Winner of the Idaho Prize for Poetry 2019, Don’t Touch the Bones by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is a stunning collection that explores the poet’s Ukrainian-Jewish heritage.
In the titular poem, “Don’t touch the bones,” she says that she keeps “writing the same story” about the fates and deaths of her people, yet her “great-grandfather’s name stays missing” from the narrative. This poem seems tied with her later one, “Translating Grandfather’s Hunger,” in which she interviews her grandfather, urging him to talk about his childhood, but finds it painful asking questions about his life’s sufferings. What results is a conversation about hunger — both her grandfather’s literal hunger, and the poet’s urgent hunger to unearth the history of her ancestors.
The word bones repeats many times throughout the collection, with varying connotations, but it is always used in connection to Dasbach’s personal histories. In the poem “Take a piece of earth,” she includes an epigraph with a statement by Governor Alexander Rogachuk claiming, “We will not allow the building of anything on bones of people.” This poem concludes: “Show me a place / not made of bone / & see the generations / we have swallowed.”
This idea of “swallowed generations” is echoed across every section of the book, each past generation strongly tying into the experiences of the present and future. Dasbach writes about the bones of her ancestors buried in mass graves during the Holocaust and the unspoken stories of many survivors, all while gazing at her son and beginning to tell him their family’s stories so he may pass them on to future generations. In these poems, she moves rapidly from the light of flames on a stove to the burning of Jewish bodies; from the tragedy at Babi Yar to the kindling of candle flames while reciting Hebrew blessings. This interconnectedness – of fire and bones, of past and present, of trauma and peace – lingers in a haunting way.
Her long, multi-part poem, “Songs of Home,” directly addressing several bygone Russian poets and artists, including Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Aleksander Pushkin, explores Dasbasch’s struggle to find her own place within the music and pain of her peoples’ history and collective memory.
The final few poems of the book are love poems for her son. In “Bone Appendix,” she traces his hand “against construction paper… teaching him the edges / of his bones.” This tender, striking image emphasizes many of the themes of the collection as a whole – Dasbach teaches her son where his body ends, what separates him from the earth, from their history, and his future.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.