Book Review: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Year of Publication: 2004

Number of Pages: 56

Publisher: Tupelo Press

Genre: Poetry

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The first thing to strike me about Ilya Kaminsky: that he could be so well-known after publishing only one book. Dancing in Odessa is Kaminsky’s first and, to date, only full-length poetry collection, with his second book Deaf Republic due out in 2019. But for several years now, it seemed like everyone who knew poetry knew this poet, raved about him, and believed that he was one of the best and most promising poets currently writing in America.

Having read that one poetry collection, I can now say that they were all right.

Kaminsky was born in Odessa in the late 1970s and immigrated to America with his family in 1993. Though Russian is his first language, he writes in English because, as he put it, “no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

And “insanely beautiful” is exactly what these poems are: ethereal and visceral, sometimes joyful, but sometimes dark, holding the things of heaven in one hand and the things of earth in the other.

The book is divided into four sections, with a poem proceeding the first and ending the last. That first poem, “Author’s Prayer,” is one of Kaminsky’s most famous, and for good reason. Here are the first two stanzas:

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body.

I must write the same poem over and over,
for a blank page is the white flag of their surrender.

This poem puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”: it’s that perfect piece of writing that lets you know who this poet is, where he’s coming from, and what his aims are for his art.

The first section of the book, “Dancing in Odessa,” focuses on poems of war, family, and homeland. These can be very bleak, disturbing poems, especially as the speaker describes the ways in which civilians are brutalized by an opposing force, and yet, there is a bit of light shining through all the darkness:

. . . The city trembled,
a ghost ship setting sail.
At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.
We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream. [“Dancing in Odessa”]

The second section explains itself: “Musica Humana: an Elegy for Osip Mandelstam.” Combining verse and prose, as well as the voices of a few different speakers, this section tells of the life of the great Russian poet and his struggle to survive under Stalin’s regime. Being only passingly familiar with Mandelstam’s poetry, I’m probably not this section’s ideal reader. Even so, the beauty of Kaminsky’s lyric isn’t lost on me, as he describes the plight of this “modern Orpheus” and his journey to becoming a poet.

The third section, “Natalia,” is a sequence of love poems. Like “Musica Humana,” it is written in both verse and prose and uses multiple speakers. I’ll be honest, I found it a little difficult at times to tell who was saying what to whom; nevertheless, these are gorgeous poems, full of passion and containing some of my favorite lines in the collection:

I want her to imagine our scandalous days in Odessa when we will open a small sweets shop–except for her lovers and my neighbors (who steal milk chocolate in handfuls) we will have no customers. In an empty store, dancing among stands with sugared walnuts, dried carnations, boxes upon boxes of mints and cherries dipped in honey, we will whisper to each other our truest stories. [“Natalia,” 1]

 

bless one woman’s brows, her lips
and their salt, bless the roundness
of her shoulder. Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life. [“Envoi”]

The fourth and last section is titled “Traveling Musicians” and consists of poems about and to four writers: Paul Celan, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, and Marina Tsvetaeva. This is another section where I think some more background knowledge might have been helpful (I’ve only read Celan, and him just barely), but I still enjoyed these poems too, in large part because of the author’s skill at rendering characters. I often feel that people in poetry seem very airy and insubstantial. I can’t imagine meeting these people in the flesh because I don’t really know what they are like: I only know how the poet feels about them. The poems in “Traveling Musicians,” however, feel like meeting actual people, instead of imaginary beings. In these poems, Kaminsky exhibits not only a capacity for praise (these are his heroes, after all), but also an insight into people themselves that allows him to put them down as living, breathing beings on the page. Not all poets can do that.

Finally, the book ends with a long poem called “Praise,” tying together all of the main threads running through this book: childhood, family, love, outsiderdom, Kaminsky’s own growth as a poet, and finally, peace and gratitude. After putting our emotions through the ringer, Kaminsky saw fit to give us this little respite, and send us off feeling emotionally and spiritually refreshed. Or at least, that’s how I felt reading these final lines:

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

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.

But you asked
for a story with a happy ending. Your loneliness

played its lyre. I sat
on the floor, watching your lips.

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 for complaint!–
the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness
drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscurer thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats,
over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

You can count me among those who wait eagerly to see what Kaminsky does next.

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