Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s prize-winning poetry collection, The Many Names for Mother (Kent State University Press), begins and ends in the clouds but lives very much in this world. In the opening poem, “Afraid Ancestral” (which stands alone outside the collection’s five sections and serves almost as an epigraph to the collection), the clouds are threatening and heavy; the speaker’s mother is afraid the sky will fall (and why not be afraid, the sky has fallen before, Dasbach reminds us), “and there / is no recovering / from the weight / of clouds.” But by the time the reader comes to the collection’s final lines, Dasbach has found a source of continuity, and perhaps even comfort, in the clouds, writing, “We wear our people’s blood and smear / the sky with it, so when the rest look up, / they too will see nothing but faces in the clouds.”
This return to the clouds in the final poem is no accident; Dasbach’s collection is masterfully ordered to carry the reader through the weight and the gift of intergenerational inheritance. The history Dasbach has inherited, and which sits at the heart of these poems, is Jewish, Ukrainian, U.S.-American, and matrilineal. If it is not always an easy inheritance, it is one that Dasbach’s poems honor and carry forward. Dasbach braids her generations tightly in “Against Naming,” the poem opening the collection’s first section. In it, the speaker’s mother sweats through “tolkuchka—the little push ’n’ shove bazar—/ to return home with a stained skirt and fruit / dangling from her ears and me, hungry / inside her.” Just a few lines later the speaker, pregnant with her own next generation, visits Birkenau against her family’s wishes. In between the clouds of the falling sky and the clouds of a kind of hope, Dasbach’s feet travel “miles across / black ground turned red then gray then left / for colorless” because that is the history that has shaped her.
History sits at the table with Dasbach, sometimes in the form of “a board / over the bathtub / we called a kitchen table,” sometimes
with pryaniki and sour cream
and so much sweet yellow glow
that you made the entire kitchen
grow together into you, until
I couldn’t tell the scents apart
and sometimes as something darker, as in “Letter to My Son” with its urgent call to “[r]emember, / when half of your ancestors died, the other half / did the killing.” Dasbach understands that sometimes inheritance is trauma, as in the moment in the poem “there is no name for this,” when mother and son watch an excavator at a construction site and the small child is gleefully captivated, as so many small children are by construction sites and the machines filling them, whereas the mother sees in the pit a grave and “the lines and lines and lines of bodies missing / from this moment” and feels the “gagging / trauma / ” of Babi Yar she inherited from her great-grandmother Vera. Returning to the young boy, the poem continues:
he found a string with two deflated green balloons
yayashe calls them the sound
as far from sharik as this dugout is from Babi Yar
as he is from the ghosts he doesn’t know
he comes from as this house is
from the bones on which it sits.
If Dasbach’s speaker inherits, she also bequeaths, and here Dasbach’s poems delve into motherhood in all its complications in a way I didn’t know I needed to read until I read them. The series of poems titled “Other women don’t tell you” speaks of and to specifically female experiences: the physical aftermath of childbirth (“the hair, how it falls out,” and “the split, how you can fit / a fist between your left and right sides”); the etymology of the word mother,
probably from Middle Dutch modder
filth and dregs,’ what’s left of us after
we’ve been named, but also see mud, found in many
words denoting ‘wet’ or ‘dirty’ or ‘damp’ or ‘moist’
the way the child a woman gave birth to and fed from her own body will grow ever “more ready to walk away”; the way, because you are a mother, “it will always be your fault”; and that feeling familiar to so many mothers that some days “after you’ve done more with your body / than your body has ever done, nothing feels like / anything at all.”
Another series of poems, these all titled a variation of the phrase “While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son about…” addresses not just parenting, but parenting in this particular now. Beginning with the almost inevitable question of how do we talk to our young children about death (“he will ask where they’ve all gone and why”) the poems become increasingly specific. “While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son where he comes from” is only partly concerned with the literal geographical where of Ukraine; the underlying “where” the speaker—and hence the speaker’s son—comes from is eastern European Jewish culture and history and its “field of missing material / bodies.” From this history Dasbach moves inexorably to the present in “While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son about guns,” which cleverly uses the curling repetition of the villanelle form to underscore the repetitive nature of gun violence in the United States and contemplates “bang, all the ways we know how to take.”
But all the while, as Dasbach wrestles with the weight of the past and the responsibility of raising a white son in this turbulent present, she revels in the joy of motherhood. These poems and the speaker’s unabashed joy in her son buoy The Many Names for Mother.
Your kid is beautiful,
a passerby says, have
more, a whole litter, and if
you have them close together,
his cheek is in the sand,
mouth full of salt,
What’s one more?
Everything, I think and want
to hold him, but he is water
and no matter how wide
I stretch my arms, I cannot
hug or count, cannot
contain the whole of him
she writes in “Dyadya Voda,” and in “Other women don’t tell you,” recounting much of the unflattering etymology of the word “mother,” Dasbach concludes, “you realize / that being named for the ‘lowest or worst of anything,’ / in his hands, is as close as you can get to flying.” This deep joy of belonging to a line of mothers casts its glow over even the darkest of Dasbach’s poems and it is this joy that allows her to conclude “I am one among / the many, a blood star, and my children” and to look up at the clouds in the sky that might fall—but, for today, hasn’t.