The Silences That Move Us To Speak – Ilya Kaminsky’s Poetry

Ukranian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky reading at Centrum, Port Townsend, July 21st, 2018. Photo credit: Colette Tennant

Search Patrols

I cover the eyes of Gena, 7, and Anushka, 2,
as their father drops his trousers to be searched, and his flesh shakes,

and around him:
silence’s gross belly flaps. The crowd watches.

The children watch us watch:
soldiers drag the naked man up the staircase. I teach his children’s hands to make of anguish

a language —
see how deafness nails us into our bodies. Anushka

speaks to homeless dogs as if they are men,
speaks to men

as if they are men
and not just souls on crutches of bone.

watch children but feel under the bare feet of their thoughts

the cold stone of the city.

Ilya Kaminsky (April, 1977 – ) from Poetry (April 2018)

from Deaf Republic:10

I kissed a woman

whose freckles
aroused our neighbors.

Her trembling lips
meant come to bed.
Her hair falling down in the middle

of the conversation
meant come to bed.
I walked in my hospital of thoughts.

Yes, I carried her off to bed
on the chair of my
hairy arms. But parted lips

meant kiss my parted lips,
I read those lips
without understanding

soft lips meant
kiss my soft lips.
Such is a silence

of a woman who
speaks against silence, knowing
silence is what

moves us to speak.

Ilya Kaminsky ( April 1977 – ) from Poetry (May 2009)

(These two poems and other poems from this sequence based on a deaf and pregnant woman and her husband living in a city during wartime will be included in Kaminsky’s forthcoming book, Deaf Republic, from BOA Editions in March 2019.)

Gut punches to the body: Kaminsky’s embodied poems. In the first of these epigraph poems, flesh shakes….silence’s gross belly flaps. Ouch. I feel the trauma. And then a two-year old speaks to homeless dogs as if they are men,/ speaks to men// as if they are men/ and not just souls on crutches of bone. In these images, the terror and chaos of civic violence. These images: images crafted by a master.

Ilya Kaminsky in person, radiates the vigor and, dare I say innocence, of a far younger man. I have experienced this so evidently in his masterful poetry workshops including one at Centrum in Port Townsend I attended a week or so ago. His face does not carry the difficult lines (literally and metaphorically) his poems do. His eyes do not carry the burden of a man who has witnessed much hardship in his life including deafness from a medical mis-diagnosis at age four and loss of his Ukrainian homeland at age 16 when his family were given political asylum in the U.S. in 1993.

Nothing about Kaminsky’s outward appearance prepares me for the complexity and intensity of his poetry, let alone the dramatic way he speaks his poems; his unique singsong cadences, heart breaking one moment and ecstatic the next. (To hear his signature reading voice click here for the April 2018 Poetry podcast where, at two minutes and three seconds of the podcast, he reads his poem Search Patrols).

The second poem that is part of the epigraph for this blog post first appeared in Poetry nine years ago, five years after his acclaimed debut collection Dancing in Odessa. It is hard to believe, based on Kaminsky’s stature in the American and International poetry world, that his next full-length collection is only his second. Yes, he has edited two anthologies of international poetry, translated the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, edited the outstanding collection of poems and interviews, God in the House, but I think it is the quality, not the quantity of his own writing and his encyclopedic knowledge of poetry and poetics that have made him such a contemporary poetic force.

In the second of this blog post’s epigraph poems, Kaminsky’s tenderness is so evident. And also his reference to silence which shows up so often in his work. And also in his April Poetry podcast where at the end of a striking observation on resilience in the face of horror he paraphrases lines from Deaf Republic 10:

There can be war, there can be all kinds of violence, there can be grief in life but we go on. Somehow we stand up and try to survive and to my mind that comes from a quiet place that gives us support of some sort – the way to stand up. In some ways we speak against silence, but it is the silence that moves us to speak.

How easily, yet surprisingly Kaminsky moves into paradox. And it is in this paradoxical and mysterious place I think Kaminsky touches the great mystery that he knows as God; that compels him to praise this world again and again in his poems. The first poem in his first book is called Author’s Prayer and in its last line he echoes Rilke when he states: and the darkest days I must praise. And the last section of that book is titled: Praise.

I hear many echoes of other poets seamlessly fitted into Kaminsky’s poems, not just Rilke. And also some of their thinking. I hear echoes of American poet Li-Young Lee’s statement; the great silence which is God and Mary Oliver’s phrase: the soft animal of the body which works so well in Author’s Prayer, one of his best-known poems. Here it is:

Author’s Prayer

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Ilya Kaminsky (1977 – ) from Dancing in Odessa, Tupelo Press, 2004

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