ray greenblatt

Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford


The Secret Poetry of Sybille Bedford as seen  in her book Pleasures and Landscapes

By Ray Greenblatt

During a long life (1911-2006) author Sybille Bedford wrote in various genres such as: novel (The Legacy) and biography (Aldous Huxley); she also explored a more unusual category: legal systems (The Faces of Justice). But her writing career began with a travel book The Sudden View and ended with a travel book Pleasures and Landscapes. It is in this latter book that I discovered her poetic tendencies.

Most of these travel essays were written in the 1960’s; that is when I, too, began to travel to Europe. Although I did not have the wherewithal to indulge in high-end food and drink, I can certainly attest to what Ms Bedford writes about the various cultures at that time: Switzerland, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Portugal, France and Italy.


Bedford’s style is unusual in that she writes in broad swathes of painterly words as if she is composing a living picture.  Let us examine an early chapter as she observes how travel has developed over time. “A part, a large part, of travelling is an engagement of the ego v. the world. The world is transport, the roads, the clerks behind the counters who deal out tickets, mail, messy money, keys; it is the porters, the waiters, the tourist industry, the natives, the weather. The world is hydra-headed, as old as the rocks and as changing as the sea, enmeshed inextricably in its ways.

“The ego wants to arrive at places safely and on time. It wants to be provided with entertainment, color, quiet, strong coffee, strong drink, matches it can strike, and change for a large paper note. It wants to find a room ready, warmth, cool, hangers, the right voltage, an ashtray, and enough clean towels.” (13) Notice the catalogue of elements that attempt to give a full overview to so much that constitutes travel. Nouns and adjectives jostle together with semi-colons loosely joining them. Bedford will use this device again in different ways.

Hotels were often a mixed blessing.” The hotels (where there were hotels) were well built, the bedrooms were larger, the wardrobes deeper, a door shut stayed shut. The Victorian plumbing across the corridor was first rate, but in the room itself there was likely to be a stand with a pitcher and basin, slop pail, and carafe. Horror of present horrors: no running water.” (19) You can often catch a whimsical twinkle in her eye.

Then automobiles came at the turn of the century. “The car took him into market towns, to the waterfronts, to the rock pool in the next bay, to the village where they’d found the fresco, into the mountain woods to the inn by the stream.” (22)

But there was the pain of new airports. “It would not have been a long, traffic-bound drive to the airport . . . There would have been no herding, channeling, queuing, standing, waiting, hanging about . . . You didn’t have to live through the takeoff; you didn’t have to think about the landing. Wind and weather, except in the extremes of blizzard, were none of your concern.” (18)

English airports were the worst. “My fellow travelers at the airport (English side) looked short-sleeved and disheveled. Tea slopped in the saucers, ashtrays overflowed, the counters stayed unwiped.  The food displayed was predominantly shredded processed cheese on margarine and white. There were also on sale some of those dead-meat pies, the full soggy weight of which has to be eaten to be felt.” (28)


In Berne Bedford encounters a fountain that is almost too perfect. “This person in armor and pink gloves on the fountain is a bear. And here, on another, is a belted lion in azure, gold-laced boots, and his cloak piped with scarlet, sword in paw, lifting a trusting muzzle to the plumed Good Duke, and on this emerald-and-crimson pillar sits a man in splendid wooden clothes playing bagpipes to a goose, and everything is spouting water and geraniums, and the clock faces are painted too and as large as cartwheels, and there are doves and hares and princes to strike out the hours, and everything is picked out in gold and scarlet.” (62) Bedford overuses “and” on purpose to underscore how overdone this statuary is, a kind of European Disneyland.


The author is often able to catch a cultural trait that typifies the country. We just saw the saccharine quality of Swiss art. Here is something about a Danish couple that is more satisfying. “His face was placid and honest, the face of an honest fellow, with that look one finds in the North, in any North, on hardworking people of good stock, on peasants, on sailors, and also on laboring and contented beasts. Her face was goodness incarnate. We all have become used to the ease with which we can convey nastiness and horror; their opposites have no such ready currencies. I can only try to put down what in fact I saw. This woman’s face, then, shone with pure, sheer, golden goodness, with gentleness and innocence and patience and a kind of grave alertness; it was an open face, water-clear, and one could watch the movement of the slow, good thoughts across it.” (88)


When Sybille Bedford visited in the 1960’s, the Yugoslavs were working through Communism. “Lava tides of people both receding homewards and seeping in, sluggish and determined, a dark, compact mass oozing over the pavements, stagnating at corners, filling up the squares. Their overall aspect is one of sallowness, burdens, and poor clothes—raincoats and exiguous suits in muddy colors, mustard, gritty gray, off-brown. It is the all pervading drabness of one’s image of the streets of Moscow.” (121) The negative words too numerous to repeat dominate this passage.

And yet nature in Yugoslavia is untouched and teeming. Here is a partial description of the famous Sixteen Lakes. You will be dizzied by the flow of water as well as words. “The dominant, the all-pervading, element is water, live water in every phase—water on the move, on the roll, foaming, whirling, swishing water, rapid water toppling over cliffs in suicidal dash, still water, majestic water, horizons of water, tinkling water splashing in elegant quicksilver rays, hissing water spouting from stone and earth, thunderous vertical water roaring skyward in strong jets, folds of creamy water descending in soft cascades.” (131) You feel as if you have been body-surfing after that passage.


This country has its special beauty also. “The lifting of a barrier brightly painted like a lozenge at a fair, and we were in a river valley shining with new leaves—there were magnolia and oleander, fig and eucalyptus, water chestnut and spring maize, haystacks pressed like sugar cones hung from the boughs, and along the roadside the young birch trees were garlanded with vines. Lyre-horned oxen, under painted yokes, advanced hoof before slow hoof; women moved by with forests on their heads . . . we had entered into an Arcadian dream.” (103)

The challenge for tourists in this country was the language, says Bedford playfully. “Change any consonant into one easier to say, replace all s’s with a double shsh, aim at a nasal twang (a blend of Cockney with Meridional French will do), sing the whole like Welsh, explode it to sound like Polish, and do not forget a hint of Dutch.” (106)


France, where she had lived on and off for years, Bedford considered a quality country more conducive to human comforts than most. “The French are both soft and stoic. They are above all resilient.  Their losses in the 1914 war were on such a tragic scale that it left them with a private and a national sense of irreversible bereavement. If they managed to keep a glow on life it was because of their sensuous vitality, their readiness to enjoy what life had to offer, or what they made it offer; their cultivated and articulate capacity for taking life physically: their passion for food, their due regard for bed, that perennial saving streak that is also an undoing.” (24)

What could be more French than a vineyard. “We are shown around the chai (storeroom), the sheds, the cellars, slowly, talkatively. What strikes is the order, the sacred immaculateness, the quiet. The steel vats gleam; the long, straight lines of barrels look as if they have been waxed; the bungs are glass. The whole has the aesthetic appeal of geometry plus spit and polish raised to an nth degree.” (151)

And then there is the all-important tasting.  “We look, we inhale, we draw in our mouthful: we chew, we think. It is a slow process (one is standing, if not always standing still), utterly absorbing and near an ordeal—the raw tannin puckers the inside of the cheeks, rasps the throat like claws, while at the kernel one finds a notion of . . . what? texture, structure, multiplicities of scents, analogous tastes; divines staying power, future harmonies. How? It’s a mysterious process, essentially private, individual—who can ever get inside someone else’s palate?” (151)


Bedford seems to think that the twentieth century Italian male has adopted the car as his symbol. “The automobile must be God’s special gift to the Italians. He even created it noisy. The Fiat, the Lancia, the Alfa are the young man’s fine feathers; at the wheel, he is a bird of paradise displaying a dance of courtship—love my car, love me. Courtship in the animal kingdom is competition. So it’s a battlefield. On narrow roads. Plenty of blind corners. And precipices. Tanks, too: double-decker buses, oil trucks triple-linked.” (42)

All of this leads to excessive noise. “In Italy when the weather is right it is joy it- self; when it fails the single wet day is dismal and dead; just so, existence in this unique country is at times Elysian and at others like a sojourn inside a power-driven mincing machine. Like other travelers, we were alternately floating along in elated bliss or reeling off the streets felled by combat fatigue . . . The noise! There are no two ways about it, either you are Italian or Italian-built and don’t hear it, or you are not and you do and it is unbearable.” (47) Clever wording here!

It is Venice that truly bewitches Bedford. Moving through the maze of streets can highly stimulate.  “Come from the sumptuous shop-lined street into a dramatic square, plunge under an archway, follow the boy with the trolley of tangerines, emerge into a triangular piazetta, cross the bridge, pass the colonnaded church, over the next bridge, up more steps, through a long street where cabinetmakers are chipping at their trade. “ (168) Can you feel the dynamic movements?

She revels in the Venetian food barges. “And for whose eyes? The shopkeepers’ and the greengrocers’ and the restaurant keepers’ who come morning after morning to buy their day’s supply—surely we have here one of the purest examples of art for art’s sake? Perhaps there is in the people of Venice still something of the human sprit that conceived of the tour de force of building a city in the sea and then, far from contenting itself with a primitive dwelling or a Spartan fortress, went on to create a place of incomparable fantasy and splendor.” (172)


While in Italy, Sybille Bedford met Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), a world-famous journalist and third wife of Ernest Hemingway. The women became fast friends for the rest of their lives, and Bedford aspired to be just a bit like Martha. “Meeting Martha Gellhorn, being addressed, being taken notice of by her, was like being exposed to a fifteen-hundred-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage. Add to this the voltage of her talk—galloping, relentlessly slangy, wry, dry, self-deprecatory, often funny . . .” (5)

She looked like an animated statue. “I saw her as the (very feminine) image of the Pierro delle Francesca Archangel in the National Gallery, the presented sword, the heroic yet angelic look, the slender foot poised on the dragon’s head: a shining defender of the just, the oppressed, the poor.” (6)

But Gellhorn was restless. “Before the week was out, Martha said that Rome had had it. (I was yet to learn about those barbarous spurts of restlessness).” (6)

And yet on the island of Capri in their hotel Gellhorn retuned to her inspirational self. “Owing to the peculiar topography of Capri back streets, the windows were near ceiling high: to get to them and undo those shutters one had to climb onto a pair of wooden stools. This we did and reached the small squares of open window-–and there were Mauresque rooftops, stars, night air.

‘Isn’t this delectable?’ Martha said. It was. Jasmine, citrus, oleander, warm stone, a hint of sea . . . We drew it in, leaning into the night, our elbows on the windowsill, our toes on the wobbly stools.

‘We must stay up here,’ Martha said. ‘We don’t have to go to bed yet in those stuffy rooms. Let’s stay up here by the window. Let’s watch the dawn come up. I want to talk.’ We did talk. Martha talked. I can still feel us as we stood balanced on those stools, heads out in the air, like two characters in a surrealist stage production.” (9)

Sybille Bedford began her writing career rather late, at 43 years old. I had my first poem published at age 37, my first book at 45. So Sybille Bedford shows us it is never too late to begin to write–provided we live to be ancient. I can’t think of an apter ending for this article on Sybille Bedford’s poetic writing by quoting from the first page of her book: “Left at dawn, driving south chanting poetry to myself in the car.” (3)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Landscapes-Travellers-Tales-Europe/dp/1582431701

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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Primitive Mood by David Moolten


By Ray Greenblatt

David Moolten’s poetic lines vibrate and sing. His poems are mostly in Blank Verse because storytelling is a strong poetic technique. He is a profound thinker: his topics are far reaching from the romance of Tristan to the Enola Gay to Rwanda; from Van Gogh to the 30’s Depression to Garcia Lorca; from Nijinsky to Mount Rushmore to Medusa.

          I found his poems about Jewish events to be the most compelling because of my similar family background. I will concentrate on six of these poems that will highlight many of the poet’s techniques: Columbarium, Yellow Star, Story, Klezmer, Soup, and Dybbuk.


          A dove is a recurring image throughout this very moving poem about children caught in the holocaust.

         “Legend says doves saved the Altneu synagogue
          In Prague in 1558, really
          Angles in disguise who hovered cooing
          Along the roof while the ghetto burned.
          You can imagine the faint creak as their wings fanned
          The flames away from Europe’s oldest shul
          The obdurate roost of tradition.”

The Jews were saved then. Earlier in ancient Rome if a Jew died, at least he was allowed entrance into a columbarium, a room where funeral urns are stored.

          But in World War II all was denied Jewry. The interned children were forced to move boxes of human ashes. “To cloud and clot the current” intensifies the gruesome task.

          There never was a way to contain such truth.
          Though as they scattered handfuls of gray silt
          To cloud and clot the current they must
          Have fluttered a little, carried in the wind
          As when a flock is released and wheels
          With calm restraint over a city’s spires and eaves
          Before returning to its niches.”

Moolten combines the doves with the ashes both of which are in flight in their own way. The “truth” will out no matter how indirect.

         The poem concludes by considering the present; the symbols of dove and columbarium continue until the end. Now living Jews will keep the memory of injustice and the possibility of hope alive.

          “Perhaps when you stand
          In the synagogue on a Friday night
          Once the crowds disperse, listening to the past
          Quietly murmured in a dead language
          You are that small opening, that repository
          Of memory, which is its own homing
          Crossing the impossible distance like a dove,”
David Moolten’s endings are conclusive and powerful.

                                                              “Yellow Star”.

          This poem is about life after surviving the prison camps. The Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear, gathers many metaphors about it.

          “He saved it like a captured butterfly,
          A medal decorating a box of yellowed black
          And white snapshots, a souvenir of his first
          Lost life, infernal and exquisite, a flared match
          His hand could tolerate just a moment . . .
          In the torah that made him
          Who he was, a noxious star, a hexagram,
          Petaled like a sunflower, a saffron dahlia.”

He rationalizes by seeing beauty in the star as a butterfly, medal, sunflower, dahlia. But it also stands for the pain of humiliation: “a flared match his hand could tolerate just a moment,” or “a noxious star.”

          The poem infers that he has lost his wife, a greatly beloved person, in the holocaust; his life was “exquisite” but became “infernal.” She was an:

          “Ordinary, singular soul, which imbued
           Whatever her fingers touched, made it
          Less horrific, less contemptible
          Like the apple had Eve grown the tree herself.”

This yellow star with its mixed associations was his memory of her.


          This poem is also about a man who has survived the holocaust. However, the horrific story he brings with him—almost too terrible for people to believe, even his own wife—becomes a character in its own right and takes over the poem.

         “A story which stalks him across the slant of light
          Of years like his own long shadow
          On the veranda, an evil twin with a past
          Who stares in their windows.”
          The “story” gains all the attributes of a person.
          “Questioned, attacked
           As a crazy, the story has traveled far,
           Has grown old just getting here. But at night,
          The story dreams in a made-up tongue
          Not unlike Yiddish, full of fustian
          And folly.”
Moolten fittingly ties words almost opposite in import together through alliteration; how can a durable cloth be silly—can language? So many Yiddish words have been adopted into English these days because of the interplay of their vigorous sound and meaning.

          The poor Story cannot stand happiness because that has not been his experience.

          “Tonight, when the man hummed
          In the kitchen with his wife, the story
          Felt hands clapped across its ears.
          Like parenthesis on a tombstone.”
What a marvelous simile; parentheses almost the last thing to be found on a tombstone
          “When they ate codfish and green bananas
          Fried and dipped in sauce, the story starved.
          Tonight, when the man caressed her cheek,
         The story staggered, struck across the face.”
The couple has moved to South America to get away from the European devastation they have suffered. Yet, the Story holds only that brutal background he is destined to reveal over and over.


           This could be just a simple poem about how wonderful Klezmer music is, especially the lead violin.

          “A violin is just wood and catgut but cunning
          In its persuasion; no instrument comes
          Closer to the human voice, such exquisite wailing,
          And when a klezmer troubadour strokes his,
          He almost sounds that good, tunes so forlorn
          They scratch at you, so jubilant they leave you
          Giddy as sparkling wine.”
          The poet’s grandfather cannot help but dance to it; my Jewish grandfather played the mandolin.
          “A staid man, a learned man would rise helpless
          Like someone jerked around on strings in a story
          By someone else. He’d nod and tap his shoe,
          A whole village in his veins, hoofing
         On their cloven feet, spinning and dropping
          Knees bent, still kicking at the scraped-out strains.”

          But Moolten knows how to add salt to the tale; the hook he knows how to often employ. The poem hinges on a Christian fiddler who got revenge on a Jew by making him dance to a frenzy.

          “Dancing in the underbrush until he’s naked
          And gasping, excoriated by roses.
          It’s a lie of course, blood libel, a fairy tale
         To tell children so they go to sleep
          In fear of witches or monsters or people
          Who get the better of them, mainly through lies.”
Some lovely lines cannot be overlooked. The poet describes his grandfather’s 78: “An old record, the past scarred and warped/And repeating itself.” And why do some people dance: “The breathless/Urge to celebrate what was endured.”


           Like the grandfather the poet’s great aunt, like my Jewish grandmother, carries the ancient past with her. She is a “squat vat,” onomatopoeia at its most vivid.

          “She treated the modern world
         As her endlessly sighed-over pogrom
          With its blaring appliances and disobeyed traditions,
          Time alone a forced exodus, a rushed immigration
          For a woman who’d spent forty years
          In the same junk cramped apartment. She too
          Was a leftover, a squat vat of garbled English
          And malapropisms, of dire stories about boots
          With a sound like cracking ribs, of towns lost
          To mist and their own queer ways.”
          It is food that makes this poem go; the stuff of life we cannot live without.
          “She chewed us out for squandering
          The wondrous carcass that one should gnaw on
          Or scavenge for parts with which to engineer
          The concoction she soon had stirring in a pot,
          Gizzards and grease, a dab of horseradish
          And kosher salt, her recipe for polite excuses
          And pruning faces at what we feared more
          Than cow’s tongue or chopped liver.”

“What else but bones did she have to hold onto?”


           If we take this storytelling as truth, the poet’s father, from a Polish Jewish background, married a Puerto Rican Catholic woman. The grandparents thought her a dybbuk, an evil spirit.
          “My grandparents performed
          The exorcism, laying out the tea service
          And the kugel, incredulous, confronting
          My father to save him, though gently, only
          In the spirit of polite conversation
         Questioning what possessed him
          To bring home a Puerto Rican shiksa.”
          However, the young couple’s love was deep and unswerving.
          “She hung on against all judgment. Her soul
          Cohabited with his even as she devoutly
          Wouldn’t let his hands near, her body already
          His shtetl house, his shack in a field.
          How soon forgotten the superstition of love,
          That faith in one another strong as a God
          Not yet jilted by enlightenment.”
           The grandparents, still skeptical, thought the woman was only doing supernatural things to bind him to her.
             “She said
              What he said, bosomed his words in her accent,
              A delusion of magic, of something charmed, conspired
              From nothing, shawl of tomb dust, blown ash,
              Burnt offering of the synagogue the world
              Might not dissipate, if they only believed enough.”
The older people are still wrapped in those ancient beliefs they carried from the Old World into the Modern Age. Clashes were inevitable; my Christian mother was not accepted into the Jewish side of the family for ten years.
          It is so difficult for a writer to create fresh language; poetry is the major medium through which to do so. These six poems alone out of thirty that comprise the book Primitive Mood suggest so many techniques that the poet uses in his work: of course alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, metaphor and simile but also recurring symbolism, historical reference, multiple story lines as well as sudden swerves in narrative . . . the techniques are many and so skillfully employed. Most of all I sense a deep caring for humanity in so many of these poems. It doesn’t surprise me that David Moolten is a Medical Director of the American Red Cross in Philadelphia.
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).

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata


By Ray Greenblatt

Snow Country was written by Yasunari Kawabata in 1934 and translated into English in 1957. It is a story about a passionate affair between a wealthy young man and a geisha in training set in northern Japan. Komako the geisha cannot control her honest feelings, while Shimamura—despite his wife and children in Tokyo—cannot frankly face his deep feelings for her.


A unique approach by Kawabata in telling this tale is structuring it like a scroll painting. Also, whatever the characters do is emphasized by the use of aspects from Nature. Needless to say, much poetic imagery arises. The author employs short sentences, even fragments, sometimes in short paragraphs to simulate brush strokes; the lack of chapters suggests an unrolling of the scroll itself. Here are some examples:

“ Children of the village were skiing in the fields.

As he started into the part of the village that fronted on the highway, he heard a sound as of quiet rain.

Little icicles glistened daintily along the eaves.” (49)

In many of these passages Shimamura is walking through a landscape of fields, forests and mountains, often covered by feet of snow in winter.

“In front of the cedar grove opposite, dragonflies were bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.

The river seemed to flow from the tips of the cedar branches.

He thought he would never tire of looking at the autumn flowers that spread a blanket of silver up the side of the mountain.” (90)

This was one activity when he was alone where Shimamura could emotionally lose himself in the beauty of nature. Music, as we shall observe, moved him also in that way.

“ Slender autumn grasses grew along the top of an earthen wall. The pale-yellow plumes were at their most graceful, and below each plume narrow leaves spread out in a delicate fountain.

Yoko knelt on a straw mat beside the road, flailing at beans spread out before her in the sunlight.

The beans jumped from their dry pods like little drops of light.” (109)

You can imagine these various parts of the scene placed in a scroll painting that depicts people embedded deeply in Nature.


Komako dominates the novel. She is a very talented young woman: she can sing, dance and play the samisen. Besides being beautiful, she shows intelligence in knowing the history of Japanese theater. Another attribute is her complete honesty and lack of pretension.

Kawabata describes her in so many poetic ways: “In the moonlight the fine geisha like skin took on the luster of a sea shell.” (101) Her hair “glowed like some heavy black stone.” (39) What Shimamura liked best about her physically: “She must be clean to the hollows under her toes.” (18)

Sometimes a Japanese image jars us: “Her skin, suggesting the newness of a freshly peeled onion.” (73) “The bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.” (32) And when she is distressed, “Komako’s face floated up like an old mask.” (168)

She is obviously in love with this man: “The naked heart of a woman calling out to her man.” (34) “Soft and yielding as if she were offering herself up.” (38) “She curled up like a little child, and grabbed at the neck of his kimono with her two fists.” (64) “Then, like a glow that breaks into a flame, the smile became a laugh.” (114) Shimamura saw her in a mystical way: “He was taken with the fancy that the light must pass through Komako.” (54)

However, there is tension between them: “She seemed on edge, like some restless night beast that fears the approach of the morning.” (47) “It was as though a strange, magical wildness had taken her.” (47) She knew how much she was risking: “She folded her arms like a bar over the breast he was asking for.” (35) “She bit at her sleeve as if to fight back the happiness.” (37) “She seemed ill at ease, like a young woman, still childless, who takes a baby up in her arms.” (146)

She gives so much more to him than he can reciprocate:” Like a warm light, Komako poured in on the empty wretchedness that had assailed Shimamura.” (62) “A childlike feeling of security came to him from the warmth of her body.” (146)

“The woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.”


His problem is that he cannot see her as a real person, only a singular image. “But, drawn to her at that moment, he felt a quiet like the voice of the rain flow over him.” (41) “This sighing for the human skin took on a dreamy quality like the spell of the mountains.” (112) He has made her a part of nature; and he loves the music that she makes.

Komako plays for him: “A chill swept over Shimamura. The goose flesh seemed to rise even to his cheeks. The first notes opened a transparent emptiness deep in his entrails, and in the emptiness the sound of the samisen reverberated. He was startled—or, better, he fell back as under a well-aimed blow. Taken with a feeling almost of reverence, washed by waves of remorse, defenseless, quite deprived of strength.” (71)


Kawabata’s use of Nature can emphasize the most minute aspects such as a  moth: “The wings fluttered like thin pieces of paper in the autumn wind.” (90) Or grasses: “The kaya spread out silver in the sun, like the autumn sunlight itself pouring over the face of the mountain.” (93)

But in this northern region snow dominates: “The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth.” (44)  “From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies.” (149) “Little needles of frost like isinglass among the withered chrysanthemums.” (76)

Trees play a large part in the scenery since vast forests still abound here. Branches ” looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god.” (30)”They came out of the cedar grove, where the quiet seemed to fall in chilly drops.” (119) “The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon.” (53)

You can see how the author ties Nature into the life of the people: “The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto teakettle, skillfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines.” (155) “The lines of the mountain and of the roofs on its slopes were floating out of the rain.” (38) “The low, dark houses along the street seemed to be breathing as they floated up in the light of the fire.” (170)

And then his view can become cosmic: “The stillness seemed to be singing quietly.” (30) “The light . . . flickered on and off as if crackling in the cold.” (45) “The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice.” (77) “The Milky Way came down just over there, to wrap the night earth in its naked embrace.” (165) A scroll painting would exist in a void if it did not have people and Nature combined.

You can find the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/snow-country-yasunari-kawabata/1002419138

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).

The Flash Fiction of Lydia Davis


By Ray Greenblatt

Lydia Davis is a successful novelist and highly praised translator of Proust and Flaubert among others. She has also written poetry, but I find as well poetics in her short short stories, many of which can be read as poems in themselves. To show these traits, I will concentrate on her more recent collection of stories Varieties of Disturbance (2007), which was nominated for a National Book Award.


The building blocks of most any poem are imagery and rhythm. Let us observe and listen to ORDER about a house aging:  “The doors will not shut; the floorboards separate and the clay squeezes up between them; the plaster walls dampen with rain; bats fly down from the attic and invade her wardrobe; mice make nests in her shoes.” The house certainly comes alive in its decrepitude.

The piece HEAD, HEART is even shaped like a poem:

“Heart weeps.

Head tries to help heart.

Head tells heart how it is, again:

You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But

even the earth will go, someday.

Heart feels better, then.”

Poetic devices are strong like personification and the repeated “h” sound to tie words together.

In HAND we see our hands in a different light: “Beyond the hand holding this book that I’m reading, I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus.” Again, not only is the image strong but also the rhythm.

Davis in few words brings out human character as in FOR SIXTY CENTS. Davis looks at the happenings inside and outside a cafe: “The company of the people inside, who are laughing and turning endless variations on one rather cruel joke at the expense of a little balding red-headed woman sitting at the counter and dangling her crossed feet from the stool, who tries to reach out with her short, white arm and slap the face of the man standing nearest to her.” Notice the “ands” and participles that continue the rhythm of the extended thought. ”Turning endless variations” is a marvelous phrase.

This man gains dimension in only a few poetic words in A DIFFERENT MAN: “At night she hardly recognized him: a pale man, a gray man, a man in a brown sweater, a man with dark eyes who kept his distance from her, who took offense, who was not reasonable. In the morning, he was a rosy king, gleaming, smooth-cheeked and smooth-chinned, fragrant with perfumed talc, coming out into the sunlight with a wide embrace in his royal red plaid robe.” Davis does not hesitate to repeat words for emphasis—“man,” “who,” “smooth.”


It is often difficult to separate Davis’ writing techniques because they mesh so fluidly. THE SENSES uses imagery, but the underlying philosophy is so true: “Many people treat their five senses with a certain respect and consideration. They take their eyes to a museum, their nose to a flower show, their hands to a fabric store for the velvet and silk; they surprise their ears with a concert, and excite their mouth with a restaurant meal.”

From GOOD TIMES: “The good times might multiply perhaps as rapidly as the square of the square, or perhaps more rapidly, like mice, or like mushrooms springing up overnight from the scattered spore of a parent mushroom.” Images like squares, mice, mushrooms are used, but is the intellectual thought more dominant?

Here is another short short story THE BUSY ROAD in toto:

“I am so used to it by now

that when the traffic falls silent,

I think a storm is coming.”

Davis often uses first person to give immediacy to the thought.

Here is one more complete story SUDDENLY AFRAID stressing emotions:

“because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa

wam owm owamn womn”

This lacks capitalization as well as a final punctuation mark; truly modern poem techniques.

ABSENTMINDED also deals with the realities of life: “You think about how living with a cat and the demands of a cat make you think about simple things, like a cat’s need to come indoors, and how good that is. You think about this and you are too busy thinking about this to let the cat in.”

Ironies are built into so many of Davis’ stories as in THE FELLOWSHIP. Here someone is applying for a position: “When you have truly learned what it is to be patient, so much so that you forget all about the fellowship, then you will receive the fellowship.”


We must not overlook Lydia Davis’ sense of humor. It often keeps her more brutally honest topics afloat. Her sense of comedy runs throughout these stories, so we will examine just a few. Davis talks about her supposed 94-year-old mother in A MAN FROM HER PAST: “Though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.”

Here is the entire COLLABORATION WITH FLY:

“I put that word on the page,

but he added the apostrophe.”

Understatement works well where little suggests more.

One more complete story INSOMNIA:

“My body aches so—

It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.”

This almost sounds like a one-liner from an old comic, like Milton Berle or Bob  Hope. However, the title suggests something more serious.

And finally the short story CHILD CARE. The father is in a bad mood and so is the baby. The father knows it is his turn to take care of the child and that he must do something. Davis renders a storyline and characterization as well as irony and humanity. The last line is: “Together they watch The Odd Couple.”

Lydia Davis has re-fashioned a relatively new literary genre, Flash Fiction, putting her own unique stamp on it. Yes, fiction tells a story, but by employing poetic techniques it can be an even more supple and evocative form of literature, no matter how brief.

You can buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Varieties-Disturbance-Stories-Lydia-Davis/dp/0374281734

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).



Maigret’s Memoirs by George Simenon


By Ray Greenblatt

I have written reviews before of crime novels: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon with detective Sam Spade; Ross McDonald’s Sleeping Beauty with detective Lew Archer; Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams featuring Italian Commissario Guido Brunetti.

However, I have never encountered such a unique police procedural like Georges Simenon’s Maigret’s Memoirs, since Simenon himself enters the book as the obvious author as well as a character in his own right. Let us observe aspects of Simenon’s technique when interacting with the French inspector he created, Jules Maigret.


When Simenon first meets Maigret, the author immediately displays his own strong opinions: “’I find it hard to construct a character unless I know how he behaves at every moment of the day. For instance, I won’t be able to talk about millionaires until I have seen one in his dressing gown eating his boiled egg for breakfast.’” (15) Simenon is concerned with truth: ‘Truth never seems true. I don’t mean only in literature or in painting. I won’t remind you, either, of those Doric columns whose lines seem to us strictly perpendicular and which only give that impression because they are slightly curved. If they were straight, they’d look as if they were swelling, don’t you see?’”(24)

He explained to Maigret what type of people he was interested in: “’The others. Those who are made like you and me, and who end up one fine day by killing somebody without being prepared to.’” (11) Maigret was baffled by Simenon’s style: ”He still took no notes. He asked few questions. He tended, rather, to make assertions. He explained to me subsequently—and it doesn’t follow that I believed him—that a man’s reactions to an assertion are more revealing than his replies to a specific question.” (16)

“My guest looked at my pipes, my ashtrays, the black marble clock on the mantelpiece, the little enamel basin behind the door, and the towel that always smells like a wet dog.” (9) Maigret did not like him at first: “The fact is that I retained a wholly uninteresting memory of him, as uninteresting as the weather itself that day. If I made no effort to cut short his visit, it was primarily because of the Chief’s recommendation, and also because I had nothing important to do and it was, after all, a way of killing time.” (10)


In the many novels that Simenon writes about Maigret, he wants to investigate in a realistic manner the variety of crimes committed.

As a policeman, Maigret recognizes kleptomaniacs: “We had to deal with a regular clientele. Whether at Bon Marche, the Louvre, or Printemps, certain familiar figures were always to be found, usually middle-aged women, who stowed away incredible quantities of various goods in a pocket concealed between their dress and their petticoat.” (81) Aliens: “And then, in their underclothes or stark naked, men, women, and children would scurry about in the dim light, in the stench, unfastening unbelievable trunks to hunt for a passport hidden under their belongings.” (95)

He got to know prostitutes: “Ten thousand go that way, on an average, every year, ten thousand who leave their villages and start off in domestic service in Paris, and who, before a few months or a few weeks are out, will have taken the plunge.” (101) Thieves: “There will shortly be a jewel robbery because a certain specialist who has seldom been caught red-handed has begun to run short of cash. He has left his hotel on Boulevard Haussmann for a more modest one in the Republique district. He has not paid his bill for two weeks.” (101)

Gangs were much the same in the Thirties as today: “We know the rival gangs, their interests and the points at issue between them. We also know their personal hatreds and resentments.” (102) Murder was ghastly but perfunctory: “On the ground, in the sawdust and spittle, a man lies crumpled up, one hand on his breast, from which a trickle of blood is flowing to form a pool.” (120)

Even runaway girls are predictable as Maigret confronts a bereft father: “He has brought several photographs, convinced that they’ll be useful in our search. If she’s pretty, so much the worse, for the number of chances is lessened. If she’s ugly, on the contrary, she’ll probably come back in a few days, or a few weeks.” (119)

“We possess more or less exact statistics for crimes of every sort.

“Except one.


“And any rough guess would inevitably err in one direction or the other.

“Every three months, or six months, in Paris or in the provinces, particularly in the provinces, in some very small town or in the country, a doctor happens by chance to examine a dead body more closely than usual and is puzzled by certain symptoms.” (105)

“We have seen too much, as you can well imagine, to be shocked any longer by certain forms of wretchedness and depravity. So the latter does not arouse our indignation, nor does the former cause us the distress felt by the inexperienced spectator.” (78) “With all due deference to novelists, a policeman is, above all, a professional. He is an official.

“He’s not engaged in a guessing game, or in getting excited over a more or less thrilling chase.

“When he spends a night in the rain, watching a door that doesn’t open or a lighted window, when he patiently scans the sidewalk cafes on the boulevards for a familiar face, or prepares to spend hours questioning a pale, terrified individual, he is doing his daily job.” (124)


Georges Simenon admits to Maigret that a novelist has to bend certain elements to appeal to a reading audience. Maigret writes: “The bookcase is full of Simenon’s books, which I have patiently stuffed with blue pencil marks, and I was looking forward to correcting all the mistakes he’s made, either because he didn’t  know, or else for the sake of being picturesque, often because he didn’t have the courage to call me up to verify some detail.” (129) Simenon responds: “’Maigret old fellow, you’ll have to be kind enough to do the job yourself, because I’ve never had the courage to reread my own books.’” (129)

Maigret finds some changes serious, especially if it concerns his wife Louise. “My nephew heads the list, and I understand why. He’s her sister’s son. I got him into the police a long time ago, at an age when he was fired with enthusiasm for it.

“Simenon mentioned him, then the boy suddenly disappeared from his books, and I can guess Louise’s scruples. She’s been thinking that for some readers this may have appeared suspicious, as though her nephew had committed some stupidity.

“The truth is quite simple. He had not done as brilliantly as he had hoped. And he did not put up much resistance to his father-in-law’s pressing offers of a place in his soap factory in Marseilles.” (132)

Some changes the reader might find comical and very French. “Simenon has mentioned a certain bottle we always had in our sideboard on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir—we still have it there—and of which my sister-in-law, according to a hallowed tradition, brings us a supply from Alsace after her annual visit there.

“He has thoughtlessly described it as sloe gin.

“Actually, it is raspberry brandy. And for an Alsatian, apparently, this makes a tremendous difference.” (133)

Despite differences Maigret and Simenon became friends. Maigret recounts: “He quickly became a friend of the family, and on the few occasions when we have traveled in summer vacations it has almost always been to visit him in his various homes while he was still living in France.” (36) “Simenon was just off for Africa, where he was to spend nearly a year.

“’Why don’t you move into my apartment on Place des Vosges until the job’s finished?’” (131)

Yet, Maigret wrestled with the ultimate irony: “It’s a strange sensation to watch on the screen, coming and going, speaking and blowing his nose, a fellow who pretends to be you, who borrows certain of your habits, utters sentences that you have uttered, in circumstances that you have known, through which you have lived, in settings that have sometimes been reconstructed with meticulous care.” (31)


Louise Maigret has been the linchpin between Maigret and Simenon. “Actually, she’s delighted with Simenon’s picture of her, the picture of a good housewife, always busy cooking and polishing, always fussing over her great baby of a husband. It was even because of that picture, I suspect, that she was the first to become his staunch friend, to the extent of considering him one of the family and of defending him when I haven’t dreamed of attacking him.” (64)

“’On the whole,’ Louise said, ‘I don’t see all that much difference.’

“I always look rather anxiously at her when she’s reading what I have just been writing, trying to forestall her criticisms.

‘Difference between what?’

‘Between what you say about yourself and what Simenon says about you.’” (128)

Maigret comments: “I have felt a certain embarrassment on seeing attributed to me in his books certain smiles, certain attitudes I have never assumed, which would have made my colleagues shrug their shoulders.

‘The person who has understood best is my wife. And yet, when I get back from work, she never questions me with any curiosity, whatever the case I’m concerned with.”(98)

She maintains the relationship with the entire Simenon family through the years. “’Tell the Simenons I’m knitting socks for . . .’

‘But I’m not writing them a letter, you know!’

‘Of course. Make a note of it for when you do write. They’re not to forget the photo they promised us.’

“She added:

‘Can I set the table?’

“That’s all.” (134)

As a writer, I wonder about volume after volume that so many fantasy writers, especially, put out year after year. I work very hard to hammer out a handful of poems for a book every few years. Then I discovered Georges Simenon who published 11 novels in 1931alone! And continued to write 100 Maigret books as well as 250 other realistic novels. He set the level of productivity so high; critics agree that the quality remained high also.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Maigrets-Memoirs-Inspector-Maigret-Georges/dp/0241240174

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).



Venice by Jan Morris


By Ray Greenblatt

I have read a number of books about Venice.  Joseph Links’ Venice for Pleasure (1966) describes the facades of the city. E.V. Lucas’ A Wanderer in Venice (1914) analyzes the paintings there. Wm. Dean Howells’ Venetian Life (1866) comes close to depicting the people, but his sentences are convoluted.

However, Jan Morris’ Venice (1974) brings the city, people, essence vividly to life. And her style is quite poetic. As a matter of fact, I can make a case that one typical chapter “The Seasons” from that book can prove my point to the fullest extent.


With a unique simile Morris begins her discussion of spring: “Spring floods into Venice like a tingling elixir or a dry martini.”  The Venetians have lasted through the winter: “There is a sense of discomforts survived and prosperity to come.”  Although it is a city made mostly of stone, nature potentially abounds: “Streaks and flecks of green appear in the city at last, softening its urban stoniness.” “The very pavements of the city seem to be cherished and revived.”

“The ponderous mansions are burgeoning with flower-pots, canary-cages and varnish.” Morris loves to use a series to give life to an object: “Bits and pieces of gondolas hang fresh-painted on it walls, totems of May—shiny seats, velvet cushions, a brass sea-horse dangling from a window-knob, a black walnut panel propped against a door.”

The economy of Venice truly comes to life with foreign visitors; Morris animates the concept with personification. “Now the massive tourist machine of Venice greases its cogs and paints its upper works for the summer.” Massive liners begin to arrive. “The first cruise ship of the year anchors tantalizingly in the lagoon, bright with awnings, with a scent of the Aegean to her funnel vapors, or a thin flicker of rust from the Hudson river.”

“The first tourists parade the Piazza, wearing tarbooshes, Maltese slippers, Spanish skirts or burnooses, according to their earlier itinerary.” “If you want to book a room the receptionist no longer greets you with cheerful informality, as he did a month ago, but cocks a sophisticated seasonal eyebrow, turns a supercilious page.” Later on we shall see how different winter is from spring.

Morris can write pure Romantic prose, an eyelash away from poetry. “And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awake to a Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.”


It is now summer when tourists dominate. “With a thud, a babble of voices and a crinkle of travelers’ cheques, summer falls upon Venice.” Morris’ poetics about Venice can be comical. “Her chief function in the world is to be a kind of residential museum, a Tintoretto holiday camp.” “The waiters of the Piazza brush up their brusquest manners.” Morris can be as acerbic as the topic she is describing.

The center of town can be the most vicious, but “as you custom farther from that avaricious fulcrum,” things calm down. “Souvenir stalls spring up like garish fungi.” Morris sometimes employs actual speech: “The cry of ‘Gondola! Gondola!’ follows you like an improper suggestion down the quays.” Bits of history are alluded to: “Enough people peer into the horrors of the dungeons each morning to make Casanova’s head reel.”

But it’s the concept of tourism in all its manifestations that takes her most drubbing:  “The guides and guide books presuppose an unflagging whip-lash energy in their victims.”  “Venice is one great itchy palm.” A photographer is always around to take your picture: “His old tripod camera (which stays in the Piazza all night, like a shrouded owl on a pedestal).”

“Thus through the loose gilded mesh of the city there passes a cross-section of the world’s spawn.” She does not mean that last word in a derogatory way; she is truly fond of tourists for their variety and desire to see a fabulous city. She is excellent in defining national types:

“Germans appear to predominate, for they move in regiments, talk rather loud, push rather hard, and seem to have no particular faces, merging heavily into a jolly sunburnt Volkswagen mass.”

“The Indians are marvelously fragile, exquisite and aloof.”

“The Australians are unmistakable.” (She doesn’t say how!)

“The Canadians are indistinguishable.”

“The Russians no longer come.”

“The Chinese have not arrived yet.” (Remember this is nearly fifty years ago.)

“Here a jolly soul from Iowa, every ounce a tourist, from the enameled ear-rings dangling beneath her bluish hair to the tips of her pink- varnished toe-nails.”

“Many a poor holiday-maker staggers home at the end of a day’s pleasure as though she has been grinding corn on a treadmill.”

With so much beauty around, Morris wonders if tourists can absorb it all. “Seen against so superb a setting, art and nature exquisitely blended, Man can seem  pretty vile.”  A mysticism hovers over the city. “The shadowy Merceria, with its glittering shops, falls away out of the sunshine like a corridor of treasure.” Venice is personified as a grande dame. “She lives for flattery, and peers back at her admirers with an opal but heavy-lidded eye.”


Autumn does not exist in Venice, according to Jan Morris. When the tourists leave after the summer, the Serenissima, a personal word for Venice meaning ‘serene,’ turns inward to count profits and take stock: “To see the Serenissima without her make-up on, try getting up at three in the morning one foggy February day, and watch the old lady reluctantly awakening.”

Morris would be one of the few persons to get up at that awful hour, but she wants to experience the essence of all Venetian moods: “You are deposited plumb in the middle of an almost disused nowhere, so deathly silent is the place, so gagged and pinioned with mist.” “The fog marches in frowardly from the sea.”

“So the day comes up again, pinkish and subdued, a Turnerish, vaporous, moist, sea-bird’s day.” He often creates painterly scenes: the preciseness of Canaletto or the energetic massing of Turner. “In winter Venice wakes up at her edges.” “The fringes of the city curl, and color, and bust into wintry flame.”

In the stillness of winter one can now see parts of Venice like one wanders in an antique shop: “Lamplight shines sullenly among the alleys, and sometimes picks out, with a gleam of wet masonry, half a sculptured saintly nose, the tail end of a carved peacock, a crown, a crest, or a crab in a medallion.” Alliteration is strong. “A smell of eels, apples, onions and cheap tobacco”–listen to the sounds that link those items.

Other than sights and smells and nearly tastes, Morris hears things as a poet who scans her lines: “Allowing the echo of your steps to retreat around a corner.” Do you hear your own steps or those of someone else? Certainly you can also feel the cold and dampness emanating from Morris’ poetic prose.

“So Venice sits huddled over her inadequate stoves, or hugger-mugger in her cafes.” “The great hotels are closed or moribund, their echoing foyers haunted only by a handful of disillusioned millionaires and leathery ladies of intrigue.” “The myriad cafes are raising their shutters, and their bottles, coffee-machines and sugar containers stand sleepily shining in the mist.”

“Inside Santa Maria Zobenigo the twisted baroque angels of the altar look down compassionately upon an early Mass.” “There may even scurry by, wrapped in worn wool, with a scarf over her nose and mouth and a string shopping-bag in her hand, some solitary poor conscientious soul off to clean a heartless office or buy the first cabbage of the dawn. Marvelous fresh phrases: “heartless office” and  “first cabbage of the dawn.”

“The nights are vaporous and tomb-like.”  Yet, at this time of year the most activity occurs by the lagoon: “A chatter and clutter of life beside the wharves.” “Two hulking cement barges labor up the Grand Canal, their four oarsmen shouting to one another, grand, slow and heavy in the gloom, like ancient galleys.”

“Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a duchess in pink ruffles.” And yet, this could be the presentiment of Christmas:  “Venice feels less like a grand duchess than a buxom landlady.’” Every passing barge seems full of bottles, or parcels, or little firs from the mountains, and every child in Venice seems to trail a red balloon.”

Relatives always abound at Christmas: “The interminable reminiscences of immaculate uncles.” Listen to Morris’ choice of “i” which ties words together. And church is integral: “Permutations of clergy, gold and crimson and misty with incense.” And we conclude with this ‘epic’ sentence: “The favorite melody of the day is passed from shop to shop, from square to square, down one dark alley to another, like a cheerful watchword in the night.” Morris’ philosophy of the city is woven smoothly into her descriptions.

Jan Morris knew Venice very well. She lived there with her growing family, returned many times, and learned a rough Italian. Although she never wrote a book of poetry, her prose was rich with poetic technique. She did the same in her books ranging from Trieste to Oxford; she captured the mystique whatever she described.  A mystery surrounded her as well for she transitioned from a man to a woman halfway through her life; she died this year at age 94, living a truly complete life.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Venice-Jan-Morris/dp/0571168973

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).

The Short Stories of Tolstaya


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.


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)


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).



Lines of Defense by Stephen Dunn

By Ray Greenblatt 
         This is a very mature and yet somber book of poetry often with gleams of warmth and humor. This is Mr. Dunn’s most recent collection published in 2014. The poet employs the persona of an older man; we can never be sure what is the mask or the poet himself behind it. The man has worked through many obstacles and suffering, but over and over he manages to find life-giving resolution.
          I like his technique of juxtaposing two opposed views. He explores the age-old question, in this poem, of THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG:
          The chicken for dinner with earnest friends, the egg for breakfast
          with folks who like to play with their food before they eat it.
          The chicken fills you up so you can’t move,
          The egg cracks open, and choices begin— . .
           Yet sometimes the chicken is both necessary and sufficient 
          and sometimes your earnest friends instruct you
          about how to live with the beak and the gizzard.
          The egg allows itself to be hard-boiled or deviled.
          It doesn’t worry. To live right isn’t an issue.
Here you observe the obvious light humor but the philosophical observations are thought provoking. 
In similar fashion he compares a poet to a priest in IF THE POET to achieve even more fascinating possibilities:
          Would a good priest find the right words,
          as the good poet would, in among the many words
          passed down for centuries
          on what to think, what to believe? . . .
          That is, if the poet mistrusts words, as he should,
          makes them pass hard tests . . .
          wouldn’t he,
          although self-ordained, be more reliable?
          But what if the villagers believed
          they were saved by a prayer the priest said
          one Sunday among the ruins? And all the poet
          could do was elegize the ruins? . . .
          things got worse
          and prayers proved useless,  and poems
          merely decorated the debris where a house
          once was? Would it be time for the priest
          to admit he’d known but one book? For the poet
          to say he’d read many, and look, it hasn’t helped?
The questioner in the poem ultimately decides that in this world of unclear answers just trying might be enough.
        Another striking technique Dunn uses to further his philosophic probing is to focus on a strong woman. In BETTY FRIEDAN’S FINAL ADVICE this historical feminist gives her opinions:
          Don’t let
          a ship’s captain marry you
          unless he’s adept at changing course . . .
          Say the words you must say,
          but be sure to violate all the stupid stuff.
          After the ceremony, change into that funky
          outfit that drives only the right men crazy.
          Hope your husband will be one of them . . .
          Tell him also you have nothing
          against God, but remember only an insecure God,
          like an insecure man, insists that a woman
          must obey . . .
          Your job now
          is to define what heavenly is, and heaven itself,
          and find ways to let him in.
          In the last poem a strong woman gives her opinions about relationships. However, in FOR MY SON a father warns his son about a woman strong in the wrong direction:
          To marry Alison, Robert, will be to haul water
          from a deep well for the rest of your life.
          It will be to worry about beauty
          instead of enjoying it . . .
          You love her soul, you say,
          but Robert, a soul is unmapped territory . . .
          Well, you’ll have to learn a new language,
          hers, which she expects to be understood
          before it’s spoken . . .
          I just try to make things that last.
          I’ve  made you up; I’ve given you a chance.
          Dunn revels in ways to use the Word IN LOVE, HIS GRAMMAR GREW:
          In love, his grammar grew
          rich with intensifiers, and adverbs fell
          madly from the sky like pheasants
          for the peasantry . . .
          until roused my moonlight
          and the beautiful fraternal twins
          ‘and’ and ‘but.’ Oh that was when
          he knew he couldn’t resist
          a conjunction of any kind.
          For love
          he wanted to break all the rules,
          light a candle behind a sentence
          named Sheila, always running on
          and wishing to be stopped
          by the hard button of a period.
          We have seen the shadows and the light in Dunn’s poetics. I’ll close with a very moving ending to his poem A COLDNESS:


          That powdered stranger
          lying there, that nobody I knew?
          I was far away, parsing grief,
          turning it over in my mind.
          He was simply gone, a dead thing,
          anybody’s sack of bones.
          Only when his son spoke,
          measuring with precise, slow-
          to-arrive language the father
          he had lost, did something in me move.
          There was my brother restored,
          abstracted, made of words now.
          I knew nothing about Stephen Dunn. Perhaps years ago I read some of his poems but had completely forgotten them. I had heard that he taught in New Jersey. That was all: perhaps a good way to come at a work of art for a fresh impression. There are many poets out there. Poetry is a thriving sub-culture like antique collecting, gardening, cuisine, etc. Poetry is used in advertising and song lyrics. Our challenge is to find the best among the many. I’ll choose Stephen Dunn.
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).