Don’t Touch the Bones

  • Review
By – December 13, 2020

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 (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

Discussion Questions