This is a linked Slavic tanka that Alexis Rotella and I worked worked on for months with many revisions. It was a great honor to write with her and we had much fun in the process. This piece won the Tanka Splendor Award (AHA Books) in 2007. These are Jane Reichhold's "After Words": The winning sequence – “round races and Nesting Dolls” by anya and Alexis Rotella is a collaborative linked tanka poem that has already been admired and picked up for publication in other magazines, and used in university classes. It is a marvelous piece of work and is worthy of being a book all by itself. M. Kei also published it in his first issue of Atlas Poetica, Poetry of Place. In additon, I received the following:

"Dear an'ya, My issue of Atlas Poetica arrived this afternoon. I sat down and immersed myself in it, enjoying all of the poems very much. But "round faces and Nesting Dolls" stood out--it is really wonderful! I am sure that you and Alexis have already heard this often, but as you have not met me and I am a stranger", I hope that you won't mind another bit of unsolicited praise. I grew up in Canton, Ohio, with many Orthodox families and churches in the area. I used to attend Orthodox liturgy at a Greek Church regularly, though my family was Protestant and I later was ordained in the United Church of Christ. I am a  specialist in the History of Religion and am now teaching a class on Religion in America. I emphasize "Religion as Lived" rather than doctrine or formal philosophy. I am fascinated by the way that religious traditions work their way into the small details of our lives, shaping our consciousness and sense of self indelibly. I have a unit coming up on Eastern Orthodoxy in America, and I want to tell you that I am planning to give each student a handout of "round faces and Nesting Dolls" to read along with the orther assigned readings for the unit. It is exemplary tanka, and it also vividly and poignantly captures the essence of "religion as lived" experience. I dn't know Alexis, and do not have her address at hand, so please pass on from me my appreciation to her as well." Thanks, James

Dr. James R. Rohrer

Department of History
University of Nebraska
at Kearney

round faces and Nesting Dolls
an'ya
Alexis Rotella

traditionally
on garbage day we smash
our egg shells . . .
no boats for wrong-doers
to cross the atlantic

 

Leaving Vespers early
we look up from
the STOP sign—
a fire ball cutting
across the velvet sky.

 

a lengthy toast
to our visitor who strikes
the Yule log 
sparks fly and next year’s
crops will be bountiful

 

Our old priest
planting geraniums
in the cemetery;
a cloud of gnats
encircles his head.

 

through the dome,
that hill where we played
as children—
for us there will always be
multiple sets of parents

 

A fog of frankincense—
my fainted brother,
the altar boy
carried out for fresh air
in the arms of an elder.

 

community Hall:
a young keeper pours only
for those who perform;
our entire choir gathers
’round the end of the bar

 

Christmas Eve Kubas*— (*carolers dressed as kings and shepherds)
throwing back shots
of whiskey;
Mother’s walnut rolls
have also disappeared.

 

serenaded
by the gentleman she’s
about to marry . . .
sharing Slivovitz* with buddies— *(plum brandy)
he’s a confirmed bachelor

 

A fist fight
breaks out at the wedding—
the female
they’re fighting over
pretends not to be flattered.

 

our funerals,
the newspaper calls them
“real uppers” . . .
but to celebrate life/living—
for us this is normal

 

Returning from the woods
with a barrow full of humus
for our garden
and a wreath of tea berries
to surround the Paska.* (*Easter bread)

Hristos Voskrese* !— (*He is Risen!)
we color eggs coal-black
for the bone yard,
no relatives excluded—
not even those deceased.

 

Stillborn cousin
buried at the far end
of the grounds . . .
her name was Rachel,
but there is no stone.

 

crows on a thatched roof—
to protect the nursling,
an evil-eye bead
from childhood memories
carried with me still

 

Walking home from school,
I meet an old lady
on the back street
who says “girls who wear red
keep company with Satan.”

 

baptism:
renouncing the serpent,
great grandfather
is still the one who spits
into midair the furthest

 

Kept in Mother’s trunk
all these years . . .
my christening dress
with the wine spot,
along with a lock of my hair.

from our pantry
a stench of cabbage
fermenting—
russet potatoes hold down
the lids on the crocks

 

Islands
of sour cream float
on the borscht*— (*beet soup)
with leftover skins I stain
my eleven-year old lips.

 

national troupe—
a male dance performed
before the crowd;
women with fake mustaches,
out-dance their menfolk

 

Meeting another
papinki* hunter (*mushroom)
in the thicket,
we each go off
to our secret cache.

 

for Holytide,
a customary oak tree
felled by *tata— (*father or dad)
I pocket the first chip
for mama’s morning cream

 

Julian Christmas—
its spirit arrives,
soft red and green
reflections sink
into freshly fallen snow.

at long last
the first white crocus
surfaces
again as if by magic,
we’ve survived a harsh winter

 

Baba* walking down (*grandma)
from the house on the hill;
in her arms,
an aluminum milk can
filled with fresh pierogis.

 

kneading dough
by hand, no electric mixers
in this kitchen! . . .
it gives us much more time
to sip the reducing wine

My aunt, the soprano,
and uncle, basso profundo
just put up
with each other, but on Sundays
they harmonize like nightingales.

after the battle,
silent kolos* still done (*circle dances with no music)
by everybody,
but for our elderly . . .
the reasons are different

On a stroll
through the park
I tell
Father Yankovich’s daughter
how babies are made.

tri-colored ribbons
circle the beeswax candles
in our Wheat—
an inch a day higher
of New Life to come

 

Uncle Fred
lugs in a wooden barrel
with salt herring;
the smell of ocean
filling our cellar.

 

for His birth,
baked in our braided bread,
a lucky dinar— *(coin)
this year, my third sister
returns it to the icon

 

Boiling mushrooms
we drop a dime
in the water
checking to make sure
it doesn’t turn black.

 

paschal kisses*— (*Easter
like a moth drawn to
the flame,
our city-mouse niece
scurries from boy to boy

 

In my blue skirt
made from an umbrella,
the tortoise shell nibs
still attached—
I twirl away the summer.

 

from a dark pew
stepping into bright sunlight
the clergyman’s wife
exclaims to an outsider
“you have the wrong color eyes!”

Greens!
from fresh scallions
chopped
into the leaf lettuce . . .
finally a taste of spring.

 

Saint George’s Day:
teenage lads with foilage
over their ears . . .
maidens “gathering the dew”
to wear in their head scarves

 

Horseradish
for the Resurrection baskets,
and baby beets . . .
enough to share with
everyone on our street.

 

hot purple
on every person’s tongue,
each hoping
for merciful compassion . . .
praying for great romances

 

The Bishop
comes to bless out house
and being “human”
forgets to lift up
the toilet seat.

 

august sun
on dozens of balding heads
at dad’s funeral—
each one named John or Peter,
followed by a Jr

 

The latest
in car ornaments . . .
crocheted balls
and a penis,
hidden from us kids.

 

in the old-country
even butterflies are blessed
with a soul—
mysteries of the universe
we accept as God’s truth

 

Each of my toes
has its own personality:
four babushkas* (*elderly women)
huddle together while
the thumb plays man of the cloth.

 

in front of our house
getting off the school bus,
always a whiff
of something—today it’s
eggplant and skinless bell-fruits

 

And tomorrow, golden
blini* with farmer cheese; (*crepes)
with a glass
of creamy kefir* * (cultured milk)
to chase away the bugs.

 

papa’s dank barn
hung with raftered meats,
we close our eyes
to sniff garlic paprikas—
feel the flames from a bellows

 

Shooting stars—
I sit on the stoop with
my nesting dolls,
while inside our house
three generations playing cards.

 

seedtime:
new wives hang their bed-gowns
on fruit tree boughs . . .
how many male heirs shall
someday grace their futures?

 

Summer days—
dragging ourselves
out of bed
to go to Russian school
to learn the Old Slavonic.

 

noise to scare
the enemy away . . .
long nights spent
stitching little brass bells
into all our petticoats

 

Great Aunt Tatiana
sews a red sun-suit for me,
one for my doll—
and we each get
a small apple pie.

 

leaving the party
with treasures in our pockets,
nema problema* . . . (*no problem)
the hostess already knew
gypsies would steal her ashtrays

 

The Bogey Man
walks out of the woods
searching
for little children
to spit-roast and eat.

 

on his white steed,
I recall the heroic
folk tale of Marko,
smitten with a forest vila*— (*nymph)
companion to all good men

 

Mother left him
at the altar—
he was raised Orthodox
but not a believer
and that would never work.

 

ice cream social:
a stamp on the forehand
to get back in . . .
only the prison camp
survivors refused it

 

Bingo night—
at the Polish church,
that woman
with a brogue is on
another winning streak.

for forty days
after his departure
we set a place
for our dearly beloved
at the supper table

 

A cook for the Czar,
Grandma comes to America
not expecting to meet
on a sidewalk in New York,
the young man she married.

Serbian kafa,* (*strong coffee)
3 times to a rolling boil
for the Trinity . . .
the Holy Spirit bubbles
over onto our clean stove

 

A piece of bread
dropped on the floor . . .
I pick it up
and kiss it, before
tossing it out to the birds.

 

on new years,
we honor the piglet’s skull
with its apple . . .
I explain circumcision
to a non-informed friend

 

With a knife
from her apron pocket
Grandma cuts off
the head of a sunflower . . .
will the rooster be next?

 

after his father,
and a second generation
coal miner . . .
he stencils O-VICH* (*o-vich=son of)
on hand-me-down work clothes

 

Three brothers
share their lunch with rats . . .
the four-leggers
who once warned
them of a cave-in.

 

eyeballs popped
out of every roasting lamb
what sport! . . .
a colorful childhood
to say the very least

 

Going to visit Aunt Mary
I wear my prettiest dress . .
the one she bought me
when I was in the hospital,
the one with the rainbow slip.

 

funeral parlor:
my Godfather Ivan laid out
for the viewing—
his widow an x- beautician
tangles a comb in his hair

 

My grandparent’s
ivy-covered smoke house
puffing away—
the smells in our town
during Holy Week!

 

up the mountain
carrying bread and sheep curd
for lunch—
my fellow climbers ask
“What died in your backpack?”

 

Never much cared
for green peppers
until Cousin Carol
invited me over
to her house for hajaja.* (*fried green peppers & onions)

 

one afternoon,
we collect red cabbage leaves
at the market,
pushing our cart right on by
those commercial dying kits

 

Monday morning—
the day my mother washed
and cleaned . . .
I too reserve this day
for matters of the moon.

 

head of the household
rose sachet and moth balls
in the drawers;
woolen socks embroidered
with blue forget-me-nots

 

In her morning tea,
a swirl of strawberry jam—
no other kind
would do since that was how
the Czarina* took hers. (*wide of a Czar)

 

rites of Equinox
new lovers frolicking
in old-growth—
pagans before Christians,
although in a rural sense

 

From our fridge,
I give my friend some
Holy water
for her headache, and in minutes
she’s praising the Lord.

 

delivered
by the village doctor . . .
their offspring
generations apart, but
all with the same round faces

 

In my nurse’s kit
forgotten under our porch,
the woolly bears
I picked for safe keeping,
have all turned to tiger moths.

 

in a long line,
slav beauties on both sides
of the hotshot dancer;
acting like a legend, he
admires his own reflection

 

Mesmerized when you said
your aunt once cut Elvis’ hair,
how he oozed
with life force, how he ate
her pita* and asked for more. (*strudel)

pineapple doilies
pinned on a drying board
in midday sun . . .
between Brownstone houses
the fragrance of laundry starch

 

The way I watched
old age creep in
on my mother’s face;
now it’s her turn
to watch my beauty fade.

 

newfound freedom—
the statue of liberty
looms before us;
gazing upward, we wonder . . .
can men still sing in the streets?