Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…
K is for Kaminsky, Ilya
Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, in 1977. Although his early years were fairly peaceful (largely because his wealthy father was able to secure his family’s safety by bribing state officials), life in Odessa became increasingly difficult following the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Political unrest, galloping inflation, and the outbreak of war in neighboring Moldova prompted the family to apply for political asylum in the United States. In 1993, the U.S. approved their application, and sixteen-year-old Ilya and his parents moved to Rochester, New York. Kaminsky’s father died the following year.
When he was a child, Kaminsky had written short prose articles for Odessa newspapers, but after his father’s death he found himself drawn to poetry as a way to make sense of the loss. Although he claims he “hardly knew the English alphabet” when he first arrived in the United States, he began to write poems in English. In an interview with the Adirondack Review, he explains this decision:
My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry!” I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it—no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.
Kaminsky’s first poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, was published by Tupelo Press in 2004. It earned accolades from assorted fancy folks—Anthony Hecht proclaimed the volume “the start of a brilliant career,” while Robert Pinsky praised the poems’ “glorious tilt and scope”—and was named Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord magazine. Following the book’s publication, Kaminsky also received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award in Literature, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.
Kaminsky lost his hearing when he was four (a rare complication of mumps), and he sees a link between his deafness and his desire to be heard: “I speak against silence, and again, against silence, knowing that silence moves me to speak.” In Dancing in Odessa, he speaks not only for himself, but for all those who have suffered dislocation and loss. His poetry is deft, musical, and passionate: it engages with the world and is unashamedly sincere. He is often considered a “political” poet, but Kaminsky simply sees himself as an attentive observer of the world, and is quick to shrug off questions concerning his agenda:
I write about life and death. Some people call that politics. Other people call that life and death. I don’t know why in [the United States] we need to ask each other these questions. Writers in Russia or South Africa or Poland or China don’t, since the answer seems self-explanatory.
Yes, poetry is poetry, an art of language. And, yes, we live in the larger world; our job as human beings is to pay attention to that world. As human beings we are all responsible, as Dostoevsky suggests: “Not everyone is guilty, but everyone is responsible.”
Kaminsky currently teaches English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, and is working on his second collection, tentatively titled Deaf Republic (Poetry has published a selection of these not-quite-done poems). Meanwhile, here are two of my favorite (finished) Kaminsky poems:
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.
* * *
We Lived Happily During the War*
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun
in the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money, in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
* from I Go to the Ruined Place, an anthology of poetry in defense of global human rights