Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

 photo 5704a15b-504c-4099-bf0e-a9e1964b8bf2_zpse79a47e1.jpg Under the Wide and Starry Sky
by Nancy Horan
Ballantine Books, 2013
$26.00 (Hardcover)

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

In the trend of novels about famous authors’ wives, Nancy Horan transitions from Frank Lloyd Wright and his three wives in Loving Frank to Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne in Under the Wide and Starry Sky. The story follows both Louis and his wife Fanny during their spotty affair, eventual marriage, and tense life together. Hers is a story about fitting in, whereas his is about finding a place in her life and achieving his literary dreams. Oddly, her inclusion in the literary wives club of history is so vague that people may not realize she also had several mental breakdowns—Zelda Fitzgerald outshines Fanny in that regard.

Key to the novel is Louis’s literary life. Writing about a writer always enables an author to comment about craft. Horan drops enough opinions that it’s hard to distinguish which belong to the characters and which are hers. She comments through Louis about the writing process by stating, “His work wasn’t as backbreaking as prying gargantuan rocks out of the earth, but in fairness to himself, he’d pushed his body hard, writing that heap of words.” Later, when Louis is tutoring a young neighbor girl in the craft of writing, he says:

But if you want to be a writer, you are going to have to put yourself in the shoes of people who are not so good. Everybody has faults. Some people have a lot of them. Yet no one sees himself as a monster. You need to try being him—or her—to know how she feels and thinks.

And again, after Louis meets Henry James, James “insisted a novel should convey a sense of reality so convincingly vivid that one couldn’t help by say, ‘Yes!’ when reading it.” Horan seems to take these statements to heart with her portrayal of Louis and Fanny, to the point that details and events become so intimate that they are almost uncomfortable to read. The most notable being Fanny’s madness—when one of her children dies and when she becomes violent later in life—and Louis’s various bouts of mortal illness—Fanny caring for his eyes, getting sick on a train to San Francisco, coughing blood when he suffers from upper respiratory infections—in addition to their overall lifestyle while they live on a Samoan island.

Readers first meet Fanny and learn of her situation: an estranged wife who takes her three children to Europe to pursue a painting education. While there, she meets Louis and all but scorns his youthful but sickly exuberance. As the novel progresses, perspectives shift between the two main characters—all to understand how unlikely their pairing is and the toils of a romance and career that takes them around the world. The merits of shifting perspective offer readers a window into both characters’ minds and emotions, which may be Horan’s attempts to show the entire situation and give antagonists full personalities with redeeming aspects.

However, such close awareness to both characters removes any mystery. Louis’s sections flow better and hold readers’ attentions more. If Horan maintained his view point throughout the novel, then the story would be more compelling. Mysteries would remain mysteries and unfold realistically instead of being explained beforehand—such as when Fanny returns to the United States without providing Louis with a proper reason. Removing these details would push readers to desire resolution. Instead, they already know everything, and the interim is a slow-paced wait until the situation is made “right” again. It is almost as if Fanny’s sections are just for readers’ benefits, but Louis’s portions are where the real story is.

But the story isn’t just about Fanny and Louis’s interactions. More often than not, readers will forget that Fanny is ten years Louis’s senior, until the characters insert reminders. It is always an issue when society becomes involved, but disappears when Fanny and Louis are alone. Fanny’s age, darker complexion, and American roots are stigmas, and she is ostracized from Louis’s group of friends because of them. Horan writes:

After Louis went upstairs, Fanny stood alone in the kitchen, anger rising inside her…. No one would admit it, but Fanny was outside the circle. What was she to them? A nurse.  A housewife…. Maybe, in reality, that’s all she was. Some days it felt that way; there was so much hard labor in taking care of Louis and the household. She had been trying to write a story of her own for months, but every time she got a head of steam going, some duty waylayed her. She had gladly signed on to this life when she’d married him, but if Louis were well, she suspected there still would be little encouragement from him for her writing ambitions.

Fanny seems to be reminded of her strangeness only when someone else treats her differently. She is acutely aware of her situation and need for acceptance, but Horan presents age, ethnicity, and social stature as interesting taboos. It isn’t a problem unless someone else makes it one, which is true of most modern issues. This conflict resurfaces later in life when her madness all but consumes her. Louis, after reading her diary, even wonders: “He had learned late in the game that Fanny was the kind of woman who needed building up. But then everybody needed praise. The question was: Can a person go mad from want of it?” This query, due to other elements of Fanny and Louis’s lives, is never overtly answered by Horan; she leaves that judgment to her readers.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky is about the reality of relationships—the stuttering but brightly romantic beginnings that condense into a mellow familiarity and dependency. Illness and disillusionment shadow every major character throughout the novel, and readers only glimpse flashes of contentment and stability. If readers expect a novel filled with adventurous romance—the likes of which would come from Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—they will be disappointed. But those who are inclined to voyeurism will appreciate the nuances of love through the hardships of daily life.


 

Professional Development

by Publius

As a former acid freak, I’m trained to handle extraneous bullshit. My dead pet schnauzer humping my leg while he lights the fuse to a dynamite stick he’s crammed up his ass for example. Stuff like that. But today? No one is trained for today.

We just went to an all day professional development. The whole district gathered in an indoor sports auditorium downtown. Next to me is a buddy from another school, a former ballet dancer. We promise to periodically stab each other for stimulation.

The day begins with motivational speakers. Actual motivational speakers. Here’s how I made my first million in real estate — speakers like that. What this has to do with teaching in an inner city school, who knows? By the end of it, however, about half the audience is motivated to leave teaching.

Just before lunch comes this guy, a local TV anchor. I’m not sure what his theme is — I’m well known locally because I learned to have a facile smile while I read a teleprompter? Anyway, he actually sets up a TV link in order to interview his former 8th grade teacher, who is now retired and in a home somewhere that’s not here. She comes across as lovely Miss Sally from Sweet Bird Of Youth Middle School. The problem is that she hasn’t been retired for so long that there aren’t plenty of folks here who remember her.

I ask the guy in front of me, “So what was she really like?”

He says, “She had a reputation for being the meanest teacher in the metropolitan school district.”

“Why?”

“Because she actually was the meanest woman in the metropolitan school district. If she liked the student, like she must have liked this guy, then the kid was fine for as long as the kid answered with a smile and otherwise remained motionless. But if she didn’t like the kid — or anyone else for that matter — that dislike immediately went to hate, which immediately went to revenge for any offense real or perceived. That was true for students as well as colleagues, family, neighbors, even some buddy for the forty-five minutes she’d occasionally have one. She’s crazy. But, in her defense, she was an equal opportunity sadist. I remember the first day she taught at my middle school. It was like someone threw a crocodile in a koi pond.”

In the afternoon, there was supposed to be actual information. Something about a new curriculum. There was only one problem. A power failure. Soon as the presentation began, all the lights went out. Except for the one little light on the presenter’s podium. So this dude, the presenter, he’s fine. He’s got his little light. So he just carries on.

He introduces his power point presentation. He uses his laser pointer on the blank screen. He even says stuff like, “Let me clarify roman numeral II.” There are hand-outs. The poor schlemiels, who distribute the hand-outs, have to feel their way aisle to aisle. Judging from the grunts and the curses, and that distinctive a-bunch-of-papers-just-fell-on-the-floor sound, more than just a few of these distributions ended sadly. This goes on all afternoon. All afternoon. About a glaciation into this presentation, I realize my buddy has been gone for like an hour, so I too excuse myself to “go to the bathroom.” I find I’m not the first to get this idea. In the lobby, it’s like intermission at the symphony, except it isn’t.

I heard later that the lights finally came on just minutes before the day was over. There were like fifteen people left in the auditorium. Twelve were using the opportunity to catch-up on their z’s. Three teachers were taking notes.

But the day had a trick ending, one last shtook. In the morning, we all gathered at our various schools, parked our cars, then were taken by yellow bus to the auditorium. In the afternoon, the district forgot to schedule buses to take us back. The feeling was not unlike finishing a long day, finally getting home, only to be leg-humped by your pet schnauzer. Except for the getting home bit.


 

Book Review: Intimates and Fools by Laura Madeline Wiseman & Sally Deskin

 photo 58bc5c5c-3569-41d8-a1a0-fd35776df9cc_zpsb7a2ed7e.jpg Intimates and Fools
Poems by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Art by Sally Deskin
Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

In the collaborative project Intimates and Fools, we learn 1950s’ “sex symbol,” Marilyn Monroe, slept in her bra. This is the same woman who said “beauty and femininity are ageless and can’t be contrived, and glamour, although the manufacturers won’t like this, cannot be manufactured. Not real glamour; it’s based on femininity.” It seems, in the face of beauty, our actions fail to reflect our beliefs. As Wiseman and Deskins quote from The Great Gatsby, the desire for glamour spins us into “the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” In this project, two women de-lace, unhook, and regular wash a culture’s notion of femininity. The hope becomes such: beauty free from foolishness.

The bra is a two-fold symbol. A bra, in its function, simultaneously reveals while it supports, holds back. Therefore, a bra has the ability to show and suppress sexuality. This dual purpose complicates the bra’s function, and thus, a woman’s concept of beauty. As the subject of the work, the bra as object effortlessly opens up a critique, or more accurately, a worry about the stereotypes of femininity.

Wiseman’s speaker personifies bras. They are rational, for “They want to know why I’m setting them aside for the goodwill, why I refuse to slide them on, why they aren’t worthy…” This voice humanizes, sheds the hyper-sexuality we often superimpose. However, this personification still feels slightly problematic. The humanization, while rational, sounds silly, cartoon-like. More so, the humanization raises the bra’s importance to an uncomfortable level. A materialistic object, it seems, should never hold that much value. But perhaps discomfort is the point.

The strongest, most powerful moments in the narrative come from the outside perspective. In contrast to the speaker’s sweet compliment to her sister, the outside world objectifies the speaker. They “said to me: Look at the white girl with big tits. Dirty Pillows, said Stephen King. and Mr. T, What’chu talking about, Fool?” I’m uncomfortable again, but here it feels purposeful, so I welcome it.

The script-like text in Intimates and Fools tilts down, across, and sometimes around the page. It weaves in conversation with the artwork. The variation of text placement adds movement to the page. The artwork is vibrant and varied. On the first page we are met with abstract, deep colored orbs. The watercolor is imperfect, messy and disconnected. The bras are uncharacteristically beautiful. These abstract, imperfect art pieces visually demonstrate Wiseman’s narrative: beauty is not one form, one color, or one size. These pieces contrast the smaller, more concrete and clear images of  bras. These small drawings seem unfit to sit in tandem to the abstract. The most obvious contrast occurs towards the end of the collaboration. On the left sits a frilled, single-colored conned bra reminiscent of Madonna. Above are the words “I’m not a fool.” On the opposite page, the art explodes, extends its figure to embody the torso, the roundness of the cups, the multi-colored body. Below, “I’m a survivor.” And it’s here, in boldest of contrasts, I’m convinced, fully, that I’d rather survive too.


 

On Nothing: A Summer Essay

by John Samuel Tieman

I love being alone. I love staring out my window at nothing, and sitting here thinking of nothing. This is an essay about nothing at all, an essay addressed to the whole world, which is to say no one in particular. The world is a nice, but you just can’t hang out with the world.

First, a few disclaimers. I love my wife. I’m one of those folks described as very married. In twenty-two years of marriage, in thirty-four years of friendship, I’ve not so much as raised my voice to Phoebe. Our compatibility is, frankly, remarkable. When folks ask me how we do it, what can I say? Marry someone with whom you’re remarkably compatible? Then be conflict avoidant? Anyway, so, first, I love my wife.

Then I love my friends. I have friends that go back forty years to my army days, thirty-five-plus years to my undergraduate days. Folks like that. I love them all.

But I also love being alone, staring out my window at nothing, sitting here thinking of nothing and all that.

I love my home. I live in St. Louis, although, staring out my window, it’s just a city. I stare at just a backyard with a street running next to it. The street I stare up ends with the crest of a hill about two-hundred meters from here. There’s a little public school on the other side of that rise. When the wind is blowing from that direction, you can hear the kids play. My wife went to school there back in the mid-60’s. There’s also a Catholic church on the other side of that hill. I attended that church, went to that parish school, and, indeed, was Confirmed there. I can hear the noon Angelus bells. But I can’t see the school or the church from my window. I sometimes pray the Angelus.

Occasionally a firetruck rushes up to the corner, where it turns to go somewhere, north, south. But once it stopped. Now that was Big Time. Rumor had it that someone at the corner had a meth lab which exploded. But I don’t know. It didn’t make the Post-Dispatch.

On the other side of my backyard, the closest neighbors are a Black family, friendly enough folks, although I don’t know them as well as I know the other neighbors. I call the wife “The Empress Dowager”, because on her left hand she has three fingernails each over a foot long. I’ve got to wonder what that’s about. But I don’t ask, because the fantasy is a lot more fun than any actual answer.

Not long ago, I saw the movie Into Great Silence. I love it so much that I bought the DVD as well as a book about Carthusian monks. That’s what the movie is about, monks, a Carthusian monastery full of them. Carthusians make Trappists look like weenies. They are hermits, who, while they live in a monastery, spend almost all of their time in their cells. I get that. I really get that. I don’t get why they don’t want to get laid. Or, for that matter, why they don’t want to catch a few innings of the Cardinal’s game on the tube – who doesn’t want to watch the Cardinals at bat? But the great silence, staring out the window at nothing, praying my rosary for no one about nothing. Yea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a good Catholic. I am very, very Catholic. But I have never wanted to be a good Catholic. The Trappist Thomas Merton once said something like, “God, protect me from all right thinking men, which is to say men who agree perfectly with their own police.” I used to love Thomas Merton. I still like him, but I like him better dead. That way I can pick and choose the bits I like from his life. The actual monk, I think I would have found him annoying. Pretty much like I find my whole Church these days. I belong to a very annoying religion. I love the St. Louis Cathedral when it is cool, dark and empty. But Catholic I am. I can no more stop being a Catholic than I can stop being a Midwesterner, both of which I’ve tried. But what a Jewish friend says of his religion, I say of mine. I wasn’t born to a faith: I was born to a fate. Which leads me to nothing at all.
_____

Dance Review: The Ubiquitous Mass of Us by Maree ReMalia/merrygogo

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

One of the biggest challenges as a performing artist is to create work meaningful for the choreographer and cast, while simultaneously allowing the audience to be drawn in to that deeply personal world. This seems especially true for non-narrative work, which has no storyline. The story is ours to imagine.

Choreographer, Maree ReMalia, struck that balance in her latest work, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us. The group of nine performed the piece as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA program. The house was packed, as eager and expressive as the cast.

The interdisciplinary performance fell under the category of “dance” for ReMalia, with movement ranging from exploratory and pedestrian to technical. Also incorporated was an ample dose of theater, self-generated sound, and an elaborate set created by Blaine Siegel.

To begin, the performers emerged from the rafters and balconies. Playwright and filmmaker, Paul Kruse, arrived onstage first, gesturing and sounding out caveman-like syllables. “Gah!” and “Shah!” He drummed his fingers against the cardboard boxes Siegel had glued together, painted, and stacked in various places around the space.

Adil Mansoor, a theater artist, dove into a monologue about space, using text that had been written by dance scholars over the years. The idea of how we take up space was one inspiration for the piece. During the choreographic process, the dancers also explored questions of identity. Who are we as individuals? Who are we together? How far beyond what we conceive of ourselves can we go? Mansoor struggled against the words in frustration, but willed himself to continue.

The entire group moved to the back corner of the stage, clumped together and laughing hysterically. We didn’t know why we were chuckling along, but the laughter was contagious. Eventually, the music began, created by Dave Bernabo (also a performer in the piece). The sound Bernabo produced matched the idiosyncrasies of the individuals.

After a slow motion section and a beautifully simple line the dancers formed, more hilarity ensued. Joseph Hall unexpectedly dropped into a middle split, and then Moriah Ella Mason joined him in a battle of extreme yoga postures. When they couldn’t outdo each other, Hall stuck his fist in his mouth, and Mason pulled her toes to her lips.

Another funny moment came when Kruse performed a less than perfect tap dance for Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight. Thompson and Knight, unimpressed, made a puking sound, and a gagging motion.

Interspersed throughout the hour-long show were a few lighter, unique movement phrases, influenced by ReMalia’s study of Gaga Technique which encourages dancers to push the limits of their personal movement vocabulary.

Continuously, though, the work came back to a bound, bold, and intense style of moving that displayed both struggle and release. The humor also remained. Jil Stifel and Mansoor catcalled the others, which led into a lovely solo by Stifel. Soon enough, a strange pair of voices, hidden behind a stack of boxes, accompanied Stifel quite dramatically with the famous Auld Land Syne song.

Mansoor eventually came back to his monologue from the beginning. “Space is a place for transformation,” he shouted, as his cast members began destroying the set, deconstructing boxes and tossing them about. One box, hanging from the ceiling, dumped Styrofoam peanuts onto the stage. The dancers screamed, running around as if they’d gone mad. All nine of them rushed toward us, shouting like mayhem, and the lights went black.

ReMalia and her group did an incredible job going beyond their natural tendencies to reveal something interesting about each one of them. That push somehow made us want to join in on what looked like pure and unrestrained fun.

Overall, the comedy was impressive, the structure was fulfilling, and the performers came together in a cohesive way that is incredibly difficult in multi-disciplinary art.


 

Book Review: The Complete Kobzar by Taras Shevchenko, trans. Peter Fedynsky

 photo 8f1b59d3-2cb2-4361-9e3d-31e1cf82ddf2_zpscf296ed9.jpg The Complete Kobzar: The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko
Translated by Peter Fedynsky
Glagoslav Publications, 2013
€20.90

 

Reviewed by Mike Walker

Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar is perhaps the greatest—or at least best-known—work of Ukrainian literature from the classic period of romantic, independent, native Ukrainian writing. Yet despite that, it has been—in full, and not as a poem or two selected into some anthology of Slavic literatures—an elusive work to locate in translation. Thus a complete translation appearing in English is a grand event: for the first time, a comprehensive version of all the poems included in the original Kobzar—plus some alternate and additional poems the author published elsewhere in his lifetime and supporting, expository materials—is available. Translator Peter Fedynsky is himself Ukrainian-American and long has worked as a translator and journalist in Russia and Ukraine; Fedynsky knew of the Kobzar and saw the need to have this crucial work of Ukrainian literature translated into English so when he retired from journalism, he took it upon himself to produce a robust, complete, translation. The resulting volume is a staggering work of scholarship and devoted translational acumen that places Shevchenko in the realm of Slavic literary greats where he rightfully deserves to be located. 

Since Shevchenko’s work has not been easy to find in English translation prior to this effort, it is probably necessary or at least prudent to provide some background on Shevchenko himself. Taras Shevchenko is known in Ukraine as both a poet and painter, but insofar as he is known at all in Russia and the West, he’s better-known today as a painter than a writer. This is not just by happenstance: Shevchenko became during his lifetime a highly-opposed writer and was considered a dangerous revolutionary by the Imperial Russian government and, as he was well-known as a painter, there was a strategic effort to promote his visual art and downplay his literary efforts. The Valuyevsky Ukaz and later the even more-severe Ems Ukaz were issued during Shevchenko’s time—two imperial edicts that forbid the use of the Ukrainian language in any form of printed publication and, for all intents and purposes, outside the home even as an oral language. Shevchenko and other writers were obviously affected the worst by this, though the expected reaction in the government’s eyes would have been for them to turn towards writing in Russian, a language most knew fluently and one that Shevchenko certainly knew from time spent living in Saint Petersburg. That was not, of course, what happened: Shevchenko wrote in his native Ukrainian and increasingly turned towards themes drawn from Ukrainian folk-tales and legends, the common argot of the people, and pastoral tropes well-loved throughout rural regions. All this was probably based in a true fondness for his native literature and land, but also was a reaction to the forced, systematic, oppression of his people’s language. Like many other dissident writers before him and since, Shevchenko took an official mandate against the type of work he believed in as a catalyst to produce work that in an even more acute sense challenged the government. His actions resulted in imprisonment and efforts to suppress his published works, but even in his own time also resulted in his earning a folk-hero status in Ukraine and the rest of “Little Russia” (portions of what are now Belarus and Poland). 

Given the current political strife in Ukraine, the treatment of Little Russia under the tsars and later the like-minded approach the USSR took towards Ukraine makes Shevchenko’s writing more apt and timely than ever, but also requires further understanding of the greater sociopolitical context at hand. One of the greatest sources of trouble between Russia and Ukraine has always been the issue of language: some may assume the current situation in the Ukrainian East is due to post-Soviet developments in Russian nationalism but it goes all the way back to Shevchenko’s time and indeed, before that. The tsars undertook a constant if varied effort to regulate and mitigate the cultural importance of Ukrainian language and move the people of Little Russia towards an alignment with Imperial Russia’s mainstream views and the Russian language. Similar approaches were taken in Belarus but without as pronounced an articulation in good part because of the parity of Polish, Belarusian and Russia all in Belarus meant that Belarusian did not on a proto-nationalistic level present so articulate a threat. (However, the Soviet Union continued in the Byelorussian SSR a stronger program of mandatory use of Russian in all official capacities than it did with Russian over Ukrainian in the Ukraine; when Belarus became independent after the fall of the USSR, there was a huge push towards restoring Belarusian as the primary language yet this caused expected problems since at least two generations of citizens knew Russian better than Belarusian. See my article in the ATA Chronicle for a nuanced exploration of this situation: Walker, Michael. 1999. “The Restoration of a Language: Belarusian in Medical Discourse”. The ATA Chronicle, 28:58 Nov./Dec, 1999.)

With language a core issue in the extended arguments of polity and society between Little Russia and “Big Russia”, writers found themselves on the front lines of many battles. Shevchenko’s poems chronicle rural Ukrainian life of his time in a way that is both accurate and reflects the real situation of his people but also all the same draws deeply on folk traditions and well-known popular stories and characters. A “kobzar”, it should be mentioned, is a bard who travels the countryside in Ukraine playing the kobza, a lute-like instrument and singing/telling stories via verse and song. Thus, in the Kobzar, Shevchenko presents the historical kobzar’s vision of a collection of essential narrative in verse to be repeated and shared with his countrymen. The kobzars would become much-persecuted under Stalin until their profession was nearly wiped out and, in a type of irony that could only happen in the USSR, replaced by phony (or at least new and less-than-authentic) kobzars schooled in a state-approved variant of folk history. In Shevchenko’s time, the core problem with the kobzars was they were communicators of an especial form of Ukrainian culture that was absent in Russian culture while the goal of policies towards “Little Russia” was to illustrate a “big brother” (Russia) and “little brother” (Ukraine) relationship where Ukraine sought advice and input on all matters from the more-established Russian society. Perhaps more than any other native tradition, the kobzars reminded Ukrainians of the rich legacy of their language and culture and as to a literary representation of the kobzar, well that of course would be ten times worse.

To approach the Kobzar now as a work of protest literature would be, if not exactly incorrect, a very incomplete view. Shevchenko’s primary goal was to produce a compelling collection of poetry capable of entertaining his countrymen while also retaining a sense of historical folk culture. Ways of rural life and occupations are celebrated, such as in poems entitled “The Sexton’s Daughter” or “Maryanne the Nun;” folk characters, too, in poems like “The Witch” make their appearances aplenty. Some poems, “The Witch,” “The Blind Woman” and especially the longform ones of which  “The Great Vault” is a perfect example are akin to epics, stretching into complex narratives. As the titles above suggest, a good portion of the poems feature women in central roles and while not always progressive in his depictions of women, Shevchenko at least gives them featured roles and notes the vast scope of female presence in everyday life—from a princess to a maid, from witches to widows—an approach more encouraging than we find from many male writers in world literatures of the same period. 

The role of politics in these poems is varied, with one poem “Kings” being a powerful critique of tsars and their power while more minor politicians and petty local leaders also do not escape the poet’s critical gaze. However, though poetry, this was truly romantic poetry of the most literal, pastoral, typology—poetry long before the twentieth century conventions towards using poetry as a metaphorical battlefield for large political issues; it is not satire, it is not a matter of casting characters in different guises to simply fashion a point. The language and narratives here are rich and often complex in depth and scope. Shevchenko’s efforts encompass a very full, robust, take on society as he knew it in Ukraine and it should be noted he knew Russian society, also: Shevchenko lived a long time in Saint Petersburg and had travelled in other parts of Russia. Shevchenko seemingly desired to provide a sense of how Ukrainian life had given rise to an especial form of poetic vision, one that was informed by other romantic and proto-romantic currents but less individually organic than the German or British romantics would provide. Again, the basis in folk literature is key, as is the use of Biblical views and references, a search for a tangible bridge between Heaven and Earth. A sense of earlier times and pastoral nostalgia is clear and the language—especially the dialog—is often overly-wrought, beyond even what one might expect for poetic conventions, yet the feel overall is fresh and engaging. Despite the rural settings and pastoral tropes, the focus is mostly on human interaction and this is accomplished via dialog and strong (if at times wandering) narrative trajectories.

It is, in the context of world literatures, useful nonetheless to realize that Shevchenko was a contemporary of poets such as the Englishman John Clare who wrote pastoral poems of the most sweeping, earthy, agrestic variety one can imagine. Some of that same sense of campestral beauty and wonder does appear in Shevchenko’s work, especially when he is attempting to convey the especial sense of the pride and unity Ukrainians find in their land. Likewise, dialog is often put to use to demonstrate the purpose and import of family and social relationships, such as when a witch queries a gypsy lady of whether she has children or not and upon learning the gypsy is without children wryly illustrates all the points of how children, indeed, are the center of a woman’s world. Whether Shevchenko intended this conversation to come off as satire or not is less than clear, but it reads as if it was written only a year ago: the points of gender roles and how a witch, in the 1830s or thereabouts, might have been one of very few female roles to escape the duties of child-rearing. 

Shevchenko doesn’t limit his settings to Ukraine. Prague, the south of France and, of course, Russia all make appearances now and then. In the poem “The Heretic” we find examples of how Shevchenko has a fairly strong understanding of European polity and Slavic political history. Shevchenko knows that his readership is a literate, educated, yet diverse middle-class—not the nobles of old but a growing part of the population that appreciates literature yet craves the basal aspects of folk-tales, heroes, and settings both exotic and familiar. They were people like himself—not the wealthy, but the intellectual. They yearned for greater understanding of their own cultural past and also of Europe and the history thereof beyond their own immediate territory. Russia’s elite desired literature to be grand, verbose, and most of all, Russian, German, or French and to predicate the very concept of a “literature” on what was marketed as literature’s esteemed and ancient origins in specific cultural traditions. Ukrainian literature, especially folk literature, was by default beyond that scope: Any worthwhile Ukrainian literature would ape the conventions of Russian literature and showcase how Ukrainians could become more like their “big brother” state. That was, in every sense, the trajectory Shevchenko revolted against. And what an advocate he became: His poetry alone would be a powerful plea for his people but his paintings also showcased quite literally how he saw the world, recording Ukrainian life along the same lines of aesthetics as his writing. Numerous drawings and paintings are reproduced in this volume of the Kobzar, adding that visual dynamic of Shevchenko’s creative forces to his literary efforts.

Peter Fedynsky’s translation into English is remarkable in its nuances and its comprehensive, patient, approach to rendering a faithful variant of the original in another language. It is obvious that Fedynsky has invested a great deal of time and effort in producing this translation and it was fully a labor of love all the way. His task was certainly not an easy one: Ukrainian is a very colorful language in any event and the poet at hand made that language even more oral, complex, and yet plain-spoken. It is again the folk cultural influence and also the historical context of the poetry and it doesn’t lend well to translation. Consider translating Wordsworth or Frost into Russian or Ukrainian; consider taking textural material that often tries in great earnest to feel oral and you’re halfway there but still not quite. It is clear that the translator knew what he was up against and he provides footnotes that reveal as much historical context and cultural detail that might otherwise escape the non-Ukrainian reader as possible. Indeed, when “Rejoice, Isaiah” is mentioned in the text, Fedynsky mentions via a footnote that this a hymn by tradition sung at weddings, which is pretty essential to understanding the context. It is a small detail and one many translators or editors might have missed; however, it did not escape the translator here. 

The Ems Ukaz was a crafty, cutting, and very effective measure of political malice and echoes of it resound in the current measures we find in Russian tactics in Eastern Ukraine today. The concept of Russian superiority and cultural elitism—the concept of banning the textural use of another language so the “better” Russian language instead will grow in popular favor—is one we can locate in nearly every culture Russia and/or the Soviet Union touched, from Belarus all the way eastward to Mongolia, where the Soviets did away with the traditional Mongolian script and in a cumbersome, lumbering, manner forced the Mongolian language into Cyrillic for all printed applications. In today’s Ukraine, we still can locate such language wars, but a prime point of historical and sociocultural reference for Ukrainians remains Shevchenko’s classic work. Now, we have that work—in full, not a poem missing and even some additional variants of poems included—in the English language. It is a wonderful, consummate, and notable work of translation and well-deserves international attention. 


 

Greek Yogurt

By Karen Zhang

These days I have a penchant for Greek yogurt. Claimed to be one of the healthiest food products with low fat and high protein, Greek yogurt is not only my favorite but an increasing number of Americans’ favorite. One statistic shows a total of 35% of all yogurt Americans buy today is Greek, up from only 1% six years ago.

Indeed, when I shopped at a local supermarket and glimpsed the dairy section, I saw various brands of Greek yogurt taking up three quarters of the shelf. So why Greek yogurt? What is its attraction?

If you look closely, the price of Greek yogurt is slightly higher than regular yogurt. Perhaps from the manufacturer’s point of view, Greek yogurt is a money-making engine. So no matter if a dairy company with big name or small, it sells Greek yogurt in its own definition. Some brands taste less dry than others. Some looked more yellowish.

When I first tried Greek yogurt, I loved the blueberries, but I hated the plain. I wondered how yogurt lovers could swallow such an insipid thick lump as if gulping a ball of white socks.

It’s all about health and beauty. If you take heed to the taglines of Greek yogurt commercials in America, you will notice they all boast the dairy product is a good low-calorie substitute for sour cream or it can be a light lunch.

Different from yogurt sold in the Chinese market, Greek yogurt is far thicker in texture. While Americans use a spoon to scoop the yogurt like ice cream, Chinese “drink” yogurt directly from a milk bottle or with a straw from a carton box. Since these days Chinese people’s diet is getting more Westernized by consuming more meat and red wine, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Greek yogurt being a hit in China soon. After all, Chinese people are starting to look more like Americans, so we’ll soon have to start dieting. Greek yogurt, here I come!

_____

Book Review: On the Street of Divine Love
by Barbara Hamby

 photo 30ed1044-a65c-496c-87e8-b65585bbdf10_zps3c8e37f8.jpg On the Street of Divine Love
Poems by Barbara Hamby
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

            Hamby’s poems have been billed as “word drunk excursions into the American female consciousness,” and they certainly are; the titles of Hamby’s earlier collections Delirium, The Alphabet of Desire, Babel, and All-Night Lingo Tango make clear her obsession with language and the tensions it creates. But beyond their beautiful words, these poems are psychological expeditions, portals into complex layers of time and space—and not just the streets of Italy, Paris, and London where her speakers often find themselves. In Hamby’s writing, memory, both personal and collective, is a constant layer over the present. The collection’s title poem takes us down the Street of Divine Love, where the speaker is aware of much more than what’s just in front of her:

 

I’m walking down the Vincolo del Amore Divino in Rome
        with a girl I hardly know, behind us the Spanish steps,
Keats’s words swimming inside me like thousands of fish
        in a transparent tank of skin, and if his breath lingered,
it’s gone now, mixed with the sig heils of Mussolini,
        the ecumenical denunciations of 15 popes, the pidgin
of the Japanese American soldiers from Hawaii
        who liberated Rome but weren’t allowed to march into the city
during the day, the cries of the baffled Romans who saw them
        and shouted Cinese, Cinese, and the millions of tourists
aiming cameras with lenses the size of a whale’s penis
        saying to the mystified ticket sellers, Is this a museum?

 

This is a speaker who knows her history and literature, the same speaker who will, in other poems, describe the sky as “a glorious Leonardo blue” and make reference to a wealth of classic films: a speaker who has seen, or at least heard and read about, it all.

But Hamby’s speaker isn’t cataloguing her knowledge to brag. A clue to her motivation can be found in the Rimbaud quote Hamby chooses as an epigraph, which ends “Among the lost you choose me, but the others—are they not dear to me? Save them!” The lost souls and madmen, young women and ghosts that populate Hamby’s poems are all called forth in an attempt to gain them salvation. At one point, the speaker recalls the ancient Roman method of building roads based on birds’ migratory patterns, how they looked to “these last remnants of the dinosaurs/ to help them make their way in the world, so I believe in birds.” Again the past, Romans and dinosaurs, is layered on top of the present, birds and the speaker. And here the reader can see Hamby’s deeper meaning; this connection to the past is what leads to the speaker’s faith. All those who have gone before us, the least creatures, the most unexpected souls—in Hamby’s world, they all have an element of divinity.

Throughout the collection, Hamby strives to find the beauty in ugly things. Her “Ode to Skimpy Clothes…” illustrates this human desire in its mention of “everyone/ wanting to believe that God has appeared in the parking lot/ of an abandoned store, the graffiti a message, something/ divine in the plastic bags and fast-food boxes rolling in the wind.” Rather than settle for mere desire, though, Hamby’s speakers take it one step further. They believe in the birds, and see divine beauty where others can’t. “Ode to the Messiah…” takes readers even further into the depths of darkness before turning toward its surprising ending:

 

…and I would love to see Satan bursting through the starry firmament,
        but there are no stars, only a stew of fog, and let’s face it
all our monsters are bivouacked in our chests like dyspeptic soldiers
        in a mercenary army, hungry, covered in warts
or contagion of some kind, too walleyed and stupid to see
        they are flesh and blood and there’s a glorious song
somewhere inside waiting to be sung in a church or an opera house
        or even a pub where…
                        …Janet, the scullery maid,
        her sweet soprano like a tiny bird, fluttering out
of a corner so dark it might be mistaken for an entrance to hell.

 

This ode, like most of Hamby’s poems, takes us on a wild journey—in this case, to London, Thailand, Honolulu, and the imaginary pub—and flits quickly from peace to horror to awe and acceptance in a seemingly effortless way. Hamby accomplishes this through her style and structure, which evoke the workings of the human mind. As her poems undulate downward with their staggered lines, many of them more than a page long, readers are gradually hypnotized by the memories and leaps of logic these speakers engage. Add in Hamby’s penchant for finding precisely the right, and unexpected word (take chiffon, tesserae, or grifters, for instance), and these poems become dynamic vacuums which capture the reader.

It’s also Hamby’s tendency to celebrate the intangible alongside the tangible that allows her to bridge the chasms between her poem’s subjects. The long titles of her odes do a lot to clue readers in on the journeys that will follow. Two of my favorites are “Ode to Augurs, Ogres, Acorns, and Two or Three Things That Have Been Eating at My Heart Like a Wolverine in a Time of Famine” and “Ode to the Messiah, Thai Horror Movies, and Everything I Can’t Believe.” But perhaps the most effective of these is “Ode to Knots, Noise, Waking Up at Three, and Falling Asleep Reading to My Id.” The poem takes us from the languages of ancient Peru, China, Greece, and Rome to the bedroom of an insomniac to a quick catalog of memorized lines, a loud late-night Italian plaza, a mother’s potential stroke, a jury of cats, a tsunami, and a bus shooting before ending with a woman reading the newspaper. I had to check the poem twice to make sure I had those elements right and in the correct order, but in Hamby’s deft grasp I never once felt lost while reading of it.

At the risk of going on for far too long, let me take a final moment to analyze the book’s beautiful cover art, illustrated by Stuart Riordan. In this collection, Hamby’s poems are all the blue Toyota catapulting us up toward the night sky and new intellectual heights only to let us tumble down gently through beautifully dizzying atmospheres of images. It’s like she writes in “On the Street of Divine Love.” These poems, as a whole, are “a shop of gowns so frothy and pink that wearing them/ [will] transfer you to another plane of existence.”
______

BARBARA HAMBY is the author of four poetry collections, including All-Night Lingo Tango and Babel, winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. Her book of linked stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, received the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award/John Simmons Award. She also coedited an anthology of poetry, Seriously Funny, with her husband David Kirby. Hamby is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Kate Tufts Award, and numerous other honors. Her poems have been widely anthologized, including The Best American Poetry 2000, 2009, and 2010. She is a Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University, specializing in poetry and fiction.


 

prayer at Nikko Shrine by Basho

Basho

in awe I beheld

spring leaves

blinding sun

 

translated by John Samuel Tieman with Asuzka Tanka

 

 

 


 

Book Review: The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff

 photo b8ac9c11-156b-4dab-93e6-3a87ccc3f28d_zps4e4cf5ff.jpg The Heart of June
by Mason Radkoff
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014
$16.95

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff is Pittsburgh, from its industrial laborers to its old money societies. Pittsburghers will enjoy mapping the story through their city, writers will appreciate the painstaking craft, hopeless romantics will cheer for the various couples, and laborers will sympathize with and recognize the main character’s choice of careers and vehicles.

The novel follows Walt, a scholar, carpenter, and handyman who ambles through life without urgency to finish his projects. There is nothing spectacular about him. He is the new Everyman—hard working but lazy, intelligent but unmotivated, and would rather eat at diners and bars instead of fancy restaurants with fellow scholars. His ex-wife, Sam, is as down-to-earth as he is, and her husband, Arthur, is a perfect but ridiculous gentleman. Miss June, an ancient socialite who helped to raise Walt and for whom he works, is strict and manipulative but caring. And Gwen, Walt’s student crush when he taught history, is almost too perfect in her ability to do everything, and happens to be going through a divorce.

These characters are full and complex. However, it seems as if the author wanted to write more about Pittsburgh and needed people to fill it. To do this properly, he created realistic characters and entrenched them in the city and its outskirts. Radkoff takes readers through Fifth Avenue, down Craig Street, up the Allegheny River, and out toward parks like McConnell’s Mill and small towns like Evans City. Local readers can map the characters’ progresses, whereas others will get a unique glance into the faded steel mill industry’s orange skies and the old-fashioned lifestyles surrounded by urban landscapes.

However, despite vast descriptions and references to a beloved city from a working man’s perspective, Pittsburgh ends there. The city itself is represented well, but not its people. Their defining aspect is almost nonexistent: Pittsburghese. Occasionally, Radkoff introduces double negatives in dialogue and colloquialisms such as “slippy,” but not much more. It would be difficult to do Pittsburghese justice without also making it a joke, but Radkoff could’ve tried a little harder linguistically. At the very least, he could have removed conjugations for the verb “to be,” which is a singular Pittsburghese trait. Walt is an educated lazy man who occupies a strange space between his poorly spoken (and thus apparently dumber) hard-working friends and the doctors, teachers, and the rich old biddy with which he spends time. The other friends could have been from anywhere that once had a thriving industrial sprawl. Nothing makes them distinctly Pittsburghers, though Radkoff successfully represents hard working, joking, and hospitable people who look after each other.

Through subtly drawn-out characterization and plot that appears and disappears as the need arises, the book follows a realistic pace. Conflict is stable with realistic reactions, and Radkoff includes moments of insight through hindsight, such as when he mentions Walt’s childhood like an ominous undertow that readers may forget until it randomly pulls them under the steady current of narration. Radkoff essentially telescopes into the lives of a few people in a particular city and presents the story as it would be if it happened in real life. In order to rationalize his writing style, Radkoff occasionally inserts passages that fit scenes but also comment on the book. For example, when Walt and Gwen first spend time together, they have a “moment.” Radkoff writes:

“That’s it?” she said quietly, afraid to break the moment.
Walt nodded in return. “That’s it,” he said softly. They lingered there, together, close.
“What are we doing here?” she whispered after a while.
“Building,” he replied, in a whisper of his own.

Radkoff builds Walt’s character through construction projects that ultimately affect his personality. He builds tension and conflict through minor actions. He builds a world within a well-established setting, and he seems to want readers to recognize that in order to build, things must take time and patience. In case readers didn’t get the hint the first time, Radkoff almost overtly states the novel’s symbolism. He writes:

Walt worried this might be too much activity for the grand dame, but Gwen assured him that they were in no hurry during their excursions, moving at a pace as slow as need be. Through it all, the parlor transformation had begun to take hold. Walt’s progress was undeniable, and to those who didn’t know him, the work would appear to be heading toward completion. And it was all for Miss June, performed against the sound of her ancient ticking clock, a steady but anxious race to fulfill her wish.

In one paragraph, Radkoff clearly summarizes the entire book. Walt is renovating a room for Miss June because she is dying. He works against his own lazy clock and her relentless ancient one in order to fulfill a last wish. It also seems to suggest that if readers continue to be patient and persistent, they will reach the satisfying end along with Walt.
This consistent stream of narration occasionally falters, though. It is difficult to discern the characters’ ages, except for Miss June. And after a pivotal scene, the ending wraps up a little too quickly and readers are denied an eagerly anticipated character’s reaction. And sometimes, Radkoff fails to include details where they’re needed. The narration then becomes quick and sloppy, as if in oversight. For example, when Walt and Gwen go on a date, Radkoff suddenly omits details about which the characters comment. Everything else in the story is fully realized, but he leaves some things for readers’ imaginations when they should have been included. He writes:

“You’re paying for our dinner?” [Walt asked Miss June.]
“For Gwenneth. It’s a reward for her hard work. For you, well, let’s just say I’m hoping that some proper nourishment will help keep you on task. You’re far from finished, you know. I can’t have you keeling over before you’re done, which is a distinct possibility given that you take so many of your meals in establishments of questionable repute.”
“I’m speechless.”
This was an uncharacteristically sweet gesture from his formidable old partner.

“Psst,” Gwen said from the door.
She seemed more beautiful than ever, to have somehow turned up the wick on her glow.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at you.”
“Me? Look at you. The girls are gonna throw rocks at all the other fellas.”
“Well, then,” he said, pleased at the compliment. “Our chariot awaits.”

Radkoff usually explains why characters say certain things, or the history behind a reference. Details are rarely omitted. Yet in the above passage, there are no explanations or descriptions. There is no history behind Miss June “uncharacteristically sweet gesture” to pay. And Gwen and Walt are not described, despite commenting to each other about their appearances. Radkoff may want readers to use their imaginations here, to create their own versions of beauty that would automatically be true, but that decision contradicts his otherwise stable narrative style.

Yet throughout the novel, Radkoff’s decisions concerning character and plot development steadily unfold. His writing allows readers to ease into a comfortable afternoon, say hello to characters that are as real as their neighbors, and, for a time, forget their own concerns. Readers will recognize their own lives in loveable Walt, even down to his insights about procrastination. In this Everyman and his friends, Radkoff represents every one. And maybe, he offers the heart of everyday Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.
______

First-time novelist Mason Radkoff was shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. As a carpenter restoring homes both modest and grand, Radkoff bore witness to the subtle drama residing within the walls that contain our lives, which he then used to create a tale filled with honesty, humor, and love.