Saturday, July 25, 2009

dancing in odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

In the introduction to his website,, Ilya Kaminsky quotes the first poem of this collection: “at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing I began to see voices.” This explains a lot of the images and sonics of his collection, Dancing in Odessa. Many of his images and word choices have a visual and sound quality which impacts the reader’s appreciation of the poems, as well as affecting the visuals created in the mind.

As his website relates, he was born in the former Soviet Union in 1977 and came to the US in 1993. He lost his hearing when he was four and his father a year after coming to America. Dancing has won several awards, and he has a collection of 20th century poetry in translation from Ecco press coming out next year.

Kaminsky’s website provides quite a few excerpts from interviews. Perhaps one key to his poetry might be found in a remark he made during an interview with Colleen Marie Ryor of the Adirondack Review. While describing the situation of his family when they first came to the US in 1993, he said, “none of us spoke English -- I myself hardly knew the alphabet.” Could his strange poetic diction be the result of some lack of understanding of the nuances of English? Has something been lost in the translation? The publication date for Dancing is 2004 – barely ten years to master a difficult language with an almost infinite variety of shades of meaning of countless words.

After reading this collection four times, and pouring over some of the lines literally dozens of times, attempts to make sense of some of his images have failed. A search for patterns shed little light on his meaning. One pattern easily discernable flows from the title. The thread of dancing recurs throughout the collection. The opening line of “In Praise of Laughter,” offers a clever image which conjures an image of dancing when Kaminsky writes, “Where days bend and straighten / in a city that belongs to no nation” (6). The sound quality of both these lines has the rhythm of music to them, and provides a sonic effect in addition to the visual quality of his diction. This line recalls Robert Herrick’s ode, “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” when he writes,

“Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !

The relatively simple language (for the time) conveys the movement of a woman in an elaborate silk gown. The “frou-frou” of her swishing silks clearly comes into the consciousness.

Several stanzas later Kaminsky writes, “He ran after a train with tomatoes in his coat // and danced naked on the table in front of our house” (6). The surreal nature of the connection of disparate images in the second example here might describe Kaminsky’s poetry, and it might even make for an interesting experience, but it does nothing to further understanding of his intentions or his verses.

A careful reader can find these tortured lines on almost any page. For example, in “American Tourist,” Kaminsky wrote, “In a city made of seaweed we danced on a rooftop,” (11). Odessa is near the shores of the Black Sea, but does this mean the house was financed by an occupation involving seaweed? Surely he cannot mean a house literally made of seaweed. In Global Coastal Change, Ivan Valiela reports a study of the ecology of the Black Sea which reveals in the 1960s and 1970s, an “anoxic” episode killed over half the population of fish, plankton, and seaweed. By the 1990s, the viable area of the sea floor had been reduced to about 5% of the original habitat (8). How deep does a reader need to dig to understand a poem? The trail to understanding this particular line dead-ended here.

However, Kaminsky does have his moments. Although much rarer, the collection has some memorable lines and images sprinkled throughout. For example, in “American Tourist,” he writes,

“When Moses
broke the sacred tablets on Sinai, the rich

picked the pieces carved with:
‘adultery’ and ‘kill’ and ‘theft,’
the poor got only ‘No’ ‘No’ No.’ (11)

These powerful lines also have the sonic and rhythmic qualities mentioned previously. The repletion of “no” gives this poem feel of a song along with the sense of movement.

In the prose poem “Traveling Musicians,” he writes, “In the beginning was the sea – we heard the surf in our breathing, certain that we carried seawater in our veins” (39). Strong, memorable lines like these require a lot of digging to unearth. Each reader must decide whether they are real diamonds or glass; that is, are they worth the effort?

Another example of peculiar but strong imagery occurs in “A Farewell to Friends,” “you have for sisters wild carnations, / nipples of lilacs, splinters of chickens” (41). Mysterious, unfathomable connections abound in his poetry.

The simple language of these examples deserving of admiration may have made for an easy transition from Russian to English, but some of the more complicated lines might have lost the nuances of his mother tongue in translation.

Sometimes, the emperor is not wearing any clothes, and sometimes a poet tortures a word into a line for the purpose of shock and surprise with the intent of perplexing, at best, or confusing, at worst. I simply do not understand why any poetry – modern or otherwise -- must be tortuous, or why the diction must sound forced. No doubt, Kaminsky has his fans; unfortunately, I am not one of them.

--Chiron, 7/25/09

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