Friday, February 15, 2008


Late in January, the young Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky gave a reading at Yale from his book Dancing in Odessa (2004), which I’ve subsequently read. The poems are written in English, Kaminsky’s adopted language, study of which he began in 1993 after coming to America. To hear Kaminsky read the poems aloud is to hear the English language treated in a manner that is a bit disconcerting, but which is also a bit intoxicating. It’s not only Kaminsky’s strong accent that distorts the sound of the English words as he speaks them, there’s also the fact that he chants his words with a musical intonation so that every line of every poem is almost sung, almost wept. It is a sound I associate with prayers in Hebrew and Kaminsky is Jewish, so perhaps that is the real source of his spoken cadence. I say spoken because, on the page, the words don’t strike me with the same worked-up passion of his delivery. What comes across on the page that gets lost in his vocal presentation is a spirit much more unassuming, gentle, folksy, less emotional, but full of what Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being” – which I take to mean a way of bearing witness to what is so haplessly ephemeral in our lives, so fleeting because so much a part of other times now gone.

In Kaminsky’s volume some of those times now gone are the times of distinct figures – poetic forebears – whose memory and music and lightness have become a part of Kaminsky’s own poetic stance. The long poem evoking the life and times of Osip Mandelstam, for instance, rings with a lived imagining that goes beyond simple tribute or evocation. Mandelstam lives in the poem as a persona of himself and as a voice for Kaminsky.

Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass; you
who are writing me, have what you want:
a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.
(“Musica Humana,” an elegy for Osip Mandelstam)

Which is to say that Kaminsky is able to inhabit with his verses poetic personae that are versions of himself as much as they are comments on other writers, such as Paul Celan, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel. It’s an enviable gift to be able to open one’s poems to give voice to a relation to another poet that speaks the poet rather than simply speaking about the poet.

I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
(“Elegy for Joseph Brodsky”)

Kaminsky’s stance toward other poets, and his self-effacing evocations of them, works I think because Kaminsky is at heart an ecstatic and poetry as he practices it is a form of prayer, of prayer conceived as praise: “Lord, give us what you have already given” is the closing line of “Envoi,” a poem about the sea-change of exchanging Russian for American verse, but also a poem of blessing, of thanks for the gift of poetic sensibility.

There are five sections: in the first, “Dancing in Odessa,” the poems mainly recreate, in at times surrealist fashion (Marc Chagall immediately comes to mind -- particularly with that pony on the balcony), family life and history in the poet’s native land; the second is the elegy for Mandelstam; the third, “Natalia,” chronicles a love affair; the fourth, “Traveling Musicians,” consists of poems about other poets; the fifth, “Praise,” is a five page poem that comes closest to a sustained ecstasy of invention.

Love, a one-legged bird
I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.
O the language of birds

with no word of complaint!--
the balconies, the wind.

Kaminsky’s poetry contains celebratory joy even in the midst of dire scenes such as Mandelstam’s arrest and persecution in Soviet Russia; the imagery is always fresh with the kind of direct but fanciful choices I associate with Russian poetry I’ve read in translation, but also post-symbolist French and Italian and Spanish poetry, which is to say that his work is refreshingly spare and passionate, at times whimsical. And which is to say that though this is English language poetry it feels European, even when Kaminsky writes what are clearly intended as American poems. It will be interesting to see how this develops in his subsequent verse: will his poetry become more noticeably American, not simply in terms of American place names, subjects and objects, but in terms of the positioning of a voice and a self that throws off the borrowed robes of his forebears and the land of his fathers?

I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation –

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