“Speaking the same language through literature” are the words spread in light gray block letters over a dark gray background on the cover of St. Petersburg Review. This publication is “independent and international”; it was founded and is headed by an American, Elizabeth Hodges. She has traveled to Russia numerous times and participated in several Summer Literary Seminars at St. Petersburg. Among the associate editors, staff and advisory board are many American-looking names, many who by their bios have traveled to or live in Russia. Others are native Russians or “citizens of the world.”
While the publication has a technical connection to New Hampshire and is printed in New York, the flavor is all international. Many of the contributors are from Russia and around the globe and their work is expertly translated into English. Much of the writing shows a sensory, close-to-nature, romantic slant. It appears to be to literature as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony “Pathetique” is to music: a beautiful display of pathos, a rendering of humanness with and against the onslaught of nature and the unrelenting, forward march of life towards the inevitable. Not bleak, not hopeless, but proud. Ingenious, inventive, persistent, never giving up – there is a searching, connecting spirit in the writing that is more than political or cultural – it borders on spiritual.
One story, nonfiction, “Notes in Kyzyl,” by Shelley Marlow, describes a woman traveling across Russia, looking to meet a shaman – or is it herself she is looking for? She draws in the reader by tying her search in with her imaginative playing as a child:
As a kid I played games such as: pretend you are dead as you drift around the crabapple tree in the backyard; pretend that the stone footpath in the front yard is a walkway through outer space, that stepping off of meant you’d float away
Her true story of self-discovery takes one on a trip further out of the ordinary, bending one’s mind more than much fiction.
“Mrs. Shaw” by Mukoma Wa Ngugi is short fiction written so clearly, engaging the mind and senses that one feels it is real. “Hey! You there! You know what you need?” the author uses this taunt to knock the reader off one’s feet, and can take the reader anywhere from there.
“A Singing, Stinging Bee Attitude,” by Xu Xiaobin, translated by John Howard-Gibbon, is as evocative and as exotic as the title suggests. A man is trying to get over a bad love affair, he meets a strange women, and witnesses an even stranger revenge, somehow all connected. This is so skillfully woven a novelist could admire the plot.
A memoir by Thomas Burke, “Yellow Brick on Market Street” takes on mental illness, the quality of life for the mentally disabled, and the uneasy relationship between “ordinary” people and the severely mentally ill. Burke writes of his acquaintance, Bonnie, “When I’m with her during an onset, I duck out after flimsy, failed attempts to console her – but most of the time I’m just part of an unsolicited audience … I’ve developed an ear for it and a sorrow, maybe even a darkened heart from the repeated shrieks.” Reading this is like walking down a dark, raining street listening to a story from a truly caring man, and believing there will be a better dawn.
The poetry dares to aim very high, and the subject matter an ethereal nature; it seems to transcend the object of “self.” Leonid Schwab wrote, “And over every roof, a star,” translated by Nika Skandiaka. It begins:
And over every roof, a star,
And gold with blood, the highway
The wavering shore of the sea
Looks a national border.
He reaches in every direction, in space, rationally, looking for a universal truth.
Jennifer Huxta writes in “The City Writes Itself” with many contrasting, contradictory visual images. The poem flows and turns on a dime, and in between the words, a story gently emerges. Inside:
Crepe. Cardboard. Cake.
The city / writes itself / swallows its own tale. / Chokes
on its own story.
The author is drawing the reader in to much more than the city.
In a serene, untitled poem, Aleksey Porvin, writes:
Turn your back to the sun
let go the Sunday heart
to a rare knock against the grass
of brooding caterpillars
The reader can enjoy a pleasant tramp with Porvin, in mind and spirit. St. Petersburg Review is multifaceted, as are the many parts of the world it draws from. Yet there is something that unifies it: humanity and it’s looking for a better existence.