On the shoulders of Tolstoy


Ilya Kaminsky, author Dancing in Odessa

The grey seals have arrived in this quiet bay to have their pups and the poet I share with you today has travelled over an ocean also.  He is Ilya Kaminsky

I chose this photo because the poet tells us that in his homeplace, Odessa in the Ukraine, everyone uses their hands to express themselves. One day he asked directions from a man carrying a large watermelon in each hand. Red in the face from effort, the man eventually dropped one in despair of saying what he wanted. A 60-year-old man, he gazed at the now oozing red mess on the ground and, says Ilya, laughed like the most serious child I ever knew. This is a poet who loves to tell stories, talks of the ordinary being beautiful, that life is a miracle. He is also a man with a mission, to write poetry that leaves a mark, especially about human injustice.

Having been entranced by his first book, I was disappointed when I was unable to travel when he read in in O’Bhéal, that unique poetry reading venue in my native Cork City. I felt doubly honoured to be invited to read there myself a while afterwards.

You could say this is a poet who rose to prominence on the shoulders of Tolstoy. As a child, in the 1980’s, Ilya went to Central Square in Odessa, as he did every year, with his classmates, to clean the head of Leo Tolstoy’s statue. The deaf boy scrambled up on his friends’ backs delighting in cleaning the ears of the Russian writer. From his perch, he watched the sailors in this navy port marching to the orders of an officer. He saw the sailors’ legs go up and down and his middle-aged mother marching at the end of the column, her legs mimicking their legs, with her skirt flying up.

Without sound, he sees in images, life around him as a theatre. What a precious thing for the poet he was to become. Mossbawn, County Derry, became a well-spring of inspiration for Seamus Heaney. For Ilya, deafness became a resource. He said of his grandmother ‘she pulled a blanket of imagination over my head.’ His mother says to him, ‘your ears aren’t empty, they are open.’ His father tells him stories. When he moved his head, Ilya could no longer lipread. You can imagine that the boy may have completed the stories in his head.

The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.’ So says Ilya Kaminsky.

Yet silence is mentioned many times in Dancing in Odessa. In ‘Musica Humana’, the elegy for the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, he uses it in the last stanza as a balm after the grief. The following prose introduction to one of the poems, I found unbearable to read: it is Osip’s wife, Nadezhda, and the poet, Akhmatova who speak:

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 joining; and Akhmatova, too, sensing danger, whispered: ‘Do not run away from us you are our last horsy.’

Osip, a man for whom imprisonment was a severe hardship on his spirit, had many brushes with the Soviet authorities, including torture, before dying in a Gulag.

This is that last stanza:

In my country, evenings bring the rain water, turning
poplars bronze in a light that sparkles on these pages
where, my fathers,
unable to describe your dreams drink
my silence from a cup.

Here is a quote from Ilya, talking of poetry: –

The lyric poem is always in existence between the realm of silences and the realm of musics (sic)… The voice, that music, that lyric impulse of what is human in us, always rises. But at times it is also at its strongest when it whispers.

Colum McCann describes him as one of the great symphonic voices of our times. That makes me wonder does the poet translate from Russian as he is writing, or at least borrow the rhythm as, to my ear, Russian is a very musical language.

In Odessa, being a cosmopolitan port, many different nationalities traded and often came to live there. Their vocabulary found its way into Russian. One day Ilya picked up a book by Isaac Babel and was surprised to discover it was in the Russian his parents spoke every day and not the Russian his teachers spoke.

The Kaminsky family was Jewish which also would have had an influence on the Russian they spoke. Ilya’s father was denied access to University education because of his religion and worked in a factory. However, he mixed with academics and poetry was revered in Odessa. In Dancing in Odessa, we meet this wonderfully eccentric family and they all dance. How else can you get through the trauma of life in Odessa, heightened by being a Jew? Aunt Rose dances in her wooden shoes, composes odes to barbershops and tells him:

that my grandfather composed lectures on the supply

and demand of clouds in our country:
the State declared him an enemy of the people.

Descriptions of inhumanity are relieved by moments of lightness and love, as in these words about Aunt Rose:

The evenings are my evidence, this evening
in which she dips her hands up to her elbow,

Ilya was writing poetry in Russian before he went to Rochester, New York, in 1993, as a political refugee at age sixteen. For the first time he received hearing aids. Sadly, his father died before they were fitted so he never heard his father’s voice. He felt he could only write poetry in English after the loss of his father. His mother and brother would not understand it, he was not yet fluent himself, and that gave him he says an insanely beautiful freedom.

He learned English through reading and translating poetry with the assistance of some mentors, relishing Shakespeare in particular. Not surprising then that he says he writes in lyric fragments. I imagine him as one of those Romans in ancient Ravenna choosing tesserae and creating numinous mosaics.

There is a rich Jewish tradition of fable and a quixotic sense of humour. Also, of course, the music and beauty of the psalms are part of their inheritance. This all comes together in the section called Natalie, which is it seems a love ode to his wife Katie.

Brenna Silberstein tells the story of visiting Ilya to interview him. Katie goes to the freezer to fetch some ice cream. There is a crash, and an agonized cry of Kaminsky, it’s gone too far, followed by a belly laugh as she picks up the books left in the freezer and Ilya goes to help her. Brenna says, it is easy, amid talk of magic and daily miracles, to imagine them being forever newly-weds.

I will quote the first line, and then the last line of the prose introduction to Natalie and leave you to discover the fable in between:

Her shoulder: an ode to an evening, such ambitions…

The back of her knee: a blessed territory, I keep my wishes there.

It is full of delicious humour:

She unfastened two buttons of his trousers –
to learn two languages:
one for his ankles, and one for remembering.
Or maybe she thought it was bad luck
to have a dressed man in the house.

She dances also – under apricot trees and he sets his evening clock to the rhythm of her voice.
After a section of farewell to friends, the book closes as it opens with a praise hymn, the final lines being:

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscurer thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats
over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

Though Ilya appreciates the freedom he has gained in America, he also feels that a poet must speak out about human injustice. He is torn between Ukraine and its troubles and America which is to some extent in denial of the random shootings and of some State brutality. In Deaf Republic, through fable, he tells a story in the form of drama, as a warning to humanity. It is set in any country in any time where there is war, occupation, a people groaning under an all controlling State. It seduces you into reading it with its magic use of language, flashes of humour and above all with the moments of tenderness that save the human soul.

In Act One, the people become deaf after a child is shot dead, using silence as a form of dissent. The final line of the first poem, Gunshot:

The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.

They teach each other a sign language:

Soldiers drag a naked man up the staircase, I teach his children’s hands to make of
A language –
See how deafness nails us into our bodies…

There is a puppet theatre in this town and when people are arrested their families:

… hang homemade puppets out of their
windows. The streets empty but for the squeak of strings and the tap tap, against
the buildings, of wooden fists and feet.

This is an image that stays with you, as it does with the people when their country has surrendered and there is a denial of the awful brutality and death that preceded the invasion.

And yet, on some nights, townspeople dim the lights and teach their children to

When patrols march, the avenues empty. Air empties, but for the squeak of strings
and the tap tap of wooden fists against the walls.

Reflecting life itself, the drama is interspersed with elegies, lullabies and love poems – and that picaresque humour:

Alfredo, mourning his wife, Sonya:

But the voice I don’t hear when I speak to myself is the clearest voice:
when my wife washed my hair, when I kissed

between her toes –

from his lullaby:

Little daughter

snow and branches protect you

Child of my Aprils

Alfonso remembering his wife:

I kissed a woman
whose freckles
arouse the neighbors.

The drama is bookended with two poems showing the other side of silence, when people need to speak out in a country that is peaceful but where there is grave human injustice. So often, after extreme trauma there is silence – as with The Great Silence, as we now call it, after The Famine in Ireland. For me it is a beautiful thing that a story told so that we become aware of the need to protect our families, now and into the future, has been born out of a particular kind of silence that is, in a way, music.

Note: Dancing in Odessa (published by Tupelo Press in 2004) and Deaf Republic (published by Faber & Faber Limited 2019)

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