Stinging Nettles: Bad Harvest by Dzvinia Orlowsky

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


The language and the land hold close congress throughout. “Where / is the language of the nightingale,” she ends the poem, “Where are the words of barn / mice predicting bitter / winters, warning flood?” The nightingale, of course, recalls the rape of Philomela, and the barn mice presage natural disaster. Something is shutting down: bad harvest. But Orlowsky finds the lyric moment in the famine itself and traps it, polishes it until it glistens: “a cry from the heart / given by my parents, // a grain from the burning storage chamber / doused with kerosene, // the meat from the market— // no history / no pigweed, no stinging nettles left.” (from “I am not afraid to speak of this”). There is suffering, there is death, and there is letting go, but there is (as the epigraph by Seneca at the beginning of the book suggests), a sowing, and a blessing as well. The voice throughout is casual and authentic:

If a thistle penetrates your foot—so what?

Blessed is that washed with saliva.
Blessed is the pinch of salt
buried in a wake of hooves.

(“Stone Cross”)

Orlowsky sprinkles “Kalendar” with Ukrainian as she moves through the calendar year, the harvest there, in all its mystery:

serpen’—sickle harvests grain
Smooth or serrated, tangled
or burgeoning, dreams

offer their undecipherable
clusters of grains.


Our wooded
back acre is fluent
in fern.

No silence,
just phrases that can’t be heard.

This rolling together of lost language and lost heritage is preserved in descriptions of fleeing from the Soviet Union, from famine: My father worked, mother waited in line / at night for maloyem, crust thin as a wrist, / a breath, an octave // between one child / and the other lying in snow, / how blue that blue” (“500 Grams of Bread”).
These poems, while far-ranging in content, home back again and again to her troubled Ukrainian ancestry. Even in their death, relatives speak as they are enshrined:

We offer: shaded among flowering wild onions or next to a vase on a bowed oak mantel. Is this the box you hoped for? No, she answers. We carry her downstairs to her basement apartment, encircle her with wooden icons. They clear their throats in the dark.
("Mahogany Box")


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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