From May 2022, The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems – Part Three

Street Mural from Cardiff, Wales by My Dog Sighs, posted by My Dog Sighs on Twitter, Feb. 28th, 2022

What something in me listens

—after Ilya Kaminsky

I try to hear the people breathing
in parkades and the sound
of talking over Molotov cocktails
over making them and later
the fhhhhhh shatter whoosh
of the toss and the blaze in the street
I don’t like to play the video footage
the sound a peephole                        You are alive,
a squeak through my laptop
speakers I tap to send money
it’s dry here I heard rain might
come today I heard the war
would last a few weeks only
but relief doesn’t fall doesn’t follow
from the west clouds as promised
and if the long awaited water does
land it will have to sink so low
reach so deep for its reception             I whisper to myself,
what’s the sound for a deep seep
what’s the sound for an emergency
on top of an emergency on top
of an emergency how many alarms
required for a response
can I at least imagine hearing
sirens death silences all the violence
even the violence that doesn’t obey
the war doesn’t take its sides even
the shrink-wrap squeak-pull-stretch
by men over men around poles
over looting a cookie a mute
in one man’s mouth war is in
and out and not over did you hear
explosions in Odessa just yesterday
so loud one witness said
she had trouble hearing even after
minutes and minutes had passed
I have heard the sounds of yesterdays
pile into what we hear today
into stories we will hear ourselves
tell about what happened.                   therefore something in you listens.*

*You are alive I whisper to myself therefore something in you listens. Ilya Kaminsky from the poem Alfonso in Snow from Deaf Republic, Graywolf Press, 2019

Tonya Lailey, May, 2022

Preface to the Series: The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems

In June 2020 a group of poets gathered on-line for a week’s generative poetry retreat that I facilitated. Most of the poets had been registered for a ten-day poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art which was cancelled because of the pandemic. Thus, the La Romita 2020 Online Retreat community was formed and subsequently most, but not all, of those poets have gathered three or four times a year to share poems inspired by prompts suggested by the La Romita 2020 Online participants. (There were three on-site-in-Italy retreats that I led before 2020 and the fourth one was held this past May.)

One of the recent La Romita Online poetry prompt challenges came a month or so after the beginning of the war in Ukraine in late February 2022. That challenge was based on lines chosen by Calgary-based poet Joan Shillington from the Ukrainian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s 2019 poetry collection, Deaf Republic published by Graywolf Press. To see a link to my review of Deaf Republic in The Literary Review please click here.

Kaminsky’s book, one for the ages, feels like an eerie premonition of the Ukrainian war as it is set in an imagined town/city called Vasenka invaded by a foreign army. When I look up Vasenka online I discover it’s a surname most commonly found in Russia and Ukraine. That’s why using this collection to inspire our own poems in response to the war in Ukraine seemed so appropriate.

After hearing these poems in a Zoom gathering this past May I wanted to feature these poems in a blog series to honour these important poems and the people of Ukraine and to help us who live far away from that war and its atrocities to stay awake to its grim reality. And in this we also honour Ilya and his now much-shared poem from Deaf Republic: We Lived Happily During the War.

This is Part Three of a four-part series. Part One featured poems by Nancy Issenman, Pat Scanlan and Linda Crosfield. Part two featured Sarah Wilson, kymunro and Amrita Sondhi. Part Three features Tonya Lailey, Joan Shillington and Donna Friesen. Part Four will feature Daniel Scott and me, Richard Osler.

Part Three of The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems

Tonya Lailey at Lake Bolsena, Lazio, Italy, May 2022

So glad to lead off part three of this series with Tonya Lailey’s poem featured above. Love the developed disorder in this poem especially from its lack of punctuation! What a reflection of the poem’s subject matter – the disorders of war and lack of rain .

Calgary-based Tonya Lailey is no stranger to La Romita nor these blog posts. Tonya has been part of three La Romita on-site retreats including one this past May. And I featured a poem of hers in 2018. Her poems are catching notice in other places as well. In May her poem La Belle Epoch of Goldfish was featured in California-based Rattle’s weekly Poets Respond feature. And most recently she won the 2021/2022 Freefall Poetry Award for her poem: The Garden Gnome Falls for a Northern Flicker.

Right from the start her title What Something in Me Listens grabs my attention. How I can read it? What! Something in me listens. Or What something in me listens. I read it as what something in me listens but who knows. And I wonder about the what something in me. Is it still listening to the huge sufferings of others?

And I wonder about the echo in Tonya’s poem from Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. How the citizens of the imagined city in his book pretend deafness. How Tonya cites a woman who had trouble hearing after an explosion in Odessa, the city where Kaminsky was born. And I wonder what we all might become deaf to? All these stories of war. And in Tonya’s unexpected mention of rain in the poem how far do the news and images of war have to sink in before we truly pay attention.

Calgary-based poet Joan Shillington

Joan Shillington is the author of two poetry collections and another Calgary-based poet. I had the pleasure of writing a commendation for her latest book, Let This lake Remember. Oh what a many-layered journey Joan takes us on in her poem. And its deceptive setting in a garden and on a driveway.

The Neighbour and I Drink Wine on His Driveway

The sound we do not hear lifts gulls off the water.
—Ilya Kaminsky from Gunshot from Deaf Republic

New-cut green fills the neighbourhood.
Phil’s apple tree exuberant in blossoms.
He tells me, now that the rabbit population
has dwindled, coyotes sleek and full,
bobcats have moved in.
We compare sightings. Humungous paws.
How they balance on chain link fences,
more graceful than any circus act.
He tells me of his brother and cousin
dead from COVID and heart attack
this past season. How every time
the phone rings, his hands begin to shake.
My mind circles around the dead
that I carry within. I know there is no way
to measure pain in decibels, weight, volume,
women and children escaping war
in a far away country
while their husbands stay to fight.
We watch from an ocean
and two continents away,
eating three meals a day,
strolling leisurely through our neighbourhood.
This morning, I chose a gold locket
from my mother’s jewelry, with faded sepia photos
of a man and woman none of my family recognize,
not an aunt or uncle or close friends.
Much older than my mother would have been.
My grandchildren ask, Why carry dead people
you do not know around your neck?
They open the tiny clasp,
and we imagine them rising early each day
buy the morning paper, search
alphabetical columns of men missing
and those who will never return.

Phil tells me he’s getting rid of his rabbit fence
once frost is out of the ground,
Bobcats won’t touch my flower garden,
he states emphatically. And what a delight,
his garden; a poet’s palette of purple, gold,
pink, yellow. Delphiniums, lupins, gaillardia,
dianthus, marigolds. Blooms continual
from May to September. Cougars will move in,
disappear but not in his garden.
We sit wrapped in the evening’s warm promise.
Silent. I tell him I admire his certainty
in a world of constant change and fear.
Prey and predator.
I fear one overnight invasion of a rabbit family
will transform his garden to no man’s land.
This man always who always walks to his own beat.
I shift in my seat, sore back beginning to spasm
stretch my leg, accept a wine refill.
Question how I can even begin to garden
this year with a back that screams
for little white pills every two hours.
My fingers slowly stroke the gold locket
and remember the hearts in my life
that have snapped in two, that are lost
and will never be found.
Perhaps, that is how forgiveness begins;
the feel of trampled petals beneath our feet or
a gut-wrenching air raid siren stealing peace
that never returns.

Joan Shillington, May, 2022

What a surprise package of a poem! The easy conversational tone of this poem that becomes so much more than neighbours having a friendly chat. All the life/death, life/death in this poem made so personal by the stories of Joan and Phil. Their stories of loss that bookend the mention of mothers and their husband during a war a world away. And the surprise and challenge of the poems last four lines! Oh my. And to leave us there, wondering about forgiveness, how it might, if ever, start:

Perhaps, that is how forgiveness begins;
the feel of trampled petals beneath our feet or
a gut-wrenching air raid siren stealing peace
that never returns.

Calgary-based poet Donna Friesen in Spoleto, Umbria, 2017

It’s fair to say that that without the support of the next poet, Donna Friesen, my on-site-in-Italy La Romita retreats may never have made it off the ground. Donna was there for all three before Covid struck and  encouraged so many others to come! It has been such a pleasure to hear so many of her poems over the years. And to read this one again:

Something Silent in Us Strengthens

in his open mouth, the nakedness of a whole nation
—Ilya Kaminsky from In a Time of Peace from Deaf Republic

Something silent in us strengthens
— Ilya Kaminsky from Deafness, An Insurgency Begins from Deaf Republic

This world now, a giant game of chess
The pieces moved invisibly by small men
Pretending to be Kings.

Their buzzing back room promises
Striped black with lines of Empire
Sting quick—the unsuspecting.

Night splinters with dumb bombs
Suck unborn babies
Into giant craters of their lies.

Not them, but legions of young men
Not more to them than endless lines of plastic rooks.
Each dead soldier: in his open mouth,
the nakedness of a whole nation.

Something silent in us strengthens.

The Queen in periwinkle wreath,
Embroidered shirt and tall boots, red;
Her dance that floats across the board, pours out

In voice
Of opera singers at Odesa
Who shovel sand to fortify their city.

In solo strings, ethereal,
Of Vera Lytochenko’s violin, her slim form elegant
With suffering within the basement shelter in Kharkiv.

In folk song, Willow Plank,
Exploding around the world with 94
Who join their sound with Ilya Bondarenko.

And those of us who hear it still.
Unstoppable, this dance,
Its vigor swirls beyond the boundaries marked on maps,
Not silenced by the wail of missiles in the night

Not dumb, but landing with precision.
The Queen of Hearts:

Donna Friesen, May, 2022

Donna strikes such a true note for me when she gives us not just the impact of a dumb bomb’s crater but bigger: giant craters of their lies. The lies that give birth to the madnness of war. And what to do with that madness? This is where Donna’s poem leaves despair behind and tries to find hope. Hope in the many artistic responses to the war. A dance, a poem, cannot stop a tank or a bomb but can they change the hearts of enough people to help bring a war to an end? How I wish……How I wish a dance could strike at the heart of war and end it!

Unstoppable, this dance,
Its vigor swirls beyond the boundaries marked on maps,
Not silenced by the wail of missiles in the night

Not dumb, but landing with precision.
The Queen of Hearts:

And I wish poems could strike at the heart of war and end it. Poems like the wonderful examples in this blog post and the others that came before in the series.



  1. Donna Friesen
    Posted September 8, 2022 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I love these posts Richard! Such a wonderful celebration of our voices. Thanks so much!!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted September 8, 2022 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t have done it without those poems including yours! Huge thanks back to you.

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