north of oxford

Stargrass, Violets by Barbara Daniels

star vio
Stargrass, Violets
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My sister finds a blue
high-heeled shoe
and a red one, both
for a small left foot.
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Weeds overwintered
in faded rosettes. Stalks
begin to rise from them.
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Daffodils thrive,
a yellow religion.
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New buds proffer
themselves like eyes.
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We sit down in stargrass
and violets, our shadows
obscured by greater shadows.
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A ragged
cloud, small
as a hand, slips
toward the east.
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The doctor says my sister’s not
dying. Not now. Not yet.
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Blown newspapers
soar like wings.
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One pond gleams turquoise.
Another gives back the scarlet sunset.
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In the darkness a throne
of stars slides
to the far horizon
moving toward
God’s wide-open eye.
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barbara-daniels-2018-mh-full-size-color
Barbara Daniels’s Talk to the Lioness was published by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press in 2020. Her poetry has appeared in Lake Effect, Cleaver, Faultline, Small Orange, Meridian, and elsewhere. Barbara Daniels received a 2020 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
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Petco Parking Lot by Nancy Byrne Iannucci

petco
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Petco Parking Lot
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Petco barked when she drove in,
rolled back before she pulled on the brake.
Her hair was a cold gray day.
Her body struggled straight.
Buddy Holly’s Rave On
bounced off her bent back.
Uh oh! Is she coming
to tell me to turn it down?
She stood with a fist in my face,
pumped it in the air,
GREAT SONG! she said.
One of the best.  I said.
A jolt in her crooked step,
kicked off saddle shoes
she wasn’t wearing
to this sock hop
in a Petco parking lot.
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Nancy Byrne Iannucci - field photo
Nancy Byrne Iannucci is the author of Temptation of Wood (Nixes Mate Review 2018). Her poems have appeared in several publications, some include Allegro Poetry Magazine, The Mantle, Gargoyle, Clementine Unbound, Bending Genres, 8 Poems, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist),Red Eft Review and Typehouse Literary Magazine. Nancy is a Long Island, NY native who now resides in Troy, NY where she teaches history at the Emma Willard School. (https://www.instagram.com/
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Three Poems by Peycho Kanev

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The Sea Inside Me
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Its salty tongue gently licks
women’s toes, heels, calves, ankles;
in the shallows under the moon – the slimy moons
of jellyfish,
in the distance dolphins teach small dolphins
how to be themselves and nothing else,
as we failed to do so.
Happy boyish shouts everywhere,
and the metallic screams of seagulls
embroider the ink-blue upholstery of the sky.
The horizon is a knife cutting in half the wet photos
of the memories.
Under the sunrise – sand, shore, a whole world;
and mine, and yours; where you were, where I was.
I died there.
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Garbage Song
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The music lifted my sheet, and the fingertips
of the sun brought me scraps of the soul
of Sibelius. The next question is: Why do you
love your loneliness so much? I just grinned
to the body lost inside the notes next to me.
Saliva and staves are meant for each other.
And while the sounds choke, we sink back
into sleep. Outside the garbage truck hums.
Inside the room is empty.
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This Life
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I put my heart into my mother’s coffin
and now it throbs under the ground.
All the letters I sent to my first love
returned unread in my mailbox
and my unborn child, which I wanted
to create on paper, committed suicide
in the first paragraph of my unwritten book.
My cat has rejected her nine lives, my dog
refuses to bark and I look how the sky
shatters slowly in the broken mirror –
I am beautiful at last.
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pk
Peycho Kanev is the author of 8 poetry collections and three chapbooks, published in the USA and Europe. His poems have appeared in many literary magazines, such as: Rattle, Poetry Quarterly, Evergreen Review, Front Porch Review, Hawaii Review, Barrow Street, Sheepshead Review, Off the Coast, The Adirondack Review, Sierra Nevada Review, The Cleveland Review and many others. His new chapbook titled Under Half-Empty Heaven was published in 2019 by Grey Book Press.
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Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom by Howie Good

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Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom
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Mother awakened me in the morning. There was now a lake of ash where there had never been one and behind it a pair of wrinkled mountains like a giant’s cracked, dusty boots. Birds on a fence idiotically chanted, “Sh-boom, sh-boom.” I picked up a stone and threw it without taking careful aim. Some people who were passing would later say the expression on my face made everything worse. I hadn’t even realized I was smiling.
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Life there felt a lot like life elsewhere – steel bars on windows and suicide nets on roofs. Hatchet-faced men in leather trench coats would grab people right off the street. The last words of a prisoner were eerily prophetic. “Ah,” he said, “the cows. . .” Work parties threw the corpses in ovens or down wells, often slaving at rifle point through the night.
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The angels were dry-mouthed and sweaty and feeling like they hadn’t slept for days. A rogue herd of cows in gas masks had stampeded. I stared out at the sign by the church when I should have been watching the road. Love Like Jesus, it said. Nice sentiment, I thought, as the sun sank in a profusion of toxic colors, a ship full of chemicals burning intently at the edge of the world.
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Howie Good is the author of more than a dozen poetry collections, including most recently Gunmetal Sky (Thirty West Publishing).

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Birthday by Rustin Larson

birthday
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Birthday
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Starts with the basement guy arriving
to look it over: cement
flooring in new states of upheaval,
a mysterious moon-glow vine sprouting
from a crack in the floor’s center,
auras of many disturbed
bodiless entities, walls leaking
and crumbling, mausoleum
of disinterred gloom, the basement does
not pass.
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So the next thing I do is hide.
I’m taking a week off from work
and all they do is send whiny
emails about how hard it is to be
understaffed. The guy next door
is petulant because I won’t hire him
to trim my bushes. He sits shirtless,
condor wings tattooed on his chest
and arms, his breath reeking
of whiskey and vomit and cigarettes
and mumbled threats about shooting holes
in my roof.
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“Tighter than a drum” is the country song
I write, strumming on my cheap electric.
Friends send me photographs
of fictional moon settlers
and their dangerous robots. Wrens flicker
innocently under the rain spout.
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Rustin Larson’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, and North American Review. He won 1st Editor’s Prize from Rhino and was a prize winner in The National Poet Hunt and The Chester H. Jones Foundation contests. A graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing, Larson was an Iowa Poet at The Des Moines National Poetry Festival, and a featured poet at the Poetry at Round Top Festival.
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Etching the Ghost by Cathleen Cohen

etch
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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Etching the Ghost by Cathleen Cohen, published by Atmosphere Press, is an interesting collection of poems about the art of painting and other subjects.  The voice in the poems Is honest and direct and the poetry illustrates skillfully how closely related the literary and visual arts are.
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The tome is divided into four sections:  If Released, Magnificent, The Weight of the Press, No Mistakes in Art, and As Witness, As Echo. Each section has a particular focus.  The volume spans sixty-five pages and covers topics relating to relationships, art, landscapes and personal experiences.
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In the first section, If Released, Magnificent, the poem Possibly wind on page nine uses visual metaphors to show situation and place in dealing with a daughter’s relationship to her parents.
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            fans us out past dark.
           Fathers shout our names from doorways.
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            In hedges we crouch,
           plan forays and small rebellions.
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           I tear my yellow dress
          in a dirt fight, then lie
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          to my mother’s shocked face.
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The way the poem is set up suggests the fragmented steps a young person would take when doing something they know they shouldn’t do.  It is clear the parents care but children will be children.  The closure is direct and clear as the daughter faces her mother with a lie.  The poem is effective in presenting a common situation between parents and their kids.  It is interesting that the narrator is wearing the color yellow and a dress.  Her mother would not expect her daughter to be in a dirt fight let alone wearing a dress or, perhaps, lie.   The suggested conflict is clear and the poem works well.
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The poem, No Mistakes in Art on page thirty-nine, has some of the same rebellious traits as Possibly wind.  The school tries to restrain and control the children but they are so of full life, they jostle and proclaim.
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                 A quince breaks into bloom
                 outside the school
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                where I sketch
               (between classes)
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               trying to capture the tangle of citrus
               in rooted stance
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               against brick walls
               that can’t contain children
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                from chanting, jostling
               down stairwells, proclaiming
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              poems,
                       vivid and delicious.
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Cohen cleverly inserts her artistic self into the observation of school children as if they are not only visual art but semi out of control poems that are not only vivid—a sight—but delicious poems connecting the literary to the visual art form.  The poem is strong in its setting and situation.  It makes the readers feel as if they are observing along with the narrator just to the corner of the poem’s edge.  I also like the way the stanzas are set up as if implying the stair steps the children are coming down.
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Some of the poems in this book seem almost interactive like the poem No Mistakes in Art.  This volume has many strengths but I find it is uneven in tone and perhaps tries too hard to link art forms.  I wonder if the book had sketches next to the poems how this would affect the reader.  I bet it would be a positive.
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You can find the book here: Etching the Ghost

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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Porno Valley by Philip Elliott

valley p

By Charles Rammelkamp

Following his debut noir, Nobody Move, winner of the Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards, Philip Elliott’s new novel is likewise set in Los Angeles, the home of so many legendary private detective dramas. This one, too, features colorful losers and endearing anti-heroes and is full of plot surprises and just generally compelling storytelling that makes you want to read on.

Porno Valley takes place at the turn of the century. Elliott juggles three different narratives, one in 1998 involving the ambitious Jemeka Johnson and her not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer but well-meaning partner, Raymond (Ray-Ray) Jones. Another is set a year later in 1999 and involves a pair of small-time-crook junkies, Richie, a sociopath from hell, and his troubled wife Alabama. The final thread takes place in the summer of 2000 and involves a private detective named Mickey O’Rourke. Mickey is 78 and about to embark on the final case of his half-century long career. Mickey is the loneliest guy in the world and touches the reader’s heart with his quiet integrity and modest reflection. He’s been hired to find a missing person, a porn star named Jeffrey Strokes (“his real name”). Jeff is an interesting character in his own right, the most laid back person in the world, winner of three AVN awards, the Oscars of the porn industry. Somebody describes him as being like Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, in The Big Lebowski.

In fact, the novel opens with Mickey meeting his client, Bethany Summers at MidnightPussy Productions in San Fernando Valley, where the nascent porn industry, fueled by the rise of the internet, has become a huge growth business. Jeff has been missing for a year, and hence the three threads will come together, eventually. Bethany is Jeff’s girlfriend – or former girlfriend – both part of the porn world. She’s currently involved with Riccardo, another performer in porn films. It turns out that Riccardo plays a pivotal role in Jeff’s disappearance.

We meet Richie and Alabama in Nevada where they are holding up a diner. They’ve been a Bonnie and Clyde pair for a while but recently had a quickie Nevada wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator. Most importantly, they are supporting heroin habits and want to move up to more lucrative enterprises to support their lifestyle. Elliott is excruciatingly detailed when describing junk sickness and need. It’s almost visceral, reading about Richie’s and Alabama’s craving and Alabama’s OD.

Originally from LA, Richie brings his wife, a rural Alabama girl who left home to escape an abusive father, to the big city to seek their fortune and feed their jones. Los Angeles itself becomes something of a character, its sleaze and glamor, its poverty and luxury. “Nobody knows Los Angeles until they’ve been entranced by it, corrupted by it, cast out from it, and returned to it on their knees begging it to save them, and Richie knew Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, a year earlier, Jemeka, scratching out a living and paying off her late father’s debts as a stylist in a hair salon, stumbles into the world of dope-dealing and, shrewd businesswoman that she is, realizes this is her ticket out of poverty. Jemeka is very ambitious – “greedy” may be a more accurate, if less flattering, adjective.

Elliott writes compellingly about poverty and the desperation it creates, especially for characters like Richie and Jemeka, but  generally in poor neighborhoods like Compton, “well-intentioned families who called Compton home got ground up in the giant machine of this nation, slipping further toward poverty and the tragic moment when pressing need overtakes good intentions.”

At first Jemeka worries about the negative impact her dealing may have on her community, but over time she rationalizes selling crack as responsible because she isn’t adulterating the drug with dangerous additives just to maximize her profits. “Looked at that way, selling crack wasn’t so bad. It could even be said she was doing something good for the community.”

On balance, Jemeka is a sympathetic character, even as her ruthlessness (which she rationalizes as pragmatism) sometimes blinds her. Richie, though, is a totally repulsive dude with a mean streak a mile wide. It’s only Mickey whom we admire. Mickey’s wife of decades, Martha, has recently died from cancer. We feel his loneliness. He’s always been a romantic. He remembers winning Martha’s love by reciting Yeats to her, the poem, “When You Are Old.”

While resolving the various plots, the novel ends somewhat ambiguously, as if the story is “to be continued.” We do learn what becomes of Jeff Strokes,  but other things still seem a bit up in the air.  Elliott is fully aware of this. “It’s an intentionally subversive ending,” he says, “meant to be a little irksome as I wanted to play around with the fact that most crime novels end super conveniently wrapped in a bow with all loose ends tied. The novel was my attempt at playing around with the concept of a whodunit (as a friend said, ‘it’s not a whodunit but a how- or whydunit inside a noir.’) In a way I wanted to write an anti-Nobody Move. So, yeah, just playing with expectations.”

Elliott convincingly recreates the era with reference to the current music at the end of the century. Richie is in love with the new Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Californication” He also goes for the relative oldie, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult). Jemeka plays 2Pac’s music in her salon, “Only God Can Judge Me,” which is appropriate. Mickey, meanwhile, has Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on a cassette tape.  Remember cassette tapes?  “I Won’t Back Down” is his anthem. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” is featured in a scene at Tower Records where Richie goes Medieval.

In any case, Porno Valley is a terrific, satisfying read. The reader’s reaction is not unlike Bethany’s when Mickey at last tells her about Jeff.  “Bethany’s mouth fell open. She looked like God had descended from Heaven and urinated on her.”  Philip Elliott keeps you guessing to the end!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Porno-Valley-Angel-Philip-Elliott/dp/1999086848

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

The Short Stories of Tolstaya

porch

By Ray Greenblatt

Tatyana Tolstaya is from the noble and intellectual Tolstoy family. She was born and educated in St. Petersburg, then spent many years in the U.S. teaching. On her return to Russia she hosted a very successful interview show on TV. The first book she wrote—On the Golden Porch (1987)—is what I will write about. I found the two most outstanding characteristics were her startling imagery and raucous sense of humor.

IMAGERY

Tolstaya has a marvelous ability to bring children alive with all their idiosyncrasies.  “Flus would scream and bang at my ears, banging on red drums, surrounding me from eight sides and, swirling wildly, project a delirious film, always the same: a wooden honeycomb filling up with three-digit numbers.” (7, LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT) She does not deny a child’s imagination: ”The children couldn’t shut their eyes at night, sitting up like white columns in their beds.” (122, DATE WITH A BIRD)

And yet, a sadness invaded them and could stay with them for life. A boy loses his grandfather: “Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand?” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH)“His soul was boiled like egg white hanging in clumps on the trees rushing toward him; sour sorrow filled his mouth.” (128, DATE WITH A BIRD)  The child can also pity others: “Lord, the world is so frightening and hostile, the poor homeless, inexperienced soul huddling in the square in the night wind.” (13, LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT)

Under the oppression of Communism no one gets away unharmed emotionally,

women and men alike. “Rimma cracked—she looked around and saw that time kept flowing on, yet the future still hadn’t arrived.” (107, FIRE AND DUST) “Life had gone and the voice of the future was singing for others.” (112, FIRE AND DUST) “Thousands of years, thousands of days, thousands of translucent impenetrable curtains fell from the heavens, thickened, turned into solid walls, blocked roads, and kept Alexandra Ernestovna from going to her beloved, lost in time.” (35, SWEET SHURA) This image says it all: “Life had shown its empty face, its matted hair and sunken eye sockets.” (113, FIRE AND DUST)

Yet, moments of joy and love do exist. “His words glistened with winy sparkle. He led her to a restaurant and the crowd parted for them, and the coat check took her raiments as if they were the magical swan feathers of a fairy bather who had come from the heavens to a small forest lake. The columns emitted a soft marble aroma, and roses floated in the dim lighting. Vassily Mikhailovich was almost young, and Isolde was like a wild silvery bird, one of a kind.” (68, THE CIRCLE) And dreams can sometimes bode good: “Sleep came, invited him into its loopholes and corridors, made dates of secret stairways, locked the doors and rebuilt familiar houses.” (179, PETERS)

But memory fails. “Only a trace of her voice in my head, incorporeal, seeming to come from the black jaws of the telephone receiver.” (141, SONYA) “Now the backs of the seated people are translucent like gauze, and with frightening speed, their laughter falls to pieces, recedes in the distance—catch it if you can.” (141, SONYA) “How restlessly the transparent, tamed shadows of our imagination scurry when the noises and smells of real life penetrate into their cool, foggy world. (22, OKKERVIL RIVER)

Again we feel depressed. “The rain, darkness, and window-bending wind reflected the white solemn face of loneliness.” (17, OKKERVIL RIVER)  A person dies. “The yellow dog gently closed his eyes and left through the snowflakes up the starry  ladder to the black heights, carrying away the trembling living flame.” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH) “Life had begun to turn its not-good side toward Pavel.” (131, SWEET DREAMS, SON) “Peters sat with his leftovers, as immobile as a suitcase.” (189, PETERS)

Children, women, men all find life at times hopeless, destructive. And yet, some weather through it all.  “Peters smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien—marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.” (192, PETERS)

HUMOR

It is fairly easy for a professional author to come up with some imagery. However, not every writer can pull off humor. I feel it must be built into the nervous system. Tolstaya has that ability too. In HUNTING THE WOOLY MAMMOTH she shows it through the character of Zoya. She puts on airs: “She opened her lips only a millimeter to taste the profiteroles in chocolate sauce, pretending for some intellectual reason that it wasn’t very tasty.” (52) She poses again: “Her face was supposed to reflect the fleeting nuances of her complex spiritual life, like exquisite sadness or some refined reminiscence.” (53)

She doesn’t really love the man she is trying to capture. She hates the great out-of-doors: “Among offensively hearty strangers bawling cheerfully over their dinner made of pea concentrate.” (54) He just won’t play the game she expects him to: ”But this one comes on his own, gets up close, grazes, plucking at the grass, rubbing his side against the wall, napping in the sun, pretending to be tame. Allows himself to be milked! While the pen is open on all four sides.” (59)

What she wants is to be worshipped: “Oh, they would have sculpted her soul, her pain, all the folds of her blanket the right way, they would have sculpted her and then fixed it up on tippy top of a dizzying, lacy cathedral, at the very top, and the photo would be in close up: Zoya. Detail. Early Gothic.” (60)

In THE CIRCLE a man is married but takes his wife for granted. He sees her in a hair salon: “My God—long wires were attached to a reddened, albeit very happy head, with protruding diodes, triodes, and resistors.” (63) Women love clothes: “A cow gives birth in suffering so you can have shoes; a lamb is sheared screaming so you can warm yourself with its fleece.” (64) Women love make up: “Your pink cheeks come from boxes of flying dust, your smiles from golden containers with strawberry filling, your smooth skin from tubes of grease, your gaze from round transparent jars.” (64)

However, “you don’t pick wives: they simply appear out of nowhere by your side, and you’re struggling in fine netting, bound hand and foot; hobbled and gagged.” (65) He admits that they teach you many things but are they important. “How to clean spoons, and the comparative physiology of meatballs and patties; he knew by heart the grievously brief lifespan of sour cream.” (65) Some foods he found ugly: “In the face of annual death nature gets scared, turns around, and grows head down, giving birth in the final moments to coarse, harsh, clumsy creatures—the black dome of radish, the monstrous white nerve of horseradish, the secret potato cities.” (68)

He wants to escape. “Sometimes he wanted to be born a fiery southern youth; or a medieval alchemist; or the daughter of a millionaire; or a widow’s beloved cat; or a Persian king.” (65) Or even have an affair. “Once, dropping off sheets at the laundry, Vassily stared into the blossoming clover of cotton expanses, and noticed that the seven-digit notation sewn onto the northeast resembled a telephone number; he secretly called, and was graciously welcomed, and began a boring joyless affair with a woman named Klara.”(66)

He kept searching for the answers to life. Perhaps a Rubik’s cube: “Spent weeks twisting and twisting its creaking movable facets, until his eyes grew red, waiting in vain for the light to another universe to shine at last from the window.” (73) “He spent hours standing on his head with his legs crossed in someone’s apartment near the railroad station, between two unshaven, also upside-down engineers, and the rumble of the trains outside the house speeding into the distance shook their upraised striped socks.” (74)

Plot is limited in these stories, mostly no more than vignettes. However, the characters are 3-dimensional and varied. It is primarily the imagery that makes every page sparkle. And the humor makes us laugh at human foibles, often with tears in our eyes.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Porch-Tatyana-Tolstaya/dp/0679728430

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

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