Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s debut chapbook The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014) is titled for one of its pause-inspiring images. In “On the Pripyat, 2006,” Dasbach likens the nuclear waste that obscured the sky in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to a bear “growling so loudly, the entire city woke / to look up, only to find / he’d already eaten the stars” (38-40). The fantastical, beautiful image and its tragic referent reflect the connection between beauty and darkness that unifies the chapbook. As it probes illness, destruction, and death with pensive lyricism, The Bear Who Ate the Stars invites readers to puzzle the intricate interconnection of the enchanting and the off-putting. With a sharpness that makes it difficult to believe this a first chapbook, Dasbach succeeds in capturing the confusing beauty of darkness.
The first poems of the chapbook examine the extent to which illness and beauty can coexist. In the opening poem, “The Secret to Remembering,” the speaker identifies beauty in the face (more precisely, the ear) of handicap. When a beloved “you” goes deaf, the speaker imagines “[lilacs] bursting your eardrum, their purple plume / smell, their pulse, falling away from the flower” (3-4). In subsequent poems, however, as the speaker confronts the blood disease wracking her husband, she struggles to find meaning — let alone beauty — in anything. The speaker’s search for meaning spans several poems and culminates in “Origin,” where she studies various etymologies (those of ‘viscosity,’ ‘blood,’ and ‘cure,’ for example) to better understand her husband’s disease. When this systematic thinking fails, she begins to grasp her situation using her imagination:
You break apart Kenneth-Das-bach, break apart
his given name. Gaelic Caioneach: “handsome, comely,”
Das. German article “the,” then complicate the bach,
“to live as an unmarried man,” you re-name him
husband, forget his origin (“Origin,” 12-16)
The speaker draws on creativity again to treat the darkness of heritage, this time using her imagination to experience destruction rather than escape it. Toward the middle of the chapbook, the poems begin to meditate on Eastern European conflict. The perspective in these poems — at once inside and outside the destruction — reflects Dasbach’s background; at age six, she moved from Ukraine to the United States as a Jewish refugee. In a poignant insider moment in “Dark Chocolate Play,” the speaker feels reverberations of the Holocaust forty-plus years later:[. . .] the Jew
And German both prefer a cold beer inside
A Soviet winter, and hold kosher
dark-chocolate-gelt in their palms
until they can color my childhood’s wallpaper
with a trail of guilty hand prints. (“Dark Chocolate Play,” 28-33)
At other moments, however, the speaker can only access Eastern Europe indirectly, fashioning images to empathize with the destruction from afar. In “After the Stars Fell,” she says of the Chelyabinsk meteor, which injured hundreds when it crossed Russia in 2013, “We missed it all: the shattered glass and panic, / ‘the end of days’ written in Russian / blood” (9-11).
As the chapbook draws to a close, the poems again circle the devastation of individuals. In these final poems, Dasbach displays her talent for harmonizing the personal with the universal. In “Mother always knows, so,” the speaker attempts to calculate “the pace of death”— catalog steps that universally signal its approach – “based on my mother” (8, 10). In the penultimate poem, “Lasts,” the speaker suggests death a unifier, observing how the final expressions of her great grandmother and her husband’s grandfather “fit, like a charcoal outline” (18).
The finale and capstone of the chapbook is a poem titled “Olam Ha-Ba,” after the Jewish term for ‘afterlife.’ The poem raises a number of questions that complicate the Jewish notion of an afterlife: questions about the soul, about inequality among people, about the logistics of rising from the dead. At the end of the poem (and chapbook), the speaker confides herself skeptical that there is anything but darkness after life:
until you are the one who stops outside
of a synagogue, and sees it is nothing like
that license plate framed: “God Loves You,” a fish
swimming towards another bumper: “Real men
love Jesus!” And it becomes more like
trying to read a language turned foreign, trying
to place the “you” that isn’t you within a faithless text,
within hunger that’s nothing like hunger, but the want
for it (“Olam Ha-Ba,” 24-32)
In important sense, these final lines are the point at which all the preceding poems converge. With characteristic clear-headedness and precision, the lines convey the darkness that dominates The Bear Who Ate the Stars. However, the lines also convey the cautious optimism underlying this darkness. Even if the speaker in “Olam Ha-Ba” cannot hunger for afterlife, she has “want for [hunger].” She finds a way to want something in the face of interminable darkness. A look back on the chapbook yields more sparks of optimism: lines like “you keep repeating / mer mer mer. . .repeat until it fades to miracle / until you remember him, cured” and images like the title image (“Origin,” 60-1, 63-4). It is this combination of clear-headedness and optimism that makes Dasbach’s first chapbook remarkably masterful: The Bear Who Ate the Stars becomes a compelling antidote to the darkness it represents.
The Bear Who Ate the Stars
by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach
Split Lip Press, October 2014
Paperback $11, 40 pp.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in 1993, from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and grew up in the DC metro area suburb of Rockville, Maryland. She earned her BA in English from the University of Maryland, College Park, and then spent three years in Eugene, earning an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon while being inspired by the beautiful west coast. Julia is currently back east, living in Philadelphia and working towards a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the lyric rendering of trauma in contemporary American poetry composed by emigrants of the former Soviet Union.