by Dzvinia Orlowsky
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018.
Bad Harvest is a resonant folk song that fills the chambers of the future with echoes of the past. Its complex twists of hereditary and personal relations with language and work open a chasm of concern for the future that Dzvinia Orlowsky locates and does a little dance on the edge of. She stares openly, even mockingly, into the pit of impermanence and unpredictability, spinning the prescribed doom and mortality of what we all know shall end: health, love, and livelihood.
Orlowsky writes as a seasoned human of the earth and orients herself to death and time as if native to the eye of its storm. She keeps her own gaze focused on the turmoil around her, while humbly edging through daily life. It is a secret shared with us in Bad Harvest: that proximity will keep you sane, even entertained. Her exposure is poignant when telling about her father trying to break his leg to avoid the draft in “Playing Possum”, or the existential post-chemo aspirations in “Fine Despite”, the mortality of relationships in “Folding a Stranger’s Laundry” and “Rolling”, even the fragility of language over barriers in “Kalendar” and “Losing My Language”.
The verse is staggering with phrases that wink at you like they would translate to a single word in another language—we couldn’t imagine a simpler way of saying “always uphill”, but she knows, or once knew, where to find that single word. In “Losing My Language”, she mourns the loosening grip on her native tongue.
“Gone my words for pipe, for
wig for lovely daughter,
for may a duck kick you
when someone presumed
dead shows up.
Where are the words of barn
mice predicting bitter
winters, warning flood?”
It is inherited wisdom like this that projects her history, and that of her Ukrainian ancestors, upon the wall as a grail of answers. She embroiders the book with juxtapositions of almost mythical proportions, both contemporary and passed down. The livelihood of an entire family dependent on work takes on more forms as time goes on. She conveys to us the portrait of a worker in her lineage in “Stone Cross”:
“Remember your village of always uphill
a water-warped leather neck strap,
the cramped wagon with an oak shaft.
Remember dirt, hunks of manure
flecked with feather and bone,
dust settled on the road before sunrise—“
Scenes like these are well-known in her Ukrainian heritage, by way of lore and history, and are brought to us through the intimate translation of an adopted language. He was a worker, a farm-hand, a laborer. She is a storyteller, one who finds herself in a variety of unstable jobs: she sits at a sound board in Electric Lady Studios for one day, picks fruit in exchange for a promised two dollars left unpaid, “smiles before swiping, swipes before refunding”, but ultimately depends on language as the constant thread that will justify every experience.
The idea of work is one of harvest. Its application id one of fruition, relative to each of its sowers. Like language, work changes drastically through time and cultures. Orlowsky situates herself on a precipice where the differences are greatest, even employing gender, and illustrates the meaning of working in the middle of 21st century America and the “old world” of Ukraine. Class differences across borders and time greatly change the emphasis on either embracing work as an identity or trying to rid yourself from the definition of what you do. Orlowsky seems to consider herself of the latter category, thus, she depicts her own experiences as being in direct contrast of the more mythological, no less familiar, distinctions of the old working man. These experiences, though holding different significance, share a similar fate in the world. Man, woman, daughter, son, and granddaughter all must work as a means to survive, as a means to an identity:
“Adjusting his tie, leaning closer to me, Lord Taylor asked how did it feel making the first sale. He spilled out bags of gold hoop earrings. Something for your commission, no? Some of them fell silent. Discounted. Others seemed to come alive, listening, on the black cloth.”
The jewelry salesgirl in “Lord Taylor” bears a very different weight than the laborer in “Stone Cross”, though answers to the same master: money, a living, survival. But more so, as a storyteller, the desperation to derive and maintain meaning from life. It is a divide of identity between the past of her family and her own that render such a chilling family portrait. She writes in “Separate Bodies”, a poem dedicated to her father,
“We’ve taken on similar illnesses: sandbag face,
trees burning in each other’s dreams.
I was always listening, always there.
I’ve stopped listening.
But tell me there is more
than the color of our eyes.”
We feel her tension, too, when she writes of her own family, her children, and their futures. In “Purchasing Respirators for My Family, Post-2016 Election”, we bear the weight of cyclonic history bearing down and the terror of an unknowable future.
“Even the thickening sky can’t keep
promises: wet paper tissues
and plastic grocery bags catch
on telephone poles, hatch
into dark lungs. Multipurpose
respirators, one size fits all,
instructions available in five languages.
I grab four: two for my husband and me;
one each for my son and daughter.”
Bad Harvest is not a book of doom or pessimism, it is one of reality and practice. We get many light-hearted anecdotes that anyone groping through this life will recognize. It’s a journey that brings hilarity to tension—one that we see Orlowsky embark on over and over. Her precipice dance is a routine in rehearsal, as we find that no two moments are the same, nothing is repeated—everything is new. To find a grail of answers left by ancestors is just another act of translation, and we press on with all that we’ve gathered. Bad Harvest is a gesture of timeless acceptance and gratitude, despite.