Review of Toska by Alina Pleskova

Cover of Toska: A drawing of a creature with a wolf for a torso and human legs with stockings and high heels, draped with a flowing multicolor sash and holding a projection of an eye.

Toska by Alina Pleskova

Deep Vellum, 2023

120 pages, $16.95

Review by Alisha Bruton

Describing Toska feels like trying to catch a top in motion; holding it ruins my delight in how it moves. This is Alina Pleskova’s first full-length collection, but she is apprentice to nothing. The book begins “I’ve been trying to remember where I am,” as she explores queerness and belonging, the unmoored feeling of being an immigrant, disconnected both from her place of origin and her adopted land: “The country where I live- its surveillance of us surveilled by the country I’m from.” 1 She always feels “less American” than she should: “There’s never an arrival point- only endurance & the occasional sensation of reentry.” 1 Her poems create the feeling I get from the Love & Theft album by Bob Dylan where he sings “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” She leaves one place for another, but is perpetually caught between, and full of toska, an untranslatable Russian word meaning melancholy, yearning, or according to Vladimir Nabokov, “a vague restlessness.”

The setting is dire; nationalism and capitalism fall under critique yet increase their stranglehold, the glaciers melt, autonomous delivery robots bring us our groceries, and the algorithms become the only things that understand us. Yet Pleskova’s voice rises like a prayer out of the rubble: “It’s somewhere towards the end of the Anthropocene and still I want to fall in love.” 1  As she mourns the death of the myth that Eros could be durable, and dismantles the bootstrap fables of previous generations, she takes refuge in the tiny ceremonies we invent to soothe ourselves, the shared fictions that hold us, ever so loosely, together. Given everything, she still has hope for a better future: “I’m holding out for anything that involves choosing what happens with one’s day for more of a day than not.” 2

There is no performativity here. In one poem she considers writing about an event that never happened but decides against it: “the actual wins out, in all its inelegance.” 3  She has a colossal hunger for collision, saying she is “ruthlessly down for whatever. Even or especially if it stings,” 4 occupied with searching for a “ruinous type of intimacy” but everyone is “too woke or too tired.” 1 Delicately, she longs for community in a world that is always connected but always has its camera off, experiences the simultaneous desire for and disgust with instant gratification: “It’s not that I don’t know what I want; I just don’t know how to want the same things for a long time.” 5 And she asks if “anyone wants to switch appetites for a week so I can understand moderation.” 6

There is a cosmic sadness, a bittersweet and inconsolable longing that fills her work. Our shared sorrow, our collective uncertainty, our toska becomes the passport to a better world; we all just want to go home. But for the immigrant, for the persecuted, for the queer- where is that safe place? She has no answers, only instructions: “this proof we should be tender, given our undoing drifts in just the same.”7 The front cover of Toska is a wolf dressed in women’s clothes, mouth smeared with blood. I was reading Wolfish by Erica Berry at the same time as I was reading Toska. “Wolves howl as a mode of connection… after feeding, but also, sometimes, out of loneliness,” says Berry. In Pleskova’s poems, I could feel a tender longing for connection and meaning in an anti-science, post-religion, verging on post-hope world, and it felt familiar, and true, the way the first few chords of a song on the radio fill you with happiness before you even know what the song is. You “can’t open vulnerability like a door,” 8 she says, though that’s exactly what she did. Toska is warm, generous, and truly remarkable.

1Take Care
2Sacred Bath Bomb
3Route 1
4Saturn Return
6Blood Moon
7Now That I Am in Reykjavik & Can Think
8Vulnerability Engine
Alisha Bruton, a smiling woman with brown hair and a pink dress.

Alisha Bruton is a research scientist and mathematician in Portland, OR. She studies the impact of nutrition, stress, and body awareness on the health and emotional well-being of people with ADHD.