Generational Trauma and the Ukrainian Diaspora: On Olena Jennings’s “The Age of Secrets”

Nicole Yurcaba reviews Olena Jennings’s new poetry collection “The Age of Secrets.”

By Nicole YurcabaJanuary 3, 2023

Generational Trauma and the Ukrainian Diaspora: On Olena Jennings’s “The Age of Secrets”

The Age of Secrets by Olena Jennings. Lost Horse Press. 106 pages.

OLENA JENNINGS’S new poetry collection The Age of Secrets presents the relationship between Natalie and Aja, both on the receiving end of the speaker’s love and affection. The collection is divided into two sections: “Paper Doll Album” and “The Spell of History.” While the first depicts personal and emotional responses, the second captures history unfolding in the present and navigates generational trauma related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


The poems in the collection’s first section carry real emotional weight. Told in long-form with a distinctive voice, the speaker’s experiences with Natalie and Aja piece together like a quilt. Opening this section is the 12-page poem “When I Moved to the City,” a masterpiece that captures the speaker’s relationships with her lover and with Natalie, exploring not only their stability but also their toxicity. This is evident in the speaker’s depiction of the control Natalie exerts over her: “Natalie convinced me to wear the blouse. She wanted me to be / more like her, to wear more velvet. She was obsessed with seeing her / reflection in other peoples’ faces. Some people need to know they exist.” The description highlights the speaker’s naïveté, her failure to fully recognize Natalie’s concerning behaviors.


The poem waxes and wanes between long sections and shorter, prayer-like stanzas, utilizing repetition to capture the speaker’s emotional tumult. These smaller stanzas have an almost biblical tone, jarring readers with the speaker’s dissociation:


Forbidden are the plants that grow around our feet.
Forbidden are the plants that taste like lavender.
Forbidden are the plants that sting with touch.
Forbidden are the plants that fall under our weight.
Forbidden are the plants that point towards the sky.
Forbidden are the plants that can be boiled into tea.


A recognition of the unattainable creates a sense of otherness, which continues in the brief poem “Burrow.” Constructed of four seven-lined stanzas, “Burrow” gains heft from the speaker’s initial repetition of the word “we”:


We were trapped inside.
We used to throw our cigarette butts
out the window.
We were leaving pieces of ourselves
everywhere then.
The soles of my shoes crumbled
and the threads of my shirts unraveled.


The undoing of the speaker’s clothing parallels the undoing of her relationship with her lover, who “came to see me in the middle of summer / when my clothes peeled away / from the sweat.” The speaker confesses to having “these lovers then, / the kind I didn’t have conversations with.” The linguistic transition from “we” to “I” is significant, creating a sense of self-recognition and autonomy, but it does not establish the speaker’s independence. Still, her emotional and relational awareness grows: “I knew then that a baby / was impossible and that the flowers / he would bring me on my birthday / would be fake.” “Fake” is the perfect word on which to end the poem, as it captures the relationship’s superficiality.


The poem “Last Rites” provides a strong transition into the collection’s second section. It opens with the admission by the speaker that she “died once / after a party.” The speaker’s alienation and sense of insignificance permeate the first stanza, as she perceives that the wine she contributed to the party “[w]as not enough.” She then describes how “a famous writer” invited her out, and when she returned to the apartment hosting the party, everyone but the two of them had found a place to rest. The speaker settles “[o]n a table with a blanket.” Some readers will need a trigger warning for what happens next:


In the middle of the night
Someone took the blanket off me
I lay limp
And let it be done.


She does not identify the predator, and her use of the word “it” is nonspecific but nonetheless horribly indicative of violation. Ultimately, the final line works as a metaphor for the second section’s focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


That section, “The Spell of History,” features poems that highlight themes of memory and generational trauma. Due to Jennings’s adept skill at weaving minimalist verse into longer narrative structures, the poems’ connections to the war emerge subtly and suggestively. The smoke of battle thickens in “Red Rue,” where the word “red” functions as a symbol of the fall of the Soviet Union, while also retaining folkloric qualities, “becoming a pulsing figure / so that it was a myth”:


If you found it you would
also find your match.
If you found it you would
also find luck.


A sense of innocence dissipates as the speaker affirms that “our hands are black with soil, / but our bare feet / are bloody with the earth.” Historical legacy and generational trauma echo as the poem concludes: “We wrote songs about it.”


The poem “What We Call It” establishes the speaker’s process of self-reclamation. Set in a village that has “turned into a sleepy suburb,” the poem relies on domestic images, such as the speaker watching through a window as a woman quietly sips tea. But with the third stanza, the poem turns:


This is the village
where the tiny pig that my grandmother
loved too much was stolen
and her life
was stolen.


This simple, painful story encapsulates a moment of trauma. Her grandmother’s stolen life transforms into an immigrant experience “[i]n another country.” The word “remember” is used twice in the span of four lines, as readers feel how the grandmother’s pain has been transferred to future generations.


The Age of Secrets also treats the experience of diaspora, with the poem “My Ukraine” offering a small but significant homage to those working tirelessly to support their ancestral homeland. A quiet, reverent poem, set in a Milwaukee church, “My Ukraine” further emphasizes the speaker’s perceived otherness as she sits “alone, swooning from incense,” while her grandparents gossip with their friends. Diasporic distance transforms an immigrant’s experience of their homeland’s language and customs, especially in succeeding generations. Maintaining a culture and a language requires dedication, yet younger people tire of these burdens and quickly assimilate to their home country’s culture.


These themes emerge subtly, as the speaker observes the church’s decline: its “chandeliers have gathered / a layer of dust” and a “solitary bullet / hole” shows in “the midnight blue stained glass.” The speaker notes, “Now the walls are in danger of caving in.” These images embody both the fragility and the resiliency of the Ukrainian diaspora, with the latter quality gaining strength as the point of view shifts to the collective “we”:


We use their hands to hold them up,
news from Ukraine, an invasion.
We use our hands to hold up the trembling
walls. We won’t let them
fall.


Currently, the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom plays a significant role in fundraising for Ukraine, providing humanitarian aid and educational support. The speaker’s “return” to the collective “we” embodies what has been evident since February 24, 2022 — that the war affects even those who live far from their ancestral home, and the diaspora’s dedication to supporting Ukraine embodies a prime example of cultural fortitude, as well as a beacon of hope for non-Ukrainians and the world.


¤


Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба — Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, West Trade Review, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals.

LARB Contributor

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба — Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian American poet and essayist. Her reviews, poems, and essays have appeared in Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole is a poetry instructor at Southern New Hampshire University and a guest book-reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and the Southern Review of Books.

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