Monday, February 28, 2005

I've just read Dancing in Odessa in a single breathless go. I can't recall the last time I read a contemporary book of such unabashed lyricism, erotic and ecstatic and elegiac all at once. I found myself at moments wanting to resist the dark glamor Kaminsky finds in his own heritage: his personal history as an immigrant, and as the Russian Jewish child of mingling historical disasters (the Holocaust, Stalinism). There are flights of beauty in this book that I've come to find suspicious in American poetry, which is a sad state of affairs both for poetry and for me; I suspect them of dazzling my eyes in order to hide some threadbareness in the poet's thought, or else I worry about the personae such glamors are often set up to serve, the bardic personality I can't quite believe still possible in an era of degraded eloquence and baldfaced lies. But Ilya Kaminsky just might be the real thing, and maybe I'm just jealous of the intensity with which he seems to have lived his young life and the fierceness of his attachments and the courage or perhaps naivety (though I somehow doubt this) it must have required for him to Whitmanianly present himself on the page. That is, none of what I'm tempted to call the "character issues" would matter if he didn't have a remarkable command over the English language. It's not his first language and the poetry occasionally has the quality of translated poetry—translated very well, with its East European exuberances (exclamation points!!! and forbidden words like "soul" and Happiness" and especially "dancing," again and again!) intact. I hope he is not an exception or an American in Russian drag; I hope he is truly making a contribution to poetry and making his own intensity of spirit and vision a little more available to the rest of us. The book reads very much as a book, as a kind of far-ranging memoir, with a lot of the juicy narrative content which often makes me impatient but here seems of a piece with the urgent intensity of telling that is this poetry's reason for being. It's the project of the book (in the sense of projection, making an arc) that makes the individual poems work for me; encountered alone in a journal I might mistake them for ordinary American solipsism or one of those tedious ekphrasis-to-history poems. The wholeness of the book and its sense of something beginning (a blurb by Anthony Hecht on the back cover paraphrases Emerson on Whitman by predicting "a brilliant career") are what make it possible for Kaminsky to generate an "authenticity-effect" that I am willing to accept.

Here's a particularly beautiful poem that ends a sequence of love poems collectively entitled "Natalia":

                   "You will die on a boat from Yalta to Odessa"
                          — a fortune teller, 1992

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 of the joy of poplars, swallows,—

bless one woman's brows, her lips
and their salt, bless the roundness
of her shoulder. Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life.

You can find us, Lord, she is a woman dancing with her eyes closed
and I am a man arguing with this woman
among nightstands and tables and chairs.

Lord, give us what you have already given.
I look forward to meeting this man.

1 comment:

C. Dale said...

Josh, You will like Ilya. He is a good man, and he is a good poet. He is the real thing.

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