Hilda Raz brought breast cancer and its sequelae into mainstream poetry with her collection Divine Honors, and went on to edit more poems by others on the topic.
And in magazines and late-night television shows, there are women baring the fright, the humiliation, the pain, and the desperate hope of a "cure" or vaccination that will prevent breast cancer. In the supermarket this winter there was a week-long special with pink plastic coffee mugs, pink-ribboned potted plants, bouquets of cut flowers wrapped in pink plastic, and most bizarre, a tall and artfully stacked display of cans of soup, each label decorated with a neat pink ribbon.
So it is that CONVERTIBLE NIGHT, FLURRY OF STONES, the March 2008 collection from Dzvinia Orlowsky, opens with a scratchy and brief exposé called "Pink" and ending, "Blood disposed down a drain-- / my name, street, best time to be reached."
But after that, there's no predictable route from "hold me, I'm scared" to "all better." Instead, Orlowsky rakes sand and stones and harsh gravel across the pages. From one poem to the next, she sometimes probes the searing anger that the battle against her cancer enflames, and at other times plainly recounts the dying and death of her grandmother, the painful aging of her mother.
Within Part I (of IV) is "The Radiologist." I hope the sorry son-of-a-gun this may describe is forced to read the poem darned soon. In a powerfully crafted dance of alternating lines -- roman type, then italic; pressed to the left margin, then indented -- Orlowsky replays the callous chatter of an idiot doctor over the phone, bouncing it against a Kafka-esque set of bizarre orders. Here's a portion (the italicized lines are indented on the book page):
Everything's blessed and enlarged in his family's life:
Remain standing in your place and listen.
his daughter's gratitude for wildflowers, the easy country
Do not even listen, simply wait.
she grew up in, his immeasurable love for her.
Do not even wait.
All I want to ask again is just how big and if he's completely certain.
Be quiet, still and solitary.
But he's through talking and hangs up.
The world will freely offer itself to you
If it wasn't for my love of God, his mud-soft meadows,
To be unmasked.
I'd drive my green Ford through the doctor's brambles and dead ends,
It has no choice.
I'd find his blossoming daughter
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
and take her life.
More of the poems here are strings of simple-seeming couplets that puncture narrative along dotted lines of design. "Prayer to My Father" suggests that a long-ago wish to bear her father's pain for him has after all blossomed in what this daughter-as-patient now endures. I like the graphic images of her sisters quarreling during their mother's illness, who fed the prickles and thorns of dislike: "Bad thoughts / swarmed like fat, garbage-fed, // late-August flies." Later in this same poem, "Cheap," after arguments over who'll transport Mother's ashes, Orlowsky spares a rare moment for philosophy: "I don't know how in life we find // ourselves unrecognizable, how pain / pushes us to survive despite ourselves."
A first reading of this jagged terrain wasn't enough; I pushed back through the sequence a second time, then a third, looking for more signs of the push and pull of present and past. The collection became a set of doctor's charts marked in multiple colors. From the threat of a tiny opening in the skin in "Paper Cut" (immune system flaring and hissing), to her father's comparison of a perfect breast to the shape of a martini glass ("the nipple, a dark grape / or more like an olive ..."), disease and treatment morph into family, close enough to call, and often too far away to help.
I like the savage attack of "The Cop," as a cancer patient -- presumably Orlowsky -- strips off her wig and confronts a libidinous and tyrannic cop with the hairless face of despair. And my chest froze at the level of threat in the poem "All Gone," which imagines the new woman who could enter the bereaved family's life, a woman named "Not Mom" who "doesn't have to check her weight or blood." A Harley flame painted on a seashell, a confused aging mother stripping off a "diaper," the hard and acrid specifics of life tumble in these pages without ever smoothing their edges.
Although the collection closes with a gentle sequence of blessings that include a "flurry of stones" while walking with the dog, there's little softness here. When "soft" emerges in these poems, it's more like the rubbery give and heave of a blood-wet heart, flapping, squeezing, hot.
From this Pushcart Prize recipient, editor, translator, and poet, CONVERTIBLE NIGHT, FLURRY OF STONES is more than an affirmation of life. It's the thick sweating texture of life itself. And it's one heck of a good read.