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Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Dancing in Odessa

by Ilya Kaminsky

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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. ( )
  Jennifer_Matthews | Oct 28, 2011 |
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. ( )
  poetontheone | Oct 7, 2010 |
In the introduction to his website, http://www.ilyakaminsky.com/, Ilya Kaminsky quotes the first poem of this collection: “at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing I began to see voices.” This explains a lot of the images and sonics of his collection, dancing in odessa. Many of his images and word choices have a visual and sound quality which impacts the reader’s appreciation of the poems, as well as affecting the visuals created in the mind.

As his website relates, he was born in the former Soviet Union in 1977 and came to the US in 1993. He lost his hearing when he was four and his father a year after coming to America. Dancing has won several awards, and he has a collection of 20th century poetry in translation from Ecco press coming out next year.

Kaminsky’s website provides quite a few excerpts from interviews. Perhaps one key to his poetry might be found in a remark he made during an interview with Colleen Marie Ryor of the Adirondack Review. While describing the situation of his family when they first came to the US in 1993, he said, “none of us spoke English -- I myself hardly knew the alphabet.” Could his strange poetic diction be the result of some lack of understanding of the nuances of English? Has something been lost in the translation? The publication date for Dancing is 2004 – barely ten years to master a difficult language with an almost infinite variety of shades of meaning of countless words.

After reading this collection four times, and pouring over some of the lines literally dozens of times, attempts to make sense of some of his images have failed. A search for patterns shed little light on his meaning. One pattern easily discernable flows from the title. The thread of dancing recurs throughout the collection. The opening line of “In Praise of Laughter,” offers a clever image which conjures an image of dancing when Kaminsky writes, “Where days bend and straighten / in a city that belongs to no nation” (6). The sound quality of both these lines has the rhythm of music to them, and provides a sonic effect in addition to the visual quality of his diction. This line recalls Robert Herrick’s ode, “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” when he writes,

“Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !

The relatively simple language (for the time) conveys the movement of a woman in an elaborate silk gown. The “frou-frou” of her swishing silks clearly comes into the consciousness.

Several stanzas later Kaminsky writes, “He ran after a train with tomatoes in his coat // and danced naked on the table in front of our house” (6). The surreal nature of the connection of disparate images in the second example here might describe Kaminsky’s poetry, and it might even make for an interesting experience, but it does nothing to further understanding of his intentions or his verses.

A careful reader can find these tortured lines on almost any page. For example, in “American Tourist,” Kaminsky wrote, “In a city made of seaweed we danced on a rooftop,” (11). Odessa is near the shores of the Black Sea, but does this mean the house was financed by an occupation involving seaweed? Surely he cannot mean a house literally made of seaweed. In Global Coastal Change, Ivan Valiela reports a study of the ecology of the Black Sea which reveals in the 1960s and 1970s, an “anoxic” episode killed over half the population of fish, plankton, and seaweed. By the 1990s, the viable area of the sea floor had been reduced to about 5% of the original habitat (8). How deep does a reader need to dig to understand a poem? The trail to understanding this particular line dead-ended here.

However, Kaminsky does have his moments. Although much rarer, the collection has some memorable lines and images sprinkled throughout. For example, in “American Tourist,” he writes,

“When Moses
broke the sacred tablets on Sinai, the rich

picked the pieces carved with:
‘adultery’ and ‘kill’ and ‘theft,’
the poor got only ‘No’ ‘No’ No.’ (11)

These powerful lines also have the sonic and rhythmic qualities mentioned previously. The repletion of “no” gives this poem feel of a song along with the sense of movement.

In the prose poem “Traveling Musicians,” he writes, “In the beginning was the sea – we heard the surf in our breathing, certain that we carried seawater in our veins” (39). Strong, memorable lines like these require a lot of digging to unearth. Each reader must decide whether they are real diamonds or glass; that is, are they worth the effort?

Another example of peculiar but strong imagery occurs in “A Farewell to Friends,” “you have for sisters wild carnations, / nipples of lilacs, splinters of chickens” (41). Mysterious, unfathomable connections abound in his poetry.

The simple language of these examples deserving of admiration may have made for an easy transition from Russian to English, but some of the more complicated lines might have lost the nuances of his mother tongue in translation.

Sometimes, the emperor is not wearing any clothes, and sometimes a poet tortures a word into a line for the purpose of shock and surprise with the intent of perplexing, at best, or confusing, at worst. I simply do not understand why any poetry – modern or otherwise -- must be tortuous, or why the diction must sound forced. No doubt, Kaminsky has his fans; unfortunately, I am not one of them.

--Jim, 7/25/09 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | Jul 25, 2009 |
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. ( )
  fieldnotes | Nov 11, 2008 |
This poetry is beautiful, and meeting Kaminsky and hearing him read and teach only makes it more lovely. ( )
  amyfaerie | Feb 5, 2007 |
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