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.
Ilya Kaminsky is an immigrant but in this his first full collection his phrasing is anything but clumsy. Born in Odessa, his family was granted US asylum in 1993, and the poet continues to work in various ways supporting the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Those reading his poetry may be surprised that English is his second language and that he was only in his twenties when this collection was first published by Tupelo in the US in 2004. So sure is his grasp of his adopted tongue that he can pattern Russian-structured English in direct speech differently from his own fluent English.
A beautifully sequenced and curated collection, Dancing in Odessa is divided into an opening prayer, followed by five distinct but linked sections. The final group excepting, each of these begins with a memory-deep poem (and in most cases a prose poem), sunk to the bottom of the page.
In “Musica Humana [an elegy for Osip Mandelstam]” (section II), Kaminsky defines the earlier Acmeist poet, Mandelstam, as a “modern Orpheus”. Tracing his predecessor’s traumatic life to his death in a Gulag in 1938, the reference is justified indeed. The reader expecting an unrelenting delineation of woe, or poetry shaped after Acmeist movement will be surprised. Kaminsky’s elegy travels through stanzaic forms, prose poetry fragments, square-bracketed interjections and even a recipe.
For all that undeniably harrowing biography, and by extension those of the Travelling Musicians, Celan, Brodsky, Babel and Tsvetaeva, these poems are far from misery memoirs. Trauma is never skirted but these poems dance in unexpected warmth and even humour; Kaminsky’s writing has a surreal aspect, often bordering on the ecstatic. George Szirtes offers high praise on the cover, and indeed there are parallels with his own work and that of Helen Ivory.
Poetry verging on glossolalia is arguably a high-wire act, not only for the poet but especially for the reader yet such is the strength of the imagery and the language here, and the structured quality of the sequencing of these poems that Kaminsky balances these challenges with panache.
In a sometimes pulsating joie de vivre, Kaminsky can conjure some remarkable effects. Consider “In Praise of Laughter”, all in tercets bar the final couplet, the lines ring with repetition, and with both internal and end rhymes. What can be read as a comforting rhythmic dance, albeit one telling of sadness, becomes utterly shocking in the fifth stanza, and all the more so because of the deceptive propulsion of the earlier words. How much sharper then for the reader are the lines
He was shot, and my grandmother raped
by the public prosecutor, who stuck his pen in her vagina,
the pen which signed people off for twenty years.
Or, in “A Toast”
October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer.
“Natalia” (Section III) recounts a love song, again in ostensibly traditional verse, cut with shifting points of view, prose poems placed like footnotes, the section ends with the haunting “Envoi”, set in another time, elsewhere.
Kaminsky says that he began writing in English after his father’s death in 1994, “because no-one in my family knew it […]. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom.” Aged four, he became almost completely deaf and indeed hearing loss is a running theme in this collection. This freedom can be said to carry lyrically into a language that he has never properly heard.
Whatever past horrors Kaminsky remembers, there is also love and joyous detail. “But you asked for a story with a happy ending” the final poem recalls. There isn’t quite a happy ending as such, no forgetting any of his painful hinterland. There is, however, an openness to a thrilling future and happily, Kaminsky has much more to offer. His next collection tempts already.