The Sunlight of Odessa: Poet Ilya Kaminsky

Odessa_2 The word gulag is an acronym for a Russian phrase that translates loosely as “the main camp directorate”—a slightly sinister, Orwellian phrase perfectly fitting the gulag’s purpose as a place of labor and punishment.

Labor camps, long a part of the Russian prison system, were redesigned by the Soviets as camps for re-education, as well as for punishment. Forced psychiatric treatment, combined with hard physical labor, the cold Siberian climate, and little nutrition—black rye bread and potatoes were staples of the gulag diet—led to a high death rate. And almost anyone could be interned in the gulag. Through Order No. 00486, even the wife of a man deemed to be an “enemy of the people” could be put on trial if it could be proved—or sometimes just suspected—that she knew about their husband’s actions. One such woman was Yulia Kaminsky.

After her husband was executed, the prosecutor asked Yulia to renounce him. She smiled: “How could I do such a thing to the father of my children?” she asked. For her refusal, she was sent to milk cows in Siberia for twenty years.

The youngest of her three children, Victor, was one year old when his father was shot. With his mother in the gulag, he was sent to an orphanage.

Soviet state orphanages were the children’s version of the gulag. Suffering under the weight of abandoned children and children whose parents had been arrested, orphans were viewed as defective at best, and as a societal nuisance at worst. Physical and sexual abuse was common; starvation claimed many young lives.

Victor’s grandmother, Varya—then in her eighties—traveled on the roof of a train halfway across the Soviet Union, from Sevastopol to Yekaterinburg, to steal one-year-old Victor away from the orphanage. (Sevastopol is on the Crimean Peninsula; Yekaterinburg in the very heart of Russia. The distance is like going from San Diego to Wichita, Kansas.) Varya lay down on the roof of the speeding train, palms flat against the black iron, and only disembarked when the train pulled into the Yekaterinburg station. She stole her grandson away from the orphanage and took him back to the Ukraine—to Odessa, where her youngest son lived. However, she knew that her son’s wife, Natalia, would not want the baby. Natalia’s own child had died years earlier, during a famine, and the young girl feared falling in love with another child and suffering yet another loss. So old Varya did not warn the girl. She simply rang the bell, left the baby by the door, lifted her peasant blouse off her ankles, and ran down the stairs as fast as she could.

Natalia opened the door, and there was the baby. “Oh,” she said.

Ilya_kaminsky_2“That was my first memory, walking into her arms,” Victor was later to tell his son, Ilya.

Rarely in the United States today does a poet capture both widespread critical and popular acclaim. The handful of poets who have—Robert Pinsky, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop—are being joined by Ilya Victorovich Kaminsky, who is Ukrainian, hearing impaired, (he lost nearly all of his hearing when a Soviet state doctor misdiagnosed the mumps as the common cold) and young. But like Vladimir Nabokov, another Soviet émigré who turned the English language on its head, Kaminsky is rapidly becoming one of America’s most important writers.

The city of Odessa, where Kaminsky grew up, is a seaport of cathedrals, opera theaters, and statues. Few buildings rise more than four stories. Beeches and oaks line the wide streets. In the winter, its harbor is kept open by icebreakers. The city was once a Greek colony, and legend holds that Odysseus’s ship once passed by, giving Odessa its name. Ilya Kaminsky says that, “In the country of snow and blood, most Russian writers, from Pushkin to Chekhov, found in Odessa a place of vacation, where they could write.”

Odessan sunlight was the first sunlight in Russian literature, Isaak Babel once noted. The Roman poetOdessa_1  Ovid was exiled there, but what for Ovid was a place of bitter exile, Kaminsky remembers as home. One of his earliest memories is his grandmother dipping apple slices into hot tea, and then putting them into his mouth. As a boy he lived at Tolstoy Square. Tram #1 circled a giant statue of Tolstoy’s head on its way to the movies. When he was five he took that tram on his own for the first time. His parents never found out. “It was the first time I can consciously remember claiming that city as my own,” he says. There were other journeys, as well. Tram #28 took Ilya and his brother from Tolstoy Square to Otrada Beach. It made a curve near Otrada and all of a sudden the sea would open before them.

Called the Black Sea not for the color of its water but for the color schemes of early geographers (the color for north was black; south was red—that’s also how the Red Sea got its name) Ilya and his brother would swim in a warm sea of green and gray. The two boys would sometimes swim for a mile into the sea and walk up onto the wave-breaker, the sunlight reflecting on the water all around them. From a distance, it looked as if they were walking on water.

Ilya’s childhood was Brezhnev speaking on TV, communist parades, the war in Afghanistan (his parents paid a huge bribe to get his brother out of it), and the iron coffins of neighbors’ children coming back from that country. “I remember brief rules of elderly party bosses—Andropov, Chernenko—one dying after another,” Kaminsky says. “I was in the first or second grade, the country was ruled by very old men. I remember the beginning of Gorbechev’s era, the early excitement of it, the surprise at first seeing the huge birthmark on his forehead, that, ironically, looked like a miniature map of our country, which was already about to fall apart.”

When the Soviet Union fell—thanks to such abstractions as glasnost and perestroika—the fifteen states became fifteen separate countries. The family was still living in Odessa. It was now a part of the independent Ukraine, but no one spoke Ukrainian, a language that had been repressed since the time of the tsars. Kaminsky, along with everyone else, spoke Russian, but Ukrainian began to be taught in the schools and its use was encouraged. “Everyone was excited,” Kaminsky says, about the openness and the possibilities of that time. “Then, everyone was hungry.” Inflation ran rampant, reaching hyperinflationary levels in 1993. Privatization was attempted too early, without a proper framework, and it became a day-to-day struggle to put bread on the table.

“The students in schools had to pass exams in a language they did not know,” Kaminsky says. “This was the new country, but the government was still—and would be, till very recently—in the hands of the old party bosses. The journalists—many of them my father’s friends—were still under the spell of glasnost, writing articles against the corruption. There was no longer a state order to protect them, so they were killed on the streets, opening the doors into their apartments, in grocery stores.

On the other hand, Kaminsky says, for his generation it was an exciting time—doors were opening. Many professional journalists were let go because papers had little money to offer them, and so younger men and women—and often kids—were hired to write book reviews and cover local politics and sports. Kaminsky got work as a freelance journalist. He also began to write poetry seriously, publishing a chapbook in Russian entitled The Blessed City. But he dismisses ideas of himself as a teenage prodigy. “Sixteen is a bit different from the same age in this country [the U.S.],” Kaminsky says. “Many of my classmates had children right after graduation. There was a different level of maturity and cultural expectations at that age.”

While the collapse of the Soviet Union provided many economic opportunities for Kaminsky’s generation, its collapse also took away the last protection against anti-Semitism. Pogroms—systematic asssaults against Jewish people—had once originated in Odessa, and anti-Semitism still ran rampant. Without the protection of the Communist party it became considerably more difficult to live as a Jewish family. Kaminsky’s father, Victor, had been a rich man during Soviet times, and so he had been able to bribe officials in exchange for his family’s safety. Later, in the independent Ukraine, party members became—“quite openly,” Kaminsky says—members of organized crime families. It became almost impossible to bribe officials.

Victor Kaminsky’s fortune vanished with inflation. It was a time of significant civil unrest. “There was a war going on in neighboring Moldova—bombs were dropped on schools. We had friends who left their houses with a single change of underwear and never came back,” Kaminsky says. He learned about his Jewishness from a drunk who shouted at him. His father was beaten up in a tram. Their door was burned. Concerned for his family’s safety, Victor determined to steal his family out of the country in the way that he had once been stolen out of the orphanage. When, in 1993, the United States approved the Kaminsky family’s application as political refugees, the Kaminskys left the Ukraine.

Kaminsky doesn’t like to dwell on the negative aspects of the final months in the Ukraine. “Memory becomes fiction by necessity,” he says. “The negative memories are let go.” Instead, when Kaminsky remembers Odessa, he remembers the sunlight. In his first English book of poems, Dancing in Odessa, few abstract words like “exile” or “emigrating” appear. Instead, he focuses on what he remembers:
I am reading aloud the book of my life on earth/and confess, I loved grapefruit./In a kitchen: sausages; tasting vodka,/the men raise their cups./A boy in a white shirt, I dip my finger/into sweetness. Mother washes/behind my ears. And we speak of everything/that does not come true,/which is to say: it was August./August! the light in the trees, full of fury. August/filling hands with language that tastes like smoke./Now, memory, pour some beer,/salt the rim of the glass; you/who are writing me, have what you want:/a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.

In late January, 1993—Kaminsky was sixteen—the family arrived in Rochester, New York. “A city of snow, gray sky, and many well-wishing Americans,” he remembers. In the poem “Praise,” he writes “America! I put the word on a page, it is my keyhole./ I watch the streets, the shops, the bicyclist, the oleanders/I open the windows of an apartment/and shout: I had masters once, they roared above me,/Who are we? Why are we here?/A lantern they carried still glitters in my sleep.”

The Rochester school district was already in session. There were no spaces open in any of the ESL classes, but the school allowed Ilya to audit a creative writing class. The first poem he read in English was Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Blackbird,” which Kaminsky combed over with an English dictionary.

But he continued to write his own poetry in Russian. “I had my own language, which I loved,” he says. “Which, I thought, loved me.”

For Kaminsky, poetry in English arrived unexpectedly. A year after their arrival in Rochester, his father died suddenly, of a heart attack. Kaminsky found he could not write about the loss in Russian, because it was the language his father had given him. “How could I make this man I loved into words?” he wondered. “That would be a betrayal.” At the same time he felt that something had to be said. English became his refuge. “Somehow,” he says, “for whatever reason, John Donne crossed my path. ‘Death, thou shalt die,’ I think was the line. And suddenly I felt like something miraculous could happen. In this new language, where the death did not yet exist, we could live again.”

Kaminsky found Rochester to be the ideal place to write—“it was a city of winter, nine months of winter, almost, so there was little to do except write”—and as he began to write in English, he began to publish in English.

Now, although still young—although he cautions people not to think of him as young: “Russian poets die at twenty-two!” he has said. About Dancing in Odessa, such poets as Anthony Hecht, Carolyn Forché, and Robert Pinsky wrote glowing reviews. But it’s Kaminsky’s readings of his poetry that make him outshine so many others. Because he does not hear well, and due to the fact that English is not his first language, Kaminsky reads in such a way that each word seems to resonate, shaking off connotations and shades of meaning like a wolfhound shakes off water. His voice will suddenly soar, at times—and maybe break into a shout!—before settling back, slowly, at the close of a stanza.

At a time when many poets and would-be poets are afraid to use the exclamation mark, fearing its emotional loudness, Kaminsky uses it unselfconsciously, and to strong effect. He often laments the current vogue of overly depressing American poetry, and encourages young poets to embrace both sides of life. As quoted in the Adirondack Review, he wants to leave his “readers laughing in a poem about death and crying in the poem about weddings.” Why? “Because we do so constantly in our daily experience.”

After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from Georgetown, Ilya Kaminsky became the youngest person to be offered a fellowship as writer-in-residence at Philip Exeter Academy, a feeder school for such colleges as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. At Exeter, Kaminsky found brick buildings and well-kept lawns. In the autumn the leaves were crisp and red. Every morning a visitor was giving a speech—a great writer, an actor, an historian, or a scientist. He found brilliant students—fourteen and fifteen-year-olds discussing Tolstoy, Plato, and Melville in depth—but at the same time,  he saw the same students—kids, still—as practically abandoned by their parents. “It is a very expensive way to abandon one’s kid, but it is, in many cases, an abandonment nonetheless,” Kaminsky says. “The kids were extremely overworked. There was a great deal of stress. Drugs, tension, even suicide, are not uncommon words in the vocabulary of that experience.”

One of Kaminsky’s concerns is the over-obsession with success at the cost of living in the world. He applies the same concern to angst-ridden writers who are desperate to publish. In an interview with Cranky Literary Journal, he said that:

[E]veryone should write poetry, of course! But my second impulse is to comment that I also see a lot of frustration in writers and poets. It comes with the expectation of success, either publishing or—believe it or not—financial. Success in these affairs does not exist. If you are after that sort of success when you begin to write, then you must run away from it. It will ruin your life. [But] while poetry does not offer material success, it does offer a form of spiritual satisfaction. But to say that is to lie again—poetry is no easy way to understand why we are here on this planet; there is a lot of internal struggle, necessary and unnecessary conflict, a lot of choking with words. A poet achieves the essential on the page, for a moment, and then that moment is gone. So, let’s not idealize this way of walking through the world! Let me say this: whatever works for you—i.e. your way of making sense of how to live on earth—is just fine. Be honest with yourself. Life is a great chance, and we are here ‘for the last time’ (as Akhmatova was fond of saying). [But y]es, poetry is a joyous gift. If you can write it, then write it with both hands, and may your writing pens be blessed.

After his time at Exeter, Kaminsky went to law school in the Bay Area. He studied public interest law, and worked at the National Immigration Law Center and for Bay Area Legal Aid, two organizations designed to help people through the legal hoops of acquiring health benefits. All his clients were poor, in need of immediate help. He enjoyed going to work knowing he was trying to make someone else’s life a little easier.

With the recall of California governor Gray Davis, however, and the advent of governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, those programs lost much of their funding. That loss, combined with his mother’s illness, led Kaminsky to move to San Diego, where he accepted a teaching job at San Diego State University. There, he hopes to create a component for all of the classes he teaches that will ask students to volunteer for nonprofit organizations for the good of the public.

“We live in the world and we are writing down the world,” Kaminsky says. “Writing in itself is an experience, and it feeds on experience. You may or may not be a poet. But you have got to be a citizen.”

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