In Love with Death and Poetry

Review by Victoria Reynolds

In Orange Tulips, Joan Barasovska explores the perilous territory where, as a young woman, she was “neither dead nor safe” (57). We follow her out onto the ledges and lethal precipices of her own mind, then into a locked psychiatric ward, where, as a young woman, she battles a “death sentence [that] glares from both sides” of her family tree (43).

The ailanthus tree

in the back alley

crowds the window

of another building

where I hope to die… (60)

Barasovska is a poet of intimate, feminine spaces. Her two previous chapbooks, Birthing Age (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and Carrying Clare (Main Street Rag, 2022) crack open the often-private chambers of body, mothering, and parenting. They invite us to enter this difficult terrain and to consider feminine work anew.

The richly narrative poems in Orange Tulips invite us even deeper behind closed doors. The poems give us a glimpse of an imaginative young woman, alert to the powers of observation, and dedicated to finding words to match the nameless pain that overtakes her.

Barasovska explores memories of her Jewish girlhood in 1950’s Philadelphia. In her poem, “The Penn Fruit,” she and her mother shop for “Kaiser rolls, Grossinger’s seeded rye…/an icy jar of Vita pickled herring” (16). We meet her beloved father, the dress shop owner in “Freeman’s Suits Coats and Dresses,” and her aggrieved mother, an exacting survivor, whose unmistakable voice in the poem “Elsie Has Her Say,” resurrects the intergenerational inheritance of hard-won survivorship for both mother and daughter: “Joanie never guessed it was me who found my father/on the kitchen floor, gas hissing, oven door open” (72). We understand that the child, Joanie, has been schooled to become the poet of others’ pain.

So, even as a young woman locked in her own despair and locked away for her own safety, Barasovska still finds herself listening for the “accidental poetry/of overheard hallucinations” (48). In the altered world of inpatient life, take a taste of her “popcorn soaked in Thorazine/lithium-laced cotton candy” and you’ll feel the necessity of imagination and language to her survival (44).

These are brave poems, unflinching in their examination of a period near self-destruction in the poet’s life. These are also poems that relish “the ecstatic lift/of strength and artifice,” that poetry-making contributes to the difficult work of becoming who we are (19).

There is much pleasure in lingering over Barasovska’s careful crafting of each poem in this collection, but I recommend leaping into the experience of reading Orange Tulips as a unified book, front-to-back. A triumphant Barasovska emerges in these pages, enjoining us to “Admire me in my bikini on the high dive/ blindfolded and in love at the same time” (63).

And admire her we do—not just for trusting us with her pain, but for being so in love with poetry that she saved her own life.