Our worried faces fall
through my memory
like confetti: who would inherit
our mother’s long-stemmed black rose,
her dark caterpillar brows arched
above her eyes staring
deep into my blue as if asking:
Where did you get them
and what do they mean?
(“Still As I Was”)
Dzvina Orlowsky’s latest collection, Silvertone, dares to ask the most ineffable questions: what does it mean to belong to a family? To be a child? To be a parent? To be both at once? In the collection, Orlowsky weaves seamlessly between childhood memory and present-day parenthood, between narrative and lyric verse, and she comes very close to teasing out an understanding of one’s origin as a source of self-understanding and perhaps even self-love. Latent with images of the Roman Catholic Church and ordinary, everyday life, this collection is one poet’s meditation on what it means to live as a child, as a parent, and as a person inside a body—despite how difficult or imperfect the conditions.
In “Jesus Loves Fat People” Orlowsky writes: “Our family is gnarled with branches, / anemic and leafless.” Silvertone reads like a type of family tree: the foreign grandmother, the distant parents drinking late into the evening, the 14-year-old son the speaker wants to please, the heavy presence of the church. The poems return again and again to the speaker’s childhood, as if trying to make sense of some half-remembered moment, as in the title poem:
Once I was caught spying on them—
Envying their adult fun earned crossing
The ocean from Kiev to New York,
Then down long back roads to Ohio.
I was supposed to be asleep
And out of their way.
Or in “Roses in Their Hands” when the speaker meditates on a photograph of her mother, “leaning slightly forward as she opens the / door of the shrine-sized refrigerator wearing only a baby doll nightie.” The speaker–clearly the same throughout the collection–seems to want to understand her parents as they were as people before children, and as they might be in the afterlife. As with most meditations on life, this collection also contemplates her parents’ deaths: “She promised to find some way to tell us what it / was really like to die” (“Her Gift”) and “Did she cross the ash bridge to my father beaming as a newly- / wed, meeting her again after twenty-nine years” (“Her Gift”)?
So much of the collection centers on the race against time that we engage in simply by being born, beautifully illuminated in lines from “Firing my Father’s Mossberg”: “We couldn’t eat the cherries fast enough. / They softened on a plate, / exposed rancid gaping wounds.” Orlowsky is interested in these small textured images of daily life, the rotting cherries, the way nails grow too quickly (“Baptism”) or the superstitious habit of “throwing salt over / our shoulders . . . // or tossing spare change / onto the floor of a brand new car” (“What I Inherited”). Implicitly, this catalog of the materiality that composes our daily lives argues for life over death; that if we have enough of these small habits, if we have enough stuff, perhaps we will not die. But of course this can never be true, and the speaker concludes just as much when confronted with the reality of the deaths of her parents, her parents who partook just as much as anyone in the family in the race against death:
Fleeing, was this all
My mother and father had time to write
Or standing here
All we could bear to read?
In the end, it is not only death that betrays and shocks the speaker, but her own body as well, and she mediates on the cyclical, genetic aspect of illness in “Jesus Loves Fat People.” Here again the border between past and present is blurred, and, as in so many poems in this collection, we feel that we are transported between generations, continents and houses in the space of one poem. Like her daughter, the speaker struggled to finish dinner because her “love for words / was stronger than her desire / to eat” (“Still As I Was”). The struggle with our bodies can, like the everyday objects and habits that appear in the collection, be traced back to origin, to living in the world with the family we have, the body we have, the people we are.