Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the month from this year, click here.
The current book of the month is…
March: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky
It has been just over one year since the most recent war in Ukraine began and this month we’d like to look at Dancing in Odessa (2004) by Ilya Kaminsky. Born in the city port of Odessa, the American-Ukrainian poet and his family emigrated to the United States in 1993, shortly after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. This book, published ten years later, was his debut collection and it covers intense personal and historical ground, describing and encouraging enlivenment and imagination in the face of the deep trauma: ‘we dance to keep from falling’. Here, the words of his cultural and familial ancestors become ‘heaps of burning feathers / that rise with each retelling’, creating an elegy to the past and a prayer for the future.
The text is divided into five main sections: the personal stories of ‘Dancing in Odessa’, a re-envisioning of the life of Osip Mandelstam as Orpheus in ‘Musica Humana’, the love poems of ‘Natalia’, exploration of further literary influences in ‘The Travelling Musicians’, and the final ‘Praise’. Strong spiritual currents run throughout and the initial poem, ‘Author’s Prayer’, frames the collection as ‘a kind of petition’ to God – the poet vowing to ‘speak for the dead’ of his homeland, writing ‘the same poem over and over’ lest a blank page be taken as ‘the white flag of their surrender’. So devoted is Kaminsky to this petition that he resolves to praise ‘even the darkest days’ in his supplication: ‘Lord, / I will praise your madness’.
And there is much madness to speak of – a school is bombed, his grandfather is shot, a girl is ‘gassed in her prayer’. In response, we find suggestion that psychological survival through these dark days might partly be achieved and have been achieved through the wild distractions and defiance of imagination, the soul’s music and dance, and laughter. In ‘Aunt Rose’, laughter is ‘each day’s own little artillery’ and the poet describes how his grandmother would pull ‘imagination like a blanket’ over his head for comfort. In these two examples, we find defiance and distraction. However, music, dance, and laughter might also be seen as ways to celebrate life – to praise, if you will. This reveals a potential duality: the text seems to hold praise, or defiance, or both.
Moreover, further duplexity is found in vocabulary of contrasts, in contradictions, and in stories wherein dance accompanies moments of violence. Kaminsky’s mother ‘moves so fast – she is motionless’ and we meet an American tourist ‘whose forgetting is a plot against forgetting’. We see his Aunt Rose, ‘her soul walking on two feet, the soul or no soul’ and learn that in ‘a soldier’s uniform, in wooden shoes, she danced / at either end of day’.
Indeed, the centre of this collection is enduring dance, as it seems to be for Kaminsky in a broader sense: ‘At the centre of my life: my mother dances’. This aura of ‘dance’ emerges not only from repetition of the word itself, from frequent images of dancing, and from the poet’s choice of song forms related to dances, but it is also felt through linguistic circling, woven through every element of the text. Some titles are repeated, for example, ‘Dancing in Odessa’ is not only the title of the book, it entitles a section within the book, and appears twice as poem titles. Further repetitions and parallelism abound, creating a sensation of whirling – of seeing the same or similar images, fleetingly, again and again as one turns: ‘the evening is asleep inside her shoulder – her shoulder // rounded by sleep’, and ‘yes, we lived. / We lived, yes’. We read that Kaminsky’s mother ‘becomes a stranger and acts herself, opens / what is shut, shuts what is open’ and that he writes his ‘friends / into earth, into earth, into earth.
These syntactic and metrical structures not only give the feeling that one is spinning, they also emphasise the text’s wider rhythmic momentum, enhancing its sense of music and enlivenment. The speed with which we shift from image to image, and between observation or memory and imagination, is dizzying. It feels very much as though one has been swept up into the twists of a war, into a spiritual dance of praise, or both.
In essence, this book offers a visceral and graceful rendering of the complexities of war and faith, and there is far more grace to be discovered than could been covered here. What begins with the poet’s vow to petition the Lord, concludes with his being able to see past ‘the obscurer thoughts of God’, to see past the ‘madness’, and to retain his own faith. But the text also serves another important purpose – as Kaminsky has explained: ‘The formal elegies are on one side, a bow. But on the opposite side these people are alive, in my imagination, where they still are’. Through this collection, these people and their voices are able to live on, their dance is seen, and a powerful petition has been made.