Dancing with Ilya Kaminsky without a Dictionary

Photo: Alexandra Arkley

By Atreyee Majumder

I had read a few of of Ilya Kaminsky’s poems from the collection Deaf Republic earlier. The Deaf Republic is very expensive to buy on Indian Amazon. My fandom of Kaminsky remained constrained to a few websites in which his poems were published, and a few recorded performances on YouTube. Dancing in Odessa landed on my desk at a reasonable price last week. I read through most of it on a plane, flying from Bangalore to the city of Amritsar (which is near the Indo-Pak Wagah borders). Reading Kaminsky on a plane was not only strange in the time of the war in Ukraine, but also because of intimacy that Kaminsky brought to my reading palate, with his masterful interweaving of love, trauma, war and memory.

I am writing these words out of the sheer failure to write poems of Kaminsky’s calibre. Kaminsky writes of Russia, of Odessa, of bread, wine, lovemaking, grandmothers and lastly, the site of the most significant loss, America. He writes:

I came to America without a dictionary… (p.55)

The sentence, in the first stanza of the poem “Praise” raises not only memories of a snow-laden New Haven where I spent time as a doctoral student, it directly brought to indictment the failure of translation of vast swathes of life and experience that is transferred to America within the confines of a wretched word – immigrant. I lived in New Haven, and frequented cities of the east coast, for about six years. I now live in Bangalore. In both places, I am unmoored. Somewhat of an immigrant. In Bangalore, I don’t speak with regional tongue – Kannada. In America, I don’t speak the regional ethos – freedom. Between freedom of capital and incarceration of ethnolinguistic homelands, English arises as a spiritual home for which I am thankful every day. I am thankful to Ilya Kaminsky who is thankful to Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky. He brings to America a slice of Eastern Europe. He brings to me a language for home. Home – that elusive, tantalising idea for which there is no geographic place; home – whose imagination that is thoroughly lost in America.

Exile appears as a recurrent theme in Kaminsky’s poems, reminding me predictably of the Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Kaminsky’s nostalgia is brought out in the lines beginning the poem “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. (p. 46)

This poem reads to me as a complaint to Brodsky. For not allowing the Kaminsky generation to remain in Odessa (in an earlier version of Russia?). It is an elegy that argues simultaneously; cries out in agony. For Brodsky was brought to America, I guess, and sold for some cheap pennies as world poetry. The same way, the Tamil (Indian) poet and literary critic, A K Ramanujan’s translation of ancient, Tamil Sangam poetry rendered in English turns the pages of America devouring the world. Poetry becomes the site of cultural imperialism. But these are sad matters, let me not veer into them too much in order to retain the bittersweet taste of Kaminsky’s dance steps on the page. He indicts Brodsky, while pleading to Brodsky to keep alive a nation if only in memory. War and a war-torn nation – Russia – emerge repeatedly in Kaminsky’s poems. These, though, are not poems about war. They are poems about that feeling that I harbour in my heart everyday as I try to keep alive in poetry, a weird thing called yearning. Kaminsky yearns in the way that I have only seen Shahid Ali yearn and probably no one else. There is no way out of empire, of America, of war, of trauma. The only escape is the madness of language. The affliction that makes a poet the only sane person in the room.

Kaminsky writes in a poem called “A Toast”:

In my veins
long syllables tighten their ropes, rains come
right out of the eighteenth century
Yiddish or a darker language in which imagination
Is the only word. (p.30)          

Language, nation, silence, lovemaking merge into a quagmire in this poem. I think of Shahid and his yearning for Kashmir again and again. I think of Shahid and his hungry embrace of the rootlessness of America in A Nostalgist’s Map of America. Shahid writes in the famous poem “I see Chile in my Rearview Mirror”:

I see Argentina and Paraguay
under a curfew of glass, their colors
breaking, like oil. The night in Uruguay 

is black salt. I’m driving toward Utah,
keeping the entire hemisphere in view—
Colombia vermilion, Brazil blue tar,
some countries wiped clean of color: Peru 

is titanium white. And always oceans
that hide in mirrors: when beveled edges
arrest tides or this world’s destinations
forsake ships.

This poem marks a restless moving body, an automobile, that breaks through the boundaries of place, and produces a fragmented subjectivity, one that finds home in the language English. In Shahid, an Anglophone, Indian reading public finds a language for the emptiness of their hearts. Perhaps, Kaminsky brings that to the American poetry reading public. I wonder though if Kaminsky writes in Russian at all, and what kind of a heartbreak his Russian poems bring about. I think of Odessa in a plane flying very close to the Indo-Pak borders. I think of Kaminsky as a poet not of Russia but of heartbreak. I think of Kaminsky’s mad dance in Odessa and our own nation-state dancing to the notes of love and bloodshed.

Works Cited

Ali, Agha Shahid. 1991. A Nostalgist’s Map of America. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Kaminsky, Ilya. 2021. Dancing with Odessa. New York: Faber.

Atreyee Majumder
is an anthropologist. She teaches at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.


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