Poetry Flash Book Review – Dancing In Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya KaminskyPoetry Flash Summer/Fall 2005
New & Noted
by Richard Silberg

The first thing to say about this book is that Kaminsky’s work is ravishingly big and open-hearted:

What ties me to this earth? In Massachusetts,
the birds force themselves into my lines —
the sea repeats itself, repeats, repeats.

I bless the boat from Yalta to Odessa
and bless each passenger, his bones, his genitals,
bless the sky inside his body,
the sky my medicine, the sky my country.

I bless the continent of gulls, the argument of their order.
The wind, my master
insists on the joy of poplars, swallows,

– from “Envoi”, page 36

Dancing in Odessa is the debut of a young man born there, whose family received asylum and came to the U.S. in 1993 when he was still a teenager, and who — we can make of this whatever we will — had lost his hearing in his early childhood, as he tells us in this prose poem, title poem, second in the book: “In a city ruled jointly by doves and crows, doves covered the main district, and crows the market. A deaf boy counted how many birds there were in his neighbor’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialed the number and confessed his love to the voice on the line. My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices.” (page 5)

Which leads me to a second observation, that Kaminsky’s writing has a distinctly European flavor (since I’m not familiar enough with Russian poetry, I won’t specify further). I mean by that both a surreal influence, as the quote from “Envoi,” “bless the sky inside his body, / the sky my medicine, the sky my country,” and also the tendency — opposed to the American bent for sensuous specifics — to write in what we might call radiant archetypes, “birds,” ” the sea,” “bones,” “poplars,” “swallows.”

Kaminsky matches prose poetry against lineated poetry in an intriguing way here, opening several long sections of the book with prose poems, setting the multi-page poem “Natalia” against a kind of running, prose poem footnote, and, in his section “Traveling Musicians,” in which he writes homages to the four writers, Paul Celan, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, and Marina Tsvetaeva, composing each with a facing lineated and prose poem.

Kaminsky’s work is lit up with surprise. These leaps along with his wide-open heartfulness make this first collection really special, a flight, a liberation. Here’s one example, the ending of his lineated “Elegy for Joseph Bordsky”:

We come back to where we have committed a crime,
we don’t come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.
I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
You would be ashamed of these wooden lines,
how I don’t imagine your death
but it is here, setting my hands on fire.