Poem of the Week | June 29, 2015

This week we offer a new poem by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach. Dasbach emigrated as a Jewish refugee from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine in 1993. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is currently working on her Ph.D. in the University of Pennsylvania’s Comparative Literature program. Her research focuses on the lyric rendering of trauma in contemporary American poetry composed by emigrants of the former Soviet Union. Her poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review and Guernica, among others journals. She is the author of The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014), winner of Split Lip Magazine‘s Uppercut Chapbook Award. Julia is also the Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine.
Author’s note:

When asked, “Where are you from,” I had always taken great pleasure in detailing my not-born-in-America, immigrant identity. I never questioned the fascination and surprise that resulted from “my” story. However, a few years back, on a family vacation, I witnessed my parents’ and grandparents’ reactions to these same seemingly naive questions of origin—how they were turned from subjects to object through interrogation. “The Question,” arose from this experience. I tried writing the poem from many different points of view—the child’s, the father’s, the grandparent’s, the customs agent’s—but only through the voice of “my mother” did I finally begin to understand the weight of the story I’d been casually telling.


The Question

In the Voice of My Mother


It always gets out: my foreign voice and name
they can’t quite place. Russia, I say
because Ukraine would lead to more confusion.
Why did you come to America? They ask
and I change the subject or leave
the room. For my daughter, this
is not interrogation but permission
to tell her story, one without
shame, heavy and sour, no judgment
for being what we are, because most
can’t hear it
when she speaks.


Is the only difference in our accounts
accent and accent-less? Is hers more vivid?
Its gaps filled in by years of stories.
At age six, she never could have seen
the places cast now, in a worded half-light.
Still, she captures them and calls it
art, calls it poetry, calls, without
hearing me say: I lived that thing you like to reimagine


In Kiev: the train station, detail-less, save
for its wash of white, bunk beds, crying there
with all the will and wildness of a child, and all
the childish reasons or their lack, because
she had to leave behind a life-size doll
that walked beside her when she held its hand.
Flying, family she’d never known, and soon
forgot, more flying, sleep, lights, but she remembers
them: the flashes of pictures taken when keeping
eyes open was harder than standing; the glowing
house with a giant bowl of pears, bananas
and other fruit she’d never tasted in winter; and that couch,
where she fell asleep, only to wake screaming
in a strange room.
But what of the looks?
How they scoured our clothes for gold
until I was lucky to keep my wedding band.
What of the fortune it took for us to get out?
Seven Jews (unheard of), young, old and older, armed
only with our red passports, inspected for hours
at the customs gate where we never heard
the English words we’d learned: welcome home.


So, when they ask me why I came, maybe, my answer
can simply be: it’s complicated. A half-truth
I don’t really mean, or don’t mean for them
to understand. Half-my-size, my daughter’s doll
still walks beside me, and in its mouth half-truths
echo fear, the thing my daughter thinks
we left behind.