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To Russia With Love

Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 58 pages)
by Ilya Kaminsky 

Reviewed by Adam L. Dressler

Ilya Kaminsky's first book, Dancing in Odessa, is an effort, in his words, to speak for the dead, to reclaim (often through reinvention) a time and place that no longer existsthe city of Odessa in the former Soviet Union, from which the author and his family were granted asylum in the early 90's before coming to America. Throughout this collection, he remains true to the cloudy lens of recollection, never separating public from private, event from emotion, fact from fiction. The work is replete with repetitions and reconsiderations; when he speaks of Odessa it is both as a city famous for its drunk tailors, huge mausoleums of rabbis, horse owners and horse thieves, and most of all, for its stuffed and baked fish, (Travelling Musicians) and as a city ruled jointly by doves and crows (Dancing in Odessa [1]) The magical and the real, the lofty and the low, commingled in memory, are given equal weight.

The same is true of his prose and his poetry; poems are interspersed with prose sections and vice-versa. In Musica Humana, a long elegy to Osip Mandelstam, Kaminsky smoothly moves from restrained, semi-surreal stanzas

In the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet,
he will show her the way to silence,
they will leave the radio talking to itself.
Making love, they turn off the lights
but the neighbor has binoculars
and he watches, dust settling on his lids.

to semi-historic prose accounts

Nadezhda [Mandelstam's wife] looks up from the page and speaks: Osip, Akhmatova and I were standing together when suddenly Mandelstam melted with joy: several little girls ran past us, imagining themselves to be horses. The first one stopped, impatiently asking: Where is the last horsy? I grabbed Mandelstam by his hand to prevent him from joining; and Akhmatova, too, sensing danger, whispered: Do not run away from us, you are our last horsy.

and onward to, of all things, a recipe for Cold Mint-Cucumber Soup:

2 tablespoons butter    Melt butter in a skillet with gar-
1 cup plain yogurt         lic, onion, cucumber; cook until
1 onion (chopped)         soft. Stir in stock, blend, bring to
1 garlic clove                 boil, puree. Blend in mint, chill.
3 cucumbers (sliced)    Before serving, stir in yogurt.
2 tablespoons rice flour Mix.
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons fresh mint (chopped)
Salt and pepper

One might feel that Kaminsky is a half-mad chef, throwing everything into the mix, including the kitchen sink, if not for the steady, consistently dignified and graceful voice, distinctly his own, with which he holds everything together, and for the joy with which he approaches the most commonplace of objects, managing to avoid both bathos and pretension. In Natasha, a love poem, he writes:
But I loved the stubbornness of her bedclothes!
I bite them, taste bedclothes
the sweet mechanism of pillows and covers.

A serious woman, she danced
without a shirt, covering what she could.
We lay together on Yom Kippur, chosen by a wrong God,
the people of a book, broken by a book.

It is this rare gift for inclusion and evenness that allows Kaminsky to treat with equal success what others might deem loftier subjectsthe literary legends that are as much a part of Kaminsky's lost landscape as the geography and chronology. In addition to the elegy to Mandelstam, he has devoted an entire section to the figures of Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, Paul Celan, and Marina Tsvetaeva, each of whom gives their name to the title of one poem and one prose-poem. In Elegy for Joseph Brodsky (poem) and Joseph Brodsky (prose-poem), as in the other pairings of this section, one form talks to the other, and the two together add up to more than the sum of their parts:
Elegy for Joseph Brodsky

In plain speech, for the sweetness
between the lines is no longer important,
what you call immigration I call suicide.
I am sending, behind, the punctuation,
unfurling nights of New York, avenues
slipping into Cyrillic
winter coils words, throws snow on a wind.
You, in the middle of an unwritten sentence, stop,
exile to a place further than silence.

I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow
rushing towards my own training
to live with your lines
on a verge of a story set against itself.
To live with your lines, those where sails rise, waves
beat against the city's granite in each vowel,
pages open by themselves, a quiet voice
speaks of suffering, of water.

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.

Joseph Brodsky

Joseph made his living by giving private lessons in everything from engineering to Greek. His eyes were sleepy and small, his face dominated by a huge mustache, like Nietszche's. He mumbled. Do you enjoy Brahms? I cannot hear you, I said. How about Chopin? I cannot hear you. Mozart? Bach? Beethoven? I am hard of hearing, could you repeat that please? You will have great success in music, he said. To meet him, I go back to the Leningrad of 1964. The streets are devilishly cold: we sit on the pavement, he begins abruptly (a dry laugh, a cigarette) to tell me the story of his life, his words changing to icicles as we speak. I read them in the air.

The poem is more lyrical, more attentive, both in execution and in theme, to the power of language, while the prose-poem is more humorous and more explicit, but in both poetry is presented, paradoxically, as a sustaining and debilitating force, an embodiment of the beauty and violence of memory.

Even without his dedications to these other writers, Kaminsky's sympathy to the persecuted and isolated is clear. Not only is he geographically and culturally displaced, but, as he tells us in the book's title poem, My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. As in the case of his other forms of exile, he describes his disability not in terms of loss, but opportunity and transformationWhen I lost my hearing, I began to see voices. Indeed, his work often features a synthesis of senses bordering on synesthesia. He writes of Tsvetaeva, I imagined her voice smelling of oranges; of the night, [it] undressed us (I counted its pulse); of October, grapes hung like the fists of a girl / gassed in her prayer. In the assonance of undressed uspulse and the consonance of grapesgirl / gassed, and in innumerable half-rhymes throughout the collection, Kaminsky's subtle, fluid, sonic mastery serves to quietly unite all elements of his poems, no matter how disparate.

The fact that he has achieved a style that is simultaneously so sonically dense, imagistically rich, emotionally stirring, socially and historically inventive, and, while following in the footsteps of acknowledged literary legends, still emerging as uniquely his own, and all by the age of twenty seven, is nothing short of astonishing. Dancing in Odessa is a triumphant debut, announcing the arrival of a poet whose talents, and potential, are limitless.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has received an MA from Boston University and is currently attending the MFA program in poetry at Columbia University.


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