Stinging Nettles: Bad Harvest by Dzvinia Orlowsky

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


There are poems that echo previous collections—recovery from cancer (which make up the bulk of her Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones), the difficult movement between generations (in her second book, Edge of House, Orlowsky describes “the old world a pinched nerve / on the back of Mother’s neck”), sex and love (similar to the poems that make up Except for One Obscene Brushstroke). Orlowsky is also masterful with dialogue and overheard phrases, extracting the jewel word from the crown of her memories: “Father called us into our room, sat on the edge of one twin bed, head lowered, then lifting his eyes, asked: Have either of you ever heard of the word…‘fack’? He pronounced it like he pronounced ‘mashrooms’—immigrant doctor ordering pizza at Fatbob’s when Mother came up short on chicken livers or tripe.”
She is also funny: in “Bare-Assed Hell,” she writes, “when Mother condemned my sister and me to sit bare-assed on / each other’s bed pillows for fighting over the satin-trimmed / comforter” they realize a new understanding has been reached: “delivering an eye / for an eye, or as Mother preferred, cheek for cheek.” The poems are witty, and of the body—in “Pussy Riot/Want/Don’t/ Want” she muses over the name of the band: “I thought you were a catchphrase for the want-don’t want / of late middle age.”
In the poem “Hope Was a Thing with Pink Feathers: Oksana Baiul,” about the 1994 gold medal victory of Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul, Orlowsky writes: “Oksana cried and cried and cried—let’s say, triple-cried. / Post Soviet tears no longer held to ransom. / It took twenty minutes for Olympic officials to find / Ukraine’s national anthem.” Continuing in that vein, and in flawless form, she slyly comments: “As Nancy Kerrigan’s eyes demanded ransom, / her Vera Wang swan about to be pronounced dead, / still no copy of Ukraine’s national anthem— / maybe they’d play Russia’s instead.” The book contemplates each “bad harvest,” but “hope was a thing” recurs as well. It is something that Orlowsky, like superstar Baiul, brings to her work and to her reckoning with her family’s Ukrainian past.

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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