Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky, Tupelo Press 2004, $16.95 pb, ISBN 1-932-195-12-2
by Sally Ball
Ilya Kaminsky is a young poet, a deaf man who lost his hearing at the age of four (as we learn in an early poem), an émigré to the US from Russia in 1993, when he was about sixteen. His first book, Dancing in Odessa, is obsessed with music, and with silence, and with poetry, which is for him the perfect and the only bridge between worlds. What worlds? The Old country and the new, the past and the present, the world with sound and the world without. Also, possibly most importantly, the world of imagination and whatever other world there is: the one in which the poet-speaker’s grandmother throws tomatoes from the balcony and then pulls “imagination like a blanket over my head.” We seldom know where to draw a dividing line between the imagined and the not imagined in this ambitious, mysterious collection; instead, if we step into its world, we find ourselves inside a meditation on?—and instance of?—the music that “wakes us, music in which we move.”
Kaminsky is not afraid to make certain claims for himself, and for his poems, and unlike the more predominant contemporary literary modes of rejecting the capacity or responsibility to speak for others, Kaminsky is willing, even Whitmanian in his willingness: “If I speak for the dead,” the book opens, ” I must leave/this animal of my body,/I must write the same poem over and over,/for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.” In order to speak for them he will walk on the edge of himself, “live as a blind man/who runs through rooms without/touching the furniture.” Where Whitman addresses future generations of readers in full confidence of their existence, Kaminsky figures himself a player in a pantheon (Mandelstam, Celan, Babe, Brodsky, Tsvetaeva) whose lives and poems he inhabits and reads, and whom he imagines in conversation with himself, poet to poet. Mandelstam seems to make an offer: “you/who are writing me, have what you want:/a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.” The brio is in the acknowledgment: Kaminsky (like his hero) aims to will a certain role, a certain future, into being.
The Mandelstam elegy, “Musica Humana,” is a long sequence at the center of the book, and it is the book’s heart—or cornerstone. The poem provides, in periodic prose installments, details from Mandelstam’s life, and then intervening lyric cantos the poem speaks in voices of both Osip and Nadezhda, in the third person about them, and in the voice of the contemporary poet. Throughout this poem, as elsewhere in the collection, language is described as a physical phenomenon (like the music we move through in the absence of sound, language and music become otherwise tangible and dense). Here, Osip remembers a particular August “filling hands with language that tastes like smoke”; Nadezhda says Osip’s “vowels had teethmarks”; the contemporary speaker refers to Mandelstam’s prayers spoken aloud, ” his words on the floor are the skeletons of dead birds”; in fact, even language recorded on paper has motion and heft, as “lamplight bath[es] the ships/that sail across the page.” These incarnations are intriguing individually and also as a recurring presence: we can never forget the speaker’s sensual pleasure in words themselves (and we appreciate the potency of the four senses through which he perceives the world), and we are often startled by his engrossing, unique conjuration of the physical life of words. This physical life is the book’s strangest asset: it is what links the poet-intellectual to his heroes, both the writer-forebears and the first countrymen to whom he pledges loyalty: “Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad.” If he moves in an unheard music, so too he moves among unseen idols—or idols in whose line of sight he so potently feels himself to be that we are hard-pressed to say they are in fact unseen they stand around him and he tries to measure up.
The penultimate section of the Mandelstam elegy is subtitled with the poem’s overall title, ‘Musica Humana” and it departs from the figures Osip and Nadezhda to tell the story of another Osip, nicknamed Ovid, who himself tells a story. It’s a sort of ghost story about a girl who gives up ” all her remaining life” in order to save a neighbor’s. He lives; she dies. But the survivor’s life is cripplingly haunted by a “distant music”: he hears her wedding bells, her child’s first cry, all the sounds of her unlived life. He wishes he were dead, and he mourns her losses to the exclusion of whatever else his life might have been meant to hold. Ovid-Osip’s insistence on the ghostly story suggests that while the poet-speaker has idolized Mandelstam, it’s also true that hearing the dead, and being accountable to them, to music unheard by other ears, can be a curse. If Kaminsky believes in metamorphosis, a transubstantiation of Words and the Imagined into Bodies, into Action, he knows this process to be fraught with pain and danger. Danger, presumably, to oneself.
“Musica Humana” ends with a toast, a raising of the glass to the poets, which serves, I think, as a promise to risk that endangerment. I quote the poem in full:
If you will it, it is no dream.
October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer. Memory,
I whisper, stay awake.
In my veins
long syllables tighten their ropes, rains come
right out of the eighteenth century
Yiddish or a darker language in which imagination
is the only word.
Imagination! A young girl dancing the polka,
unafraid, betrayed by the Lord’s death
(or his hiding under the bed when the Messiah
In my country, evenings bring the rain water, turning
poplars bronze in a light that sparkles on these pages
where I, my fathers,
unable to describe your dreams, drink
my silence from a cup.
All of Kaminsky’s obsessions seem to be at swim, and at stake, in this poem. His country, we know, is the Imagination: he has made that claim. Kaminsky is a poet of tremendous will, whose vantage point is unlike any that we know. Dancing in Odessa—”I was born,” he writes, “in a city named after Odysseus”—is a book in which he travels among the bronze poplars, pushing as hard as he can toward the surprising, the historical, the rain-enhanced light under which a page may indeed be able to sparkle.