Category Archives: Poetry

This Rock is Trash!: Feed by Tommy Pico

Timmy Pico is a queer, native American poet, living in New York City, trying to navigate the dating scene while constantly being on the road for his profession. His long poem, Feed, reads just like that—a feed of his character’s mind which he calls “Teebs” and all of the personal thoughts that occupy it: “I am 34/ I live in the busiest city in America./ I am about to eat an orange./ Every feed owes itself to death. Poetry is feed/ to the horses within me.”

Pieces of short verse are alternated with prose, dialogue, letters, short recipes, news headlines and lists, all of which showcase Pico’s clever, astute, surprising and hilarious writing. He brings up many melancholy topics–lost love, his heritage, the American president, climate change and his loneliness–but he manages to take each of these things in stride and press forward with his uncanny ability to find humor in nearly every situation.

As a sort of loose organization of the poem, Pico provides a soundtrack to his thoughts; Track 1 is a the song”XO” by Beyonce and Track 19 is “Up the Ladder to the Roof” by the Supremes. He reflects briefly on the lyrics from each track and his subsequent thoughts are launched from there until he “starts” the next track. A clever and subtle way to keep some semblance of form to his meandering thought-feed. Track 12 is my favorite in the playlist:

Track 12: “Shout” by Tears for Fears. First of all, best band name in
America. Second, how cathartic am I right? Really, just let it all out.
What else can ou do in an intractable situation but to shout? Focus
on that full throaty wail where Roland Orzabal reveals the he’s just
waiting for the lover to open up for the destruction his love will no
doubt wreak.

Teebs is not afraid to be brutally honest about his sexual desires, his sometimes awkward dates, and the reasons why he moves on from a relationship (In one instance he finds out that his lover’s favorite book is Atlas Shrugged) But the love interest that is brought up most is a man named Leo, whom we meet in the opening verses of the poem. Leo and Teebs share some nice memories together, but Teebs doesn’t wallow in or become awash with sorrow when they mutually decide to go their separate ways. His relationship with Leo forms a part of the larger patterns in his life—his loneliness, his struggles with dating, and his itinerant lifestyle as a traveling poet. He deftly moves from the very personal—the story of his first meeting with Leo—to more universal, even philosophical, thoughts on love and loneliness:

Ok so in Plato’s Symposium
the philosopher Aristophanes makes
this speech at some white
robe
sweaty ball
table line dinner
about the origin of love.

That at one point
there were three sexes:
the children of the sun (two men)
the children of the earth (two women)
and the children of the moon (man and woman)
attached at the back

Now before you get all
sapiosexual
on me, I don’t know this from Plato

I know this from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

N E WAYS, so yeah at one point
the three sexes were whole
round balls
adherent to each
other attached at the back and spinning

in their own orbit.

The problem
was people

GUNMAN FIRST INTO OKLAHOMA CITY RESTAURANT

were too content in self-possession

there was no ambition no thrill of the chase
no colonalism. So the gods split
the people down the back
and ever since we’ve been looking
for our other
half

Lonely as a kind of math.

Notice the news headline in bold which Pico slips into key parts of the poem. Even though Feed was written and published in 2019, the topics he chooses are still highly sensitive and relevant in the age of Covid, corrupt government and Black Lives Matter.

The poet’s loneliness stems not only from his never ending quest for a fulfilling relationship but also from his heritage as a Native American. He oftentimes talks about the sad and tragic abuse of his tribe, the Kumeyaay Indians, throughout American history. Not surprisingly, cooking and eating with his friends and boyfriends is a common occurrence in Feed, and his lack of a culinary archive in his heritage is a sad and poignant commentary on the history of his tribe. Oftentimes he speaks directly to his readers in missives:

Dear reader,

A roux, I’ve learned tonight in this mid city dinner party apartment
tucked somewhat safely away from asthmatic LA freeways, is the
mixture of butter and flour used to swell sauces and soups and Paul’s
baked sage mac n cheese that I’m whisking alive like an al dente
Evanescence cheese-rock bop. Whistle while you whisk away the rage
scrunched in yr boulders. I says to them around the table I says—

I don’t have a food history.

If the dish is, “subjugate an indigenous population,” here’s an
ingredient of the roux: alienate us from our traditional ways of
gathering and cooking food.

Kumeyaays moved around what ed be called San Diego County with
the seasons. The mountains, the valleys, the coast. Not much arable
land or big game so we followed the food wherever it would go.

Then the missions. Then isolated reservations on stone mountains
where not even a goat could live. Then the starvation. Then the
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Whatever the
military would throw away came canned in the backs of trucks. The
commodities. The powered mil, worms in the oatmeal, corn syrupy
canned peaches. Food stripped of its nutrients. Then came the sugar
blood. the sickness. The glucose meter goes up and up and up.

I says to them around the table I says, I don’t have food stories. With
you, I say, I’m cooking new ones.

This passage is an excellent example of how Pico mixes the melancholy with the hopeful. And he throws in one of his signature witty phrases “I says to them” for just the slightest touch of humor. A constant friends that appears several times throughout the poem is a woman he calls Wilkes with whom he has an ongoing series of conversations about the galaxies:

Me: It’s like, against the infinity of space and all those stars and all
those worlds out there, the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations
other than us is extremely high. But where are they? Even if
interstellar travel is really slow, our sun is relatively young compared to
the age of the universe as a whole. They’d have had millions of years
to get here.
Wilkes: I think it’s paternalistic to assume we’d be demonstrably visited
in our lifetimes. History basicall just started recording itself. They
could have come a million years ago and been like, this rock is trash!

I stayed up yesterday past 2 a.m. reading Feed because I just could not put it down. His topics are timely but, despite the many hardships and obstacles in his life, Pico also has a sense of humor and an optimism that I found I really needed right now.

Feed is one book in a tetralogy of poems that Pico has written and published with Tin House Books and I am eagerly looking forward to reading all four titles.

Finally as an added bonus I made a playlist on Spotify with all of the songs on Teebs’s soundtrack from Feed.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1v75Eq6lFcrPWGRnQOdNQd?si=2G0FRLj5RPeefja7mCxcVA

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Subsumed to Materials of My Art: Summer Snow by Robert Hass

In Summer 2020 edition of The Paris Review, Jesse Nathan ends his interview with poet and author Robert Hass with a couple of unique questions and responses:

INTERVIEWER:

In many of the questions that I’ve asked you, even personal questions, you’ve often responded with literary examples before delving into your own experience. I’m curious why you think that is.

HASS:

I don’t know. It must be the way my mind works. What would be an example?

INTERVIEWER:

When we began this interview, I think I asked what the first thing you’d done that morning was. You said that you had peed. And then you were talking about Issa’s haiku on peeing in the snow and Bloom in Ulysses flipping through a magazine while moving his bowels.

HASS:

There are a couple of possibilities. One is deflection from the personal. Either because you want to keep the private private, or just because it seems narcissistic. I mean, who cares what I do when I first get up in the morning? So I tend to leap toward what brings it to life, what brings a subject to life, which would be all the literary stuff that’s in my head. That would be one explanation. Then, there’s another haiku by Issa that comes to mind—

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.

He’s talking about daikons, those long Japanese radishes. And what I love about the poem as a poem is that Issa has imagined himself stopping to ask for directions, and it’s only after that, as he’s on his way again, that he’s having the thought, the amusing thought, that this guy is so much of his element that he was using his radish to point directions. My impulse is definitely to point with the radish. I have to say, I’m subsumed to materials of my art.

 

It’s not surprising that Robert Hass can seamlessly move from the topic of his morning pee to the haiku of Issa.  In his latest collection of poems, published in February of 2020 by Ecco, Hass is fond of putting seemingly disparate things together, including the title itself, Summer Snow.   Among the pages of this rather lengthy—for him—collection we still find his usual inspirations from earlier collections which include his surroundings in California, his left-leaning politics, his sense of humor and his friends and family.  But sitting next to ordinary topics in the same long poems are his friendships with literary giants like Eugenio Montale, Milosz, and Lyn Hejinian.  Because he gives himself plenty of space with long prose poems to work out the details of unrelated subjects,  he is successful in making these topics fit together perfectly.  For example, it’s not Montale’s brilliant poetry that Hass remembers in a poem, but a mundane, and odd,  conversation about the word “moose”:

Eugenio Montale asked me if there was an American word
For sprezzatura, particularly with respect to poetry.
In rispetto di poesia, he said. And I said, Yes, in American
We call it “moose” and mentioned several poets,
Frank O’Hara among them, who were quite famous,
As fame goes in our sort of work, for their moose.
He wondered if there was an American expression
To convey the general concept of “Eugenio Monale.”
And I said, Yes, we call it “George Seferis.” I also observed—
I was showing off, but how often do you get to talk
To Eugenio Montale—that, in my view, the prose of Seferis,
Especially his diaries from the last years of the war
And the slow wakening to that devastation after,
Was even greater than his poems, though his poems
At their best gave off pure light like the light that flares
From the white walls on the cliffs above the harbor in Skios
Which can make the eyes ache…

Sometimes it is easy to forget we are reading a poem because of the story-like beginning, but then Hass veers into another topic—in this instance a different poet, George Seferis—and then another topic, the dazzling light of Skios. And at the end he ties his piece together by bringing us back to Montale who asks another question about Americans worshipping the Virgin Mary.

One of my favorite poems in the collection has his usual range of divergent topics, but throughout the entire he stays with deeply personal topics from his own life. These personal reflection poems are just as profound, if not more so, than the ones who feature famous authors. He begins with a scribbling he sees on a classroom blackboard, transitions to a friend whose husband has died of cancer, and ends with a final meditation on the words from the blackboard. We also see another example of the pattern of three distinct parts to each of his longer poems. “A Person Should” begins:

The novel is a mirror in the roadway, I saw scrawled
on a blackboard in an empty classroom at a small college
in the Middle West, A Friday in the all, day’s end,
the swift dark descending, the students gone to their parties,
the long blackboards given over to the melancholy
of chalk dust. Underneath the Stendhal in another hand
someone had written very firmly: Poetry is sheet lightning
in a summer field. Which I took to mean that a person should
be able to name their psychic condition or make a figure of it
or see it illuminated out there somewhere in the gravid air.
I quoted the lines once to a friend whose husband was ill
with pancreatic cancer, not apropos of what she was enduring,
but because she’d asked me what I was thinking about.

I finished this collection last week and since then I keep thinking about why I have enjoyed Robert Hass’s poetry so much. The combination of his narrative, long form poems, his personal stories and their accessibility are obvious reasons. But the truly brilliant quality of his poems, I decided after reading his PR interview, lies in his transitions which make the poems and where he takes us within them unexpected. I think we are following along with his thoughts which are subsumed by personal stories, poetry and literature.

 

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Survival Is A Style: Poems by Christian Wiman

In the June issue of Poetry Magazine Christian Wiman writes a lovely, thoughtful essay on the poems of William Bronk. Included is a poignant reflection on these lines from Bronk’s collection entitled Life Supports:

I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the word. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.
The World

This may be the saddest poem I know. As with other Bronk poems it sent me reeling through my own life grasping after my own anchors: my wife and my work, my God. Oh no.

And yet this minor poem brings me major peace. Why? Because it is beautiful, and beauty triggers an instinct for an order beyond the one it enacts.

I’ve spend the week reading Wiman’s latest collection of poems, Survival is a Style, and I shared on Twitter that it is the best one I have read so far this year. Throughout these pieces Wiman contemplates those very anchors that keep him sane and whole. Wiman grew up in a rural part of Texas under the influence of a strict, Christian family. His father died recently of a drug overdose, he has dealt with a crisis of faith, and he is always battling a form of blood cancer that, while not curable, at least is dormant for the moment. One of the most touching poems in the collection is entitled “All You Shining Stars” and describes a simple, spontanous day out with his family—his wife and three children, who are clearly his most important “anchors:

Three kinds of hair in the brush one love
has left on the kitchen counter.
Four kinds of cries when it occurs as one
to blow off school and go to the mountains.
And later, over the river, when the upturned duck
never turns over, five kinds of silence.

Always our elsewheres are also here,
like tributaries so intuitive they seem
almost incidentally literal, tiny trickles
in wildernesses too immense to enter,
the cold clefts and the drastic drops,
cliffs of unthinkable ice.

Three kinds of sleep in the hum home
down the dark valley back to New Haven.
Four kinds of dreams behind the headlights,
the world springing into being ten feet at a time.
Five kinds of time when one love wakes up
and wonders where we are, and one wonder
wakes up another, and another, and another.

A lot has been said about Wiman’s use of alliteration, and in this particular poem lines like “the cold clefts and the drastic drops,” as well as his use of numbers lends to the musicality of his verse. There is a sadness mixed with a type of gratitude for moments like these with his family. Similarly in the poem entitled “Baloney” a simple moment at a summer party with friends is captured eloquently:

Poolside, Belgian beer, the lightly ironized light
and splashy laughter of our perfect suburban summer
when from the water, from a child, comes something like
“Look alive, butt crack!”
“It was either that,” Matt says, “or a whippoorwill.”

Over shrimp and coconut rice that Annie made
I recall my dear donnish friend John
who asked that I please not “entertain company” in his bed.
And Samir, who also survived those years on beans, vagabondage,
and long letters that glittered with hopes and Helens,
wondered if I replied, “Will self-pleasure be ok?”

These verses are also an excellent example of Wiman’s charming and sharp sense of humor. The underlying sadness, in the form of nostalgia, still lingers in these lines but friends and his wife are his anchors here.

The longest poem in the collection entitled “The Parable of Perfect Silence” which is featured in Part III, brings together all of Wiman’s thoughts on family, faith, illness, sadness and hope. This poem reminds me of Robert Hass who also likes to tell personal stories in his longer form poems.

Today I woke and believed in nothing.
A grief at once intimate and unfelt,
like the death of a good friend’s dog.

Tired of the mind tracing back in the past for rescue
I praise the day.
I don’t mean merely some mythical, isolate instant
like the mindless mindfulness specialist
who at the terminal cancer convention
(not that it was called that)
exhorted the new year’s crop of slaughters
(ditto)
to “taste” the day, this one unreplicable instant of being alive.
(The chicken glistened.)
Nor do I mean a day devoid of past and future
as craved that great craze of minds and times Fernando Pessoa,
who wanted not “the present” but reality itself,
things in their thingness rather than the time that measures them.
Time is the table at which I sit and the words I type.
In the red-checked shirt my father’s mother used to wear
when she was gardening and which I kept
because it held her smell (though it does no longer)
there is still plenty of time.

And with Wiman and Hass we are never quite sure where the poet is going—there is always a twist, a surprise, something very unexpected thrown at us: words like “unreplicable” and phrases like “The chicken glistened.” And finally, the plot, if one can call it that in a poem, as Wiman moves in between topics or stories involving his grandmother, his father trying to catch a rat, his diagnosis of cancer and a myriad of other snapshots of memory.

As I was lingering over his collection all week, it occurred to me why it struck such a cord and Alex Caldiero’s poem came to mind: “Poetry is wanted here.” I began to think about my own anchors that have gotten me through the past few months and, just when we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, the last week. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life—physically, mentally,emotionally. But I have wonderful anchors—my family, friends, fellow readers, students, colleagues, my cats, and poetry, lots and lots of poetry—whose love and support and wisdom and kindness keep me going for another day.

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the idea of a sm. exercise persisted: études by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker is one of the most important and prolific comtemporary Austrian poets. Even now, well into her nineties, she is composing gorgeous, profound and experimental volumes of poetry like études which was just translated from the German by Donna Stonecipher and published by Seagull Books.  Etudes are small musical compositions, of considerable difficulty, designed to provide practice material in order to master a specific musical skills Mayröcker ‘s composes 200 pages of prose poems, varying in length from a few sentences to a few pages,  that feature her innovative experiments with language, punctuation and grammar.  Her topics are nature, memory, writing and art.  The poems are not given specific titles, but are usually dated and oftentimes dedicated to a friend. In one of the earlier poems she works out her use of  as études exercise books:

exercise of the summer: zenith: with bare feet, magnolia tree, while working on this book the idea of a sm. exercise persisted: étude of a blossoming branch, of a little leaf in my hand, a Swiss pine LINE by the unprepossessing Francis Ponge &c., back then from the living-room window Mother’s head, she waved to be for a long time while I ran down the street turning back again and again to wave, she was already fragile but she smiled in this film &c.

The poet often finds herself wandering through the woods or her garden or opening her window and listening to the sounds of nature.  In this one short excerpt she moves us from the image of a magnolia tree to a blossoming branch, to a leaf; her bucolic surroundings bring about other memories—in this instance the work of Francis Ponge (a French essayist and poet that developed a form of prose poem which explores the minutiae of everyday objects)  and an early memory of her childhood and her mother.

Mayröcker isn’t merely composing études for herself–or her audience–but she recognizes études happening everywhere around her, especially in the natural world.   This French word appears throughout the collection in many contexts:

sm. rain puddles I mean they look like white membranes namely little-petal exercises of the jasmine bush = ‘études.’

birdlet’s practice chirping in early evening (“étude”), practice in the evening before the thunderstorm, in darkened boughs…

your long life passes by you, crosses over you, while the moonshine’s pearls = gleams of tears “études” your memory’s exercises & etc.

night practice=étude: Rhode Island, ’71, in Rhode Island to bed that time America ’71, at his side, I say, exhausted in the CAHIER (Durer’s violet boquet over the bed &c.).

as I awoke, lying on m back with my hands balled into sm. fists and I adventure when we had long forgotten each other namely the ribs of each little leaf (“études”) namely we ADORED each other &c……

There is an underlying nostalgia for romance and love in Mayröcker’s poetry as well.  Ernst Jandl was her long time companion and the poems in her collection Requiem for Ernst, written after his death, have that same tone of sentimental affection and longing. Ernst isn’t mentioned specifically in Etudes, but one of my favorite, romantic poems made me wonder if she were thinking of him.  The rolling waves of the sea become a metaphor for a long relationship, now gone, which has left its “pressure marks” on her like the waves do on the sands:

you know endless infinity symbols in my
hand what does Ajax mean you know the sea ROLLS do you know
how the sea rolls up to your feet and over mountain
and valley your path and past the olive trees
wisteria woods bougainvillea you know the lianas
the lilies the waving cypresses and palm trees to the shores of
the sea you know you are alone (with pressure marks from love)

ach the dark clouds leaning on the window. Don’t see any moon
any stars, but the rod blossomed in the sand……for
our days are just 1 breath &c., for the water
rolling to your feet: bare feet dark blue the waves
roll up to you they take you in their arms so that
it is like 1 crying…..and I screwed up my courage &c.

(inconsolable branchlet you know, am dumbstruck)

Mayröcker’s use of the word “ach” is peculiar but in an intriguing and jarring way.  Many of the poems in the collection have this word at least once.  I’m assuming that the word is the same in the original text since “ach” is a German exclamation.  In one of the earlier poems she explains it was the birds that first inspired her to use this word:

then light blue in the window, natures shifting: murkinesses: Handel’s “Berenice” e.g. bitter oranges namely chirping ACH like the young birdlet in the budding tress whose sawn-off brances in heaps in the wafting grass and purple tones on deepest girl…..

The poet continues to use it as an exclamation and, I think, as a jarring transition between images, thoughts and memories.  I offer few examples from various poems throughout the collection:

After the death of the mother the deep feelings belonged more profoundly to her since the words SOUL and TEARS rose on her face ach shattered her eyes and mouth.

 the cherries ach in our mouth am your adagio the pale hair and pale tears.

1 wan morning meanwhile, I had kept some of my ailments to myself but the doctor could read them in my eyes, he was very magical “and followed me into death” &c. ACH WHAT CUSTOMS.

imperative vegetable I mean from the past I dreamed of the past ach into the river that branched, 1 certain type of field-flower. Fleurs.

ach little heart ran riot with fear circa many years ago, deep-black blueberries, how they grow wild in the woods, or SNACKING on the wood-beauties namely infiltration of a love.

One of my favorite side effects of reading this collection is  the new books and new artists that I’ve discovered.  I read this collection slowly, over the course of the last few weeks while in lockdown–my attention span for reading hasn’t been great–but I’ve have found it very soothing to explore her poetry and various rabbit holes down which she sent me. Mayröcker mentions in one poem, “and everyone asks what are you reading these days &c” and she answers this time and again in just about every poem.  Old favorites, Goethe, Schiller, Musil, and T.S. Eliot, and Handke are comforting to her.  But she also reads widely from different languages (Jean Genet is a favorite French poet of hers) and different periods of time.  For instance, I’ve discovered the poetry of the contemporary German poet Thomas Kling. I’ve also stopped to look at and ponder Cy Twombly’s Orpheus series and Durer’s Violet Bouquet.  Mayröcker ‘s poems and Durer’s painting are both nice reminders of spring, renewal, and rebirth.  I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe.

 

 

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Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Pro Eto-That’s What by Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky had a long, tumultuous affair with Lilya Brik who was married to the poet’s publisher, Osip Brik.  The threesome spent a lot of time together, but in 1923, during a two month separation from Lilya, the poet wrote Pro Eto (About this) and dedicated it to her.   The poem is full of pain, anger, humor, lust, confusion and torment.  In addition to writing about his love affair, Mayakovsky also mixes in his harsh opinions about Lenin and his supposed attempt to implement socialist policies in the Soviet Union.  One of the most striking images that he uses in the first part of the poem is that of a telephone.  It’s an important symbol for both the separation and connection with his lover.  He begins the poem with:

She lies in bed.

While he…

On the table

is the telephone.

“He” and “she are my ballad.

Not terribly original you say.

And he continues his dramatic metaphor by focusing on a description of the workings of the telephone as sounds squeeze through its wires:

Squeezing miraculously

through the thin wire,

stretching the rim

of the mouthpiece funnel,

a thunder of ringings

bangs through the silence,

then the telephone pours out its tinkling lava.

A screaming,

a ringing,

shots slammed into the wall

tried to blow it up.

The juxtaposition of silence with the noise of the phone reminded me of a passage in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which he describes talking on the telephone for the first time and the person to whom he speaks is his beloved grandmother. The shock of hearing her voice without seeing her elicits an unexpected emotional response:

And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all, on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost—more than any but a few human voices can ever have been—of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

After this phone conversation the narrator immediately packs his things and runs how to his grandmother. When she is sick, he understands the severity of her illness when her voice changes and he can no longer understand her.  This tension that exists between hearing the loved one’s voice yet being separated is present in Mayakovsky’s poem as well.  As I watch the grim news with people dying alone from this horrible,  invasive virus, it’s become evident that the only way to say goodbye to sick loved ones is through a phone call.  Once again, the phone becomes a symbol for a state of limbo— somewhere between closeness and separation. 

Finally, both Proust and Mayakovsky both suffer from heart sickness, but only Mayakovsky succumbs to it by committing suicide.  There are haunting passages in Pro Eto that foreshadow his tragic end:

If I sacrificed a day

I sacrificed a year

To this dreary nonsense.

I too almost succumbed 

to this delirium.

It ate up my life

with its domestic murk

and the said:

“Go on, jump

from the first floor,

the pavement’s waiting.”

 

In 1923, after its original publication in the journal LEF, Pro Eto was presented as a separate edition with photomontages done by Aleksandr Rodchenko.  Mayakovsky, Lilya and telephones prominently appear in many of the photos.  

 

 

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