Dancing in Odessa

by Ilya Kaminsky

Paper Book, 2004






Dorset, Vt. : Tupelo Press, 2004.


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."

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LibraryThing member fieldnotes
It is bold to write elegies to great masters of your native language who died four decades before your birth in tragic circumstances; yet, Ilya Kaminsky seems comfortable using his adopted language (English) to attach himself to the writers in whose lineage he wishes to belong. He stakes a claim over personal stories in the lives of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel and Marina Tsvetaeva--three of whom were ground out of existence by the Soviet government between 1938 and 1941. He also permits into this constellation, Paul Celan, whose Jewishness and experience of suffering presumably outweigh the fact that he wrote his poetry in German. Kaminsky and his family fled the former Soviet Union for the United States, where they were granted asylum. I don’t know more about his life than that; but the authors mentioned above endured horrendous circumstances.

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.
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LibraryThing member amyfaerie
This poetry is beautiful, and meeting Kaminsky and hearing him read and teach only makes it more lovely.
LibraryThing member poetontheone
Ilya Kaminsky constructs a history for the land of his youth. It is an ancestral tapestry that is literary as well as personal, reaching back past aunts and uncles to Mandelstam and Brodsky. He exacts these goals with humility all the while exerting a musicality of language imbued with the fervor of prophecy and powerful imagery bordering on dream. A striking debut collection from a dynamic and wanted voice.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jennifer_Matthews
This is the platonic ideal of poetry. He lets his imagery do the work, not only within the individual poems but throughout the collection. There is beauty, sorrow, love, grief--all conveyed in exquisite, simple and profound poems.
LibraryThing member archangelsbooks
Utterly transcendent! Ilya Kaminsky IS poetry.
LibraryThing member Dreesie
This poetry collection is a celebration? recognition? of Kaminsky's Ukrainian past. He and his family immigrated to the US when he was 16 and they were granted asylum. This book, published 11 years later, seems to be his first foray into English poetry. He references many Ukrainian poets of the early-to-mid 20th century (who often were born in places now in the Ukraine that were in Russia or Romania at the time they were born), and one Italian poet is also referenced.

I had to look up all of these people because Joseph Brodsky was the only one I had heard of and I have read none of them (but I will be reading Eugenio Montale soon). Most/all of the Ukrainians suffered greatly during the Russian Revolution of World War I, most dying around age 50. But the poems with these poets names as titles go a little over my head--I haven't read their poetry and my knowledge about them comes from wikipedia articles. I feel like readers need to have a background with all of these other poets to understand these poems.

There is a lot of dancing, Odessa, Natalia, Aunt Rose, mentions of deafness. Kaminsky's second collection is Deaf Republic, which I loved, and on page 5 of this work he writes "My secret: at the age of four I became deaf." Is this "I" he the poet? Or a character? Or a representation of someone else?

So, mostly I felt a little lost here. I certainly learned a lot by reading about the people he references. I did very much like the poem Musica Humana, the second half of which is built around a fascinating and terrifying idea.
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