Orange Tulips
Joan Barasovska
Redhawk Publications

Reviewer: Jeanne Julian

The cover illustration of Joan Barasovska’s Orange Tulips, her third book, is an up-close portrait, a black-and-white photograph of a young woman. The subject’s expression is dreamy; there’s a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. But locks of dark hair hide half of the face, and the eyes are closed, shutting out the world. A note identifies that arresting cover image as the author at age sixteen. Thus, from the start, Barasovska invites us to understand that this is personal: a memoir in poems. The picture is a fitting introduction to a collection that exposes a deep, often painful, personal narrative and yet also keeps hidden the mysteries of the psyche.

Orange Tulips explores family, growing up, and a descent into clinical depression that results in alienation and institutionalization. As in the cover illustration, the narrator wears no mask, adopts no persona. The book is dedicated to Barasovska’s parents, the Freemans. The poet uses her mother’s name, “Elsie,” in “The Penn Fruit.” In “5905 Belmar Terrace,” the grandchild is “Joanele,” the author’s name with an affectionate Yiddish diminutive. In “Thief,” a doctor asks of the suicidal narrator, “Why did you do this, Joan?” Such biographical details are indicative of an unvarnished honesty. This is craft in the service of truth, truth in the mode of confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath or Randall Jarrell, who speaks of identifying with those who “have in common hopes without hope.”

But what is distinctive about Orange Tulips is that we don’t just land in the midst of despair. Barasovska takes us from light into dark, ushering us first through a childhood brightened with comforts, pleasures, and sympathies. Then, the poems addressing adolescence are shadowed by more than the usual conflicts and heartaches of young adulthood.

In the book’s opening section, “Too Young,” we meet a baby who is “much-wanted,” “moon-perfect” (“Lullaby”). The child grows up in a paradise of Yiddish songs, dance recitals, the “bond” with a beloved brother, the enchantment of daddy’s workplace. A bygone time and place are beautifully evoked in “Freeman’s Suits Coats and Dresses”:

Racks of dresses hang, flowery polished
cotton frocks in spring, coats with wide
collars and shoulder pads, shirtwaist
dresses, gowns in glittery colors, pastel
Easter suits and tweed suits with flaring
peplums. I know the words, I whisper
them and stroke the fabrics.

“The Penn Fruit” is equally cinematic in its details:

… Stewed tomatoes, mandarin
oranges delicate as doll-food, Campbell’s soup,
sardines, Gulden’s mustard, peanut butter,
Tide detergent in a box, blue Scott toilet paper,
Clorox bleach. I’m watching, I’m listening.
This is serious, this is women’s business.

But this girl notices more than the building blocks of domesticity. Barasovska is adept at subtly telling a larger story while writing from a child’s point of view: “The Penn Fruit” continues, “While we wait there’s a neighbor lady / my mother is polite to. I can tell they don’t like / each other much. My mother should be nicer.”

Perhaps this observation is a first glimpse of trouble in paradise. What little girl would not side with her mother? Other glimpses come when we see this apparently happy child feigning illness as an escape. She pretends she’s “Choking” during swim class to be “safe / from the strangling symmetry of this place.” In “Sore Throat,” the child thinks “sickness / is what I crave most of all,” “I want the gentleness that only sickness gets you.” The poem’s last line becomes a portent: “I need what I can’t name.” Even more chilling is a nightmarish scenario that seeps into the girl’s consciousness in “1963,” when as a “merry Girl Scout” on a field trip, she is overcome by a vision of “a fall” – a jump? – into a “gray river.” She names this compulsion “The sick,” linking it to her earlier craving for illness as an escape from the world. Here is the first of the “deep troughs” (“Girl on a Bus”) that will consume her spirit.

The book’s second section, “All Wrong,” chronicles the overwhelming emptiness of clinical depression, a state unappeased by love, by spring, by “bewildered” parents, or by therapy. The poet’s allusions to the lure of self-destruction are unsettlingly dispassionate. In “A Dark Door Opens,” the young woman is drawn to “floor to ceiling windows,” echoing her earlier vision of tumbling from a height. “Waking at Noon,” with the drumbeat of two-word lines, is a wonderfully taut metaphor for a psychic crisis. In the poem “All Wrong,” we’re moved by the yearning in “I only want to be / as useful as a sidewalk.” At first the simile seems whimsical. But then, we think of the actual uses of a sidewalk: something that people walk all over; something that disastrously breaks a fall.

On her twenty-first birthday, this troubled woman signs herself into an adult locked ward. The harrowing experiences there inform the subsequent poems, which are not for the faint of heart. With grim determination, Barasovska portrays the hopelessness and violence of everyday life in what she calls “my hospital.” The voice here is almost flat, as if numbed by meds, amid chaos and emotion. “I follow all the steps methodically,” the patient says when escaping the ward in an attempt to end her life. The blunt endings of these poems are particularly sobering. “I was neither dead nor safe” concludes “It Kept Happening.” In Caesura, “I have died, but not enough” evokes Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” In “This One Day,” Barasovska’s leitmotif of drowning in “gray waters” recalls the choking and the gray river of childhood.

But the collection concludes with reaffirmation, a turning again toward life, however inexplicably. Here, water becomes not an element to drown in, but rather the sacrament that will revive a bouquet of drooping tulips. Moreover, the daughter seems to be released from her own obsession with mortality even as she experiences the rite of passage that comes with the death of parents. From the grave, the father and the mother each have their say in a poem. The final piece in the book, “Summer’s Start,” signifies a sea change: “I love this world I yearned to shed.” With that, we readers are left stunned and fulfilled by the descent and transcendence that Orange Tulips offers us.

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