Poetry. Winner of the 2002 Dorset Prize, and recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Ilya Kaminsky is a recent Russian immigrant and rising poetic star. Despite the fact that he is a non-native speaker, Kaminksy's sense of rhythm and lyic surpasses that of most contemporary poets in the English language. This magical, musical book of poems draws readers into its unforgettable heart, and Carolyn Forché wrties simply "I'm in awe of his gifts."
At several points in this volume, Kaminsky makes clear that he has no affiliation (“I was born in the city named after Odysseus/ and I praise no nation—” “The sky my medicine, the sky my country”); perhaps worried that his readers might not understand that this constitutes a rejection of the national identity of his asylum-givers, he writes, “In plain speech, for the sweetness/ between the lines is no longer important, what you call immigration I call suicide.” We also know, from the first line of the collection that he aspires to “speak for the dead”—whether this is easier or more difficult for someone who feels that he has killed his identity, I do not know. Occasionally, throughout the volume, there are moments where Kaminsky shows (appropriate) modesty about his poetic ambitions. For example, to Joseph Brodsky, he writes, “You would be ashamed of these wooden lines,/ how I don’t imagine your death/ but it is here, setting my hands on fire.”
In any case, an ambitious, deep-feeling young poet is constructing, for himself and for his ancestors, a tribute and a bridge. From what I have read, he is not their equal; but he is talented and I will read him again. In his poems grapefruit, small change, levity and intimacy oppose the furies of fascism, search warrants, surveillance and tanks. Prose poems, a glossary and a recipe are integrated sensibly with more lyric verse and a small palette of objects recur throughout all five of the longer, segmented poems: pigeons, wind, tomatoes, coins, ill-fated ships, joints of the human body, lemons, the word “syllables”, biblical references and hands. It works to have these humble nodes, connecting one poem to the next, binding the thoughtful and sometimes touching love poems to his wife with the poems that imagine dead voices from another era in their moments of grief or celebration. There is something logical about selecting objects, forces, and traditions that have not changed and using them as a shared context for diverse human subjects.
But, I have not spoken highly enough about the quality of his poetry when he gets things right: he sometimes manages a rapid movement over and through several connected people in a way that is both affectionate and wise. For instance, “my mother danced, she filled the past/ with peaches, casseroles. At this, my doctor laughed, his granddaughter/ touched my eyelid—I kissed/ / the back of her knee.”
“On my brother’s head: not a single/ gray hair, he is singing to his twelve-month-old son. / / And my father is singing/ to his six-year-old silence.”
At other times, Kaminsky conjures a very real and sympathetic persona that struggles to connect and remain connected: “I bend clumsily at the knees/ and I quarrel no more,/ all I want is a human window/ / in a house whose roof is my life.”
“He is traveling across her kitchen, touching furniture,/ a small propeller in his head / / turning as he speaks.”
“Memory,/ I whisper, stay awake.”
A book of poetry is worth reading, from my point of view, if it offers up just a few pages of excerpts this singular and unpretentious. Kaminsky achieves this and he does so without ever being annoying—even while embarked on what I obviously think is a rather grand mission.