To Russia With Love, A Review of Ilya Kaminski's
Dancing in Odessa by Adam L. Dressler
Ilya Kaminsky's first book, Dancing in
Odessa, is an effort, in his words, to speak for the dead, to reclaim (often through reinvention) a time and place that
no longer existsthe city of Odessa in the former Soviet Union, from which the author and his family were granted asylum in
the early 90's before coming to America. Throughout this collection, he remains true to the cloudy lens of recollection,
never separating public from private, event from emotion, fact from fiction. The work is replete with repetitions and reconsiderations;
when he speaks of Odessa it is both as a city famous for its drunk tailors, huge mausoleums of rabbis, horse owners and
horse thieves, and most of all, for its stuffed and baked fish, (Travelling Musicians) and as a city ruled jointly by doves
and crows (Dancing in Odessa ) The magical and the real, the lofty and the low, commingled in memory, are given equal
The same is true of his prose and his poetry; poems are interspersed with prose sections and vice-versa.
In Musica Humana, a long elegy to Osip Mandelstam, Kaminsky smoothly moves from restrained, semi-surreal stanzas
In the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet,
he will show her the way to silence,
they will leave the radio
talking to itself.
Making love, they turn off the lights
but the neighbor has binoculars
and he watches, dust
settling on his lids.
to semi-historic prose accounts
Nadezhda [Mandelstam's wife] looks up from the
page and speaks: Osip, Akhmatova and I were standing together when suddenly Mandelstam melted with joy: several little girls
ran past us, imagining themselves to be horses. The first one stopped, impatiently asking: Where is the last horsy? I grabbed
Mandelstam by his hand to prevent him from joining; and Akhmatova, too, sensing danger, whispered: Do not run away from us,
you are our last horsy.
and onward to, of all things, a recipe for Cold Mint-Cucumber Soup:
butter Melt butter in a skillet with gar-
1 cup plain yogurt
lic, onion, cucumber; cook until
1 onion (chopped) soft. Stir in stock,
blend, bring to
1 garlic clove
boil, puree. Blend in mint, chill.
3 cucumbers (sliced) Before serving, stir in yogurt.
rice flour Mix.
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons fresh mint (chopped)
Salt and pepper
One might feel that Kaminsky is a half-mad chef, throwing everything into the mix, including the kitchen sink, if
not for the steady, consistently dignified and graceful voice, distinctly his own, with which he holds everything together,
and for the joy with which he approaches the most commonplace of objects, managing to avoid both bathos and pretension. In
Natasha, a love poem, he writes:
But I loved the stubbornness of her bedclothes!
I bite them, taste bedclothes
the sweet mechanism of pillows and covers.
A serious woman, she danced
without a shirt, covering what she
We lay together on Yom Kippur, chosen by a wrong God,
the people of a book, broken by a book.
is this rare gift for inclusion and evenness that allows Kaminsky to treat with equal success what others might deem loftier
subjectsthe literary legends that are as much a part of Kaminsky's lost landscape as the geography and chronology. In addition
to the elegy to Mandelstam, he has devoted an entire section to the figures of Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, Paul Celan,
and Marina Tsvetaeva, each of whom gives their name to the title of one poem and one prose-poem. In Elegy for Joseph Brodsky
(poem) and Joseph Brodsky (prose-poem), as in the other pairings of this section, one form talks to the other, and the two
together add up to more than the sum of their parts:
Elegy for Joseph Brodsky
In plain speech, for the sweetness
between the lines is no longer important,
what you call immigration I call suicide.
I am sending, behind, the punctuation,
unfurling nights of New York,
slipping into Cyrillic
winter coils words, throws snow on a wind.
You, in the middle of an unwritten
exile to a place further than silence.
I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow
rushing towards my own training
to live with your lines
on a verge of a story set against itself.
with your lines, those where sails rise, waves
beat against the city's granite in each vowel,
pages open by themselves,
a quiet voice
speaks of suffering, of water.
We come back to where we have committed a crime,
come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.
I tried to imitate you
for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
be ashamed of these wooden lines,|
how I don't imagine your death
but it is here, setting my hands on fire.
Joseph made his living by giving private lessons in everything from engineering to Greek. His eyes were sleepy and small,
his face dominated by a huge mustache, like Nietszche's. He mumbled. Do you enjoy Brahms? I cannot hear you, I said. How
about Chopin? I cannot hear you. Mozart? Bach? Beethoven? I am hard of hearing, could you repeat that please? You will have
great success in music, he said. To meet him, I go back to the Leningrad of 1964. The streets are devilishly cold: we sit
on the pavement, he begins abruptly (a dry laugh, a cigarette) to tell me the story of his life, his words changing to icicles
as we speak. I read them in the air.
The poem is more lyrical, more attentive, both in execution and in theme, to the power of language, while the prose-poem
is more humorous and more explicit, but in both poetry is presented, paradoxically, as a sustaining and debilitating force,
an embodiment of the beauty and violence of memory.
Even without his dedications to these other writers, Kaminsky's sympathy to the persecuted and isolated is clear.
Not only is he geographically and culturally displaced, but, as he tells us in the book's title poem, My secret: at the
age of four I became deaf. As in the case of his other forms of exile, he describes his disability not in terms of loss,
but opportunity and transformationWhen I lost my hearing, I began to see voices. Indeed, his work often features a synthesis
of senses bordering on synesthesia. He writes of Tsvetaeva, I imagined her voice smelling of oranges; of the night, [it]
undressed us (I counted its pulse); of October, grapes hung like the fists of a girl / gassed in her prayer. In the assonance
of undressed uspulse and the consonance of grapesgirl / gassed, and in innumerable half-rhymes throughout the collection,
Kaminsky's subtle, fluid, sonic mastery serves to quietly unite all elements of his poems, no matter how disparate.
The fact that he has achieved a style that is simultaneously so sonically dense, imagistically rich, emotionally stirring,
socially and historically inventive, and, while following in the footsteps of acknowledged literary legends, still emerging
as uniquely his own, and all by the age of twenty seven, is nothing short of astonishing. Dancing in Odessa is a triumphant
debut, announcing the arrival of a poet whose talents, and potential, are limitless.
A Review of Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing in Odessa by Jeannine Hall Gailey from The Pedestal
I was glad that I had the opportunity to see Ilya Kaminsky read his work before I
read the blurbs on the back of his book, the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize-winning Dancing in Odessa, otherwise I might have
been too intimidated to write this review. When I sat listening to him for the first time, I thought to myself, “Yes,
now this is poetry." And apparently, a lot of really famous poets agree with me. The blurb signatures, acknowledgments
and thanks in the back of the book read like a Who´s Who in contemporary American poetry. Everyone´s there--
Carolyn Forché, Robert Pinsky, Li-Young Lee, Louise GlÃ¼ck, Anthony Hecht. And forget the fact that
Kaminsky was only born in 1977, that English is not his first language, and that despite his marvelous sense of and obvious
love of music, he lost most of his hearing ability when he was a child. Did I mention he has already won the Ruth Lilly Fellowship
from Poetry magazine and somehow found the time to obtain a law degree?
Apart from this astonishing biographical
information, Dancing in Odessa is an amazing collection. The book is really an integrated series of mostly long poems, “Dancing
in Odessa," “Musica Humana," “Natalia," “Traveling Musicians," and “Praise."
“Dancing in Odessa" chronicles the speaker´s family and homeland; “Musica Humana" is a long elegy
for Osip Mendelstam, a writer who was an outspoken critic of Stalin; “Natalia" contains two love poems; “Traveling
Musicians" is a series of poems dedicated to writers like Paul Celan and Joseph Brodsky; and “Praise" is
a poem that tries come to an understanding about what the speaker has left behind and gained. These sectioned poems flow
into one another, and range from prose sections (even recipes) to highly lyrical pieces, as the subject or narrative warrants.
But the writer keeps us grounded in an earthy symbolism: watch for the connecting repetitions of raspberries, tomatoes,
and lanterns. Perhaps it´s because he came to the English language late, but Kaminsky´s word choices often sound
new to my ears; sometimes it´s as if when he wrote the poem he was putting together a puzzle instead of writing out
speech, which has a pleasantly jarring effect.
Young poets are often advised to read the poetry of other cultures,
usually for the same general reason young people are encouraged to travel: because it is assumed that reading poetry of
other cultures expands the mind, helps the poet learn what poetry can and cannot do, and helps the poet better define the
poetry of his or her own culture. I would say that Kaminsky expands the idea of what American poetry can do. Writing in
his non-native tongue, he possesses a magical ability to make words we have grown tired of fresh again.
are two things that make this young writer stand out from his contemporaries: He allows himself a range of emotion (including,
shockingly, an unashamed sincerity) that most North American poets simply do not allow themselves to access, cutting off
the extreme edges of their work. Kaminsky has lines that are howlingly funny next to lines of unspeakable horror; his invocations
of romantic love are brave and sometimes goofy, just like the real thing.
Second, his scope is not limited to
himself, it is sweeping--it includes not only his family, but also an imagining of the lives of other writers and people,
particularly those living in the small Ukraine village that he left behind when he immigrated to America. This scope resists
the smallness of mind that seems to infect so many current books of poetry, the inwardness, dullness, and misery.
This collection cannot help but make a statement about humanity, not a simplistic one, but a realistic, morally, and politically
informed one, about how human beings overcome evil and hardship. In an interview with the online journal The Adirondack
Review, Kaminsky says: “And, another thing--I have always complained that no one--absolutely no one--is writing happy
poems these days in America. What happened? It is after all up to the writer what to leave his readers with. I want to leave
my readers laughing in a poem about death and crying in the poem about weddings. Why? Because we do so constantly in our
daily experience. This is the ultimate act of witnessing. If a writer is unable to witness the joy of being on this third
planet of the sun, I doubt that he or she has found his or her truest vocation."
Beneath the narratives of
the poems themselves is an underlying spirituality, more than the invocation of the Jewish faith of his family--a desire
for goodness, a desire to see goodness, that is rare in human beings, much less poets.
One of the more moving
poems in the book, especially in the wake of the Beslan school slaughter, was “Maestro," from the first section,
“Dancing in Odessa":
when the schools are bombed, sadness is forbidden
--I write this now and I
feel my body´s weight:
the screaming girls, 347 voices
in the story of a doctor saving them, his hands
trapped under a wall, his granddaughter dying nearby--
she whispers I don´t want to die, I have eaten such
Kaminsky is graceful in the way that he juxtaposes an abstract concept (say, love) and an arresting,
concrete item (say, turnips.) This works particularly well in the “Natalia" section, one of my favorites, and
also when he writes about his family. From the poem “Natalia":
Late January, the darkness is handwritten
into trees. As I speak of her, she sits at the mirror, combing her hair. From her hair the water pours, the leaves fall.
I undress her, my tongue passing over her skin. "Potatoes!" she tells me, "I smell like potatoes!" and
I touch her lips with my fingers.
These lines from “My Mother´s Tango" illustrate another example
of this kind of genius:
asks to describe the stages of my happiness--
…But what was happiness? A pony on the balcony!
Dancing in Odessa is a collection
full with ambition, intelligence, and passion; well-constructed with humor, whimsicality, and an unrelenting desire for
truth. I am constantly reminded in reading this book of Voltaire´s quote: “Life is a comedy for those who think,
and a tragedy for those who feel." This is poetry that walks a tightrope between edification and entertainment, between
suffering and enlightened laughter. I am looking forward to reading more of Kaminsky´s work in the future.