowsky’s sixth book, Bad Harvest, evokes the Holodomor, the man-made famine that affected and killed millions across the grain-producing Ukraine during Soviet occupation, presumably including Orlowsky’s forebears. In fact, the book begins with a series of prose poems and poems with longer, looser lines, as if indicating a history too full of uncertainty to balance in even the most carefully wrought poetic line. Often they are parables presented as family lore, stories passed rhythmically, musically, memorably, not just about the history of family in the Ukraine, but about her parents, who would become immigrants in the U.S. (“Playing Opossum,” here in full):

My father carefully rolls his pant leg up, places his leg between two wide boards. He tells my mother to jump hard on it. Crippled, he won’t be drafted. They agree. Earlier, he had considered hiding under the living room’s wooden floorboards, but that would make him feel less of a man and more like an opossum, paralyzed, blind. And weren’t they known for their short lives? Hadn’t his friend Ihor, just the day before, avoided enlistment by drinking a vial of his wife’s blood, spewing it past his cup of urine? Could he, too, do it: drive a truck, heave honey, blow grits, trade his rugged for ralph, blow on his thumb until he passed out? No, he was a greenhead looking for blood meal. He had a wife, and they were in this together. She springs from their horsehair-filled couch, eyes closed tight, fingers plugging her ears; she lands with a thump. The leg doesn’t break. He rolls away from her, screaming, holds his hand up as if to strike the air. Hysterical, she sobs through his curses. Forgiving her slight body, he slowly closes his hand, lowers it over his heart.

The poetry is embedded in the story: “the leg doesn’t break.” Her father is too strong, but he’s not just protecting himself: “he had a wife, and they were in this together.” The wife, Orlowsky acknowledges, is not so sturdy, but even her “slight body” is forgiven in the love-cupped ending of the poem.
In this way, Orlowsky furthers the analogy of the bad harvest, taking it past the Ukrainians desperate to get away from the Russians, and juxtaposing it against her parents’ immigration and against the immigrants’ daughter (Orlowsky herself) growing up in America, who finds herself losing their language, creating her own lifestyle; it’s in poetry that she brings her voice to the culture these poems work so hard to preserve:

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.

(“Losing My First Language”)


Valerie Duff-Strautmann ’s next book of poems will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2021. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, The Common, and The Cortland Review. She is a contributing editor to The Critical Flame, and this is her twelfth year as poetry editor for Salamander.

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