June 2, 2004
In His Memories of Odessa, A Poet Pays Tribute to His Forebears
by John Timpane
(Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky, Tupelo Press. 58 pp. $16.95)
Among the many, many dreamlike lines in this superb book are two that stand for the collection, the title, and the city of Odessa itself: “the city sleeps, / there is no such city.” In the poem “Dancing in Odessa,” we read that “the city trembled, / a ghost-ship setting sail.”
This Odessa is both a real place — a pearl of a cosmopolis, where poet Ilya Kaminsky was born — and an imaginary city, a city of memory, a fountain of images and stories that follow a man from his childhood in that Paris on the Black Sea to his emigration to the United States. As any ex-pat can tell you, such a city, by passing from reality to memory, becomes even more real than when lived in.
This is Kaminsky’s first book of poems. At 27 he comes with a voice very much his own. Like Joseph Brodsky before him, Kaminsky is a terrifyingly good poet, another poet from the former U.S.S.R. who, having adopted English, has come to put us native speakers to shame.
Kaminsky orchestrates images and symbols (“the shore, the trees, a boy / running across the streets like a lost god”) to create a world of suggestion and emotion. Urgently, compulsively, repeated images stud the poems: lamp, shoulder, tomatoes, dance, cloud, the city, snow, the tongue passing over the skin. But these images change as they cross and recross the river of memory. He has a delightful way of moving back and forth between elusive moments and stark directness, as in “Praise”:
Then my mother begins to dance, re-arranging
this dream. Her love
is difficult. Loving her is simple as putting raspberries
in my mouth.
This is a gorgeous piece of craft. We pass from long line to short, from a dance in a dream to popping a berry in your mouth. And I very much admire the painful balance between the difficulty of her love and how simple it is to love her. Such movements, which, simply through suggestion and symbol, manage to tell a kind of story without narrating anything, play like flames over the surface. I almost cannot bear the loveliness of these lines from “Musica Humana,” a lovely elegy for Osip Mandelstam:
behind my ears. And we speak of everything
that does not come true,
which is to say: it was August,
August! the light in the trees, full of fury. August
filling hands with language that tastes like smoke.
We use colons to explain further, to illustrate what we just said. But whereas everything before this colon is heartbreakingly direct, everything after it is turbulently symbolic. The explanation creates more to be explained. That’s what emotions feel like; we seem to understand without being able to spell it out.
Kaminsky is an inheritor of the muscular Russian take on Symbolism. When the French Symbolistes hit Russian culture, it changed poetry forever. Poets such as Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Mandelstam (1891-1938), and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) remade it in their own image, investing it with a powerful awareness of history, obsession, and loss, along with some jagged Russian music. If you want a good introduction to 20th-century Russian poetry, read these three.
Dancing in Odessa pays homage to them, along with Brodsky, Romanian poet Paul Celan, and fiction writer Isaac Babel, in sections titled “Musica Humana” and “Traveling Musicians.” Kaminsky mixes prose fragments — dreamlike accounts of meeting these poets, all of whom died long before his birth — with poems that capture the spirit of the poet.
It seemed to take about five minutes to read this book, and when I began again, I reached the end before I was ready. That’s how compulsive, how propulsive, it is to read. It wraps you in a world created by a new and wonderful poet. It opens new avenues, new things to read and to be experienced. Thanks to Ilya Kaminsky and Dancing in Odessa, there is such a city, and it is not asleep.