Register Saturday | December 7 | 2019

Beautiful Obscenity

Orlowsky's Except for One Obscene Brushstroke

Dzvinia Orlowsky introduces her book with an epigraph by Jeannette Winterson: “Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me.” Orlowsky, in turn, builds upon this allusion to the Book of Job by entitling her book Except for One Obscene Brushstroke.

Except for One Obscene Brushstroke
by Dzvinia Orlowsky
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2002

It is difficult to describe Orlowsky’s writing as obscene: if she is relating obscenities, she does so in a way that makes you feel as if you are watching a show of only beautiful images. The strength of her poetical power lies in her ability to transform clichéd objects into minor miracles: in her poem “Under Fluorescent Light,” she likens rose petals to “six flared / velvet capes, underbellies of robins, / muffled hearts, tender / as a body’s open borders.”

Orlowsky is not afraid to invite her reader into her poetical realm, and at times I felt as if I was reading not merely poetry, but also the very movement and rhythm of her thoughts, the manner in which her lexical world presents itself. Her poems are immediately intimate and inclusive of the minute and the infinite; if she is presenting us with a present moment, she is also offering childhood and an uncertain future. In the poem “I Hope My Daughter Doesn’t,” Orlowsky presents us with a glimpse of this temporal unity:


I Hope My Daughter Doesn’t

lock herself in her room in only a nightgown
and black lace-up heels, listening to Average White Band,

dreaming about how to make it to Studio 54
from Brunswick, Ohio, while outside fields turn glossy

with ice and in the next room my father
dying—promising, after the morphine takes hold,

to wait for all of us, somewhere, in heaven.

As the speaker reflects on her daughter’s childhood, we learn of some of the obscene brush strokes that the speaker acquired during her own childhood—strokes acquired at the cost of sexual innocence. “So Smooth” shows us some of these brush strokes: bruises on the neck, a bite near the ear, torn pants. The poem concludes, almost as if in warning:


She asked:
Can you remember
if he did anything
between your legs?
Put it somewhere
near or between
your legs?
a teenage boy
could be so smooth
you just couldn’t tell.

What is obscene is that a young girl’s first sexual encounters happen too soon and are too unloving. In “Devil with a Blue Dress,” a young speaker romanticizes an affair with a boy, home from the army, who watches her dance:


I was too young and stupid
to just let him be;
and cruel enough
to want to know
what they might steal—
his butcher’s tongue,
his vein, he’d say,
for the child,
bled open.

Similarly, in the poem “In Evil Daddy’s Pad,” we find the speaker and a boy named Wayne:


It must’ve been something he’d read about
in one of those magazines
that finds itself under a mattress
like a half-pack of cigarettes.

Pretending to swoon, I knew
eventually he’d wipe his tongue
on the fitted sheet
before the taste and feel of me

got to him, made him sick—
before I’d catch him, call him freak,
make his neck bulge red,
watch him peel rubber past bitch,

The poem proceeds through a flurry of disquieting images captured in arresting language. What is moving about Orlowsky’s poetry is the manner in which she moves us through her images. Her poems progress like silent films that show the entire universe, then a galaxy, then a star, then a planet, then an organism, then an atom, then an explosion, although not necessarily in that order. There is an element of randomness, of transmitting events and thoughts as they happen, of moving from vastness to the finite; perhaps this accounts for the freshness, the beautiful brutality of Orlowsky’s poetry.

In “Desire,” she first presents her reader with “tiny printed tulips / on your underwear,” then turns to shaving, then to wondering about the hair preferences of one’s husband, then to a crippled dog, to hotel shower caps, to poems and shampoo, to earrings and heels, to a child pulling its hand away, and concludes with a suggestion of suicide. Suicide looms in these poems, interwoven with—and at times confused with—sex: “truth is: it’s your own finger / you’re pushing suggestively / into your mouth.”

Other disturbing juxtapositions emerge in these poems. In “The Phone,” we find the speaker made uneasy by a talking telephone she purchased for her child: “it did bother you / how something faceless / could take on a voice, / address your child, unscrupulously / by his or her first name.” This poem is followed by one titled “Phone Sex,” which demonstrates how childhood grows, inevitably, into the obscene.

No matter how we are born, Orlowsky reminds us through her visceral language, we are born into a vivacious world, as in her poem “Naked, Facing the Mirror, You Recall the Exquisite Animal You’re Not”:


Lately, you’ve given up hunger,

the knife offered for dinner,
the sky’s souring buckets of milk,

your past life as a stricken meadow,
pockets of warm water,

lilacs and hummingbirds
garnering frayed scripts.

We are, after all, animals in a cosmos that may or may not be mindful. In “Darwin: From So Simple,” Orlowsky provides a litany of images before concluding that the poet “has no place / in the morning’s extraordinary abundance.” The world contains us, yet we do not contain the world. Orlowsky is a poet who will strike you with surprise. Her poems are like the twisters in “Tornado” that she likens to small bottles. Reading her work, you feel as if you are carrying fragile storms—storms that you don’t quite know are approaching until you’re recovering from them, as the first poem reminds us: “Uncertain knock, / the glass lamp lit, / I could choke on light / that has yet to pass.”

Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.