Ilya Kaminsky, Featured Poet
Featured Poet
Ilya Kaminsky
Read Adirondack's interview with Ilya Kaminsky

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

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

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

who runs through the 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.



"This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively
by constantly greater beings."

-- R. M. Rilke


             after Nikolai Zabolotsky

Yes, the man is a tower of birds, I write my friends
into earth, into earth, into earth.

There, with lantern in hand,
a beetle-man greets his acquaintances.

You stand in white hats, long jackets,
with notebooks of poems,

you have for sisters wild carnations,
nipples of lilacs, splinters and chickens.

Go now, I will write a biography of rain,
the pages turn --

your first steps across the room.

I. Paul Celan

He writes towards your mouth
with his fingers.

In the lamplight he sees mud, wind bitten trees,
he sees grass still surviving this hour, page

stern as a burnt field:
Light was. Salvation

he whispers. The words leave the taste of soil
on his lips.

II. 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.


I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow
rushing towards my own training
to live with your lines
on a verge of a story set against itself.
To live with your lines, those where sails rise, waves
beat against the city's granite in each vowel,--
pages open by themselves, a quiet voice
speaks of suffering, of water.


We come back to where we have committed a crime,
we don't come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.
I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
You would be ashamed of these wooden lines
how I don't imagine your death
but it is here, setting my hands on fire.

III. Isaac Babel

What happiness is? Rembrandt, Petrarch
the servants of light
protected by geese, poplars.

Isaac Babel knows: he invents a genre of silence,
a precise man whose silence lives
in the bodies
of others. A precise man,

a cigarette behind his ear, he drinks
with a Chief of Police and borrows money
from his mistress, writes lines --
difficult -- there is fire between them.

He is making an account of his life,
I am still inside my body, he is praising
the dead: Gorki, Maupassant.
In moments of doubt
he drinks before their portraits.

What is happiness? a few stories
that have fooled censors. He won't carry
silence like a candlestick,
he will say to an ugly girl: you are beautiful,
you will walk above the earth at eye level.

IV. Marina Tsvetaeva

In each line's strange syllable: she awakes
as a gull, torn
between heaven and earth.

I accept her, stand with her face to face.
-- in this dream: she wears her dress
like a sail, runs behind me, stopping

when I stop. She laughs
as a child speaking to herself:
"soul = pain + everything else."

I bend clumsily at the knees
and I quarrel no more,
all I want is a human window

in a house whose roof is my life.


Paul Celan

In his youth, he worked in a factory, though everyone said he looked more like a professor of classical languages than a factory worker. He walked to work as if moving under water.

He was a beautiful man with a slender body which moved in a mixture of grace and sharp geometrical precision. His face had an imprint of laugher on it, as if no other emotion ever touched his skin. Even in his fifties, the nineteen-year-old girls winked at him in trains or trolley-busses, asking for his phone number.

Seven years after his death, I saw Celan in his house slippers dancing alone in his bedroom, humming step over step. He did not mind being a character in my stories in a language he never learned. That night, I saw him sitting on a rooftop, searching for Venus, reciting Brodsky to himself. He asked if his past existed at all.

Joseph Brodsky

Joseph made his living by giving private lessons in everything from engineering to Greek. His eyes were sleepy and small, his face dominated by a huge mustache, like Nietzche's. He mumbled. Do you enjoy Brahms? I cannot hear you, I said. How about Chopin? I cannot hear you. Mozart? Bach? Beethoven? I am hard of hearing, could you repeat that please? You will have a great success in music, he said.

To meet him, I go back to Leningrad of 1964. The streets are devilishly cold: we sit on the pavement, he begins abruptly (a dry laugh, a cigarette) to tell me the story of his life, his words change to icicles as we speak. I read them in the air.

Isaac Babel

There was no mythology: Odysseus hanged himself. Homer drank to death and stank of mud.

Isaac Babel knew. "I am a dance professor," he introduced himself, "I know different dances -- polka and tango and flamenco, a dance of lust and of joy, of wife or no wife."

He was a man of burning ambitions who acquired a habit of talking to himself; he performed his dances barefoot so that he could "preserve the merchandise." When drunk, Isaac would stand on the pavement, calling for a taxi,

"Are you free" he would ask, opening a door.

"Yes," a cabbie would say.

"Yes? Well get out of the car and go dancing!"

A tired man, when he laughed, he seemed absolutely alone on Earth. As certain women passed on the street, he would turn and quietly say, "What a piece of bread she is, what a warm piece of bread." I loved it when he laughed.

"What do you think of Marina? I asked him many times.

"I think she is a wonderful woman!"

"Really? She always says that you are an idiot."

"Well, perhaps we both are mistaken."

For years, my sealed lips kept the intoxicating story of his madness. As he delivered his jokes, I laughed with my lips tight together.

"Was Isaac drinking last night?" Marina asked.

"I am not sure! But when he arrived, he asked for a mirror to see who came home."

Marina Tsvetaeva

During the first year of my deafness, I saw her with a man. She wore a purple scarf knotted around her head. Half-dancing, he placed his head on her breast. And she began to sing. I observed her with devouring attention. I imagined her voice to smell of oranges; I fell in love with her voice.

She was a woman who lived like a conspirator sending contradictory signals. "Do not eat the apple seeds," she threatened me, "Not the apple seeds. The branches will grow from your belly!" She touched my ear, fingering it.

I know nothing of her husband except for his fatal heart attack in a moving bus. There was no strain on her face, but looking at her, I understood the dignity of grief. Returning from his funeral, she took off her shoes and walked barefoot in the snow.


Far North. December. A handful of light
trembles and sings and trembles. I write to you
from a place you have never been, our story
older, more human. The porcelain years break

into sense and forgiveness. Our cities slip into the dark.
And I? I live alone, touch the words filling with slowness
of afternoon. I imagine Ithaca: the high shores, clouds folding
and unfolding, light settling on what we say and do.

Soul, what has left but keeps arriving
between me and my country, a glasswork of forgetting,
I pray: we walk under the Lord. He cannot recall our names

but the difficult sky comes down to what we say.

                    (He bends over the table and writes, as if opening
                    windows, whispering to the sidewalks, the ghosts of trees.
                    Among sentences, the streetlamps unfold their light.)

         I imagined myself a caravella
         sinking towards sleep,
         four-years-old on a summer night,
         listening for my father's return.
         He steps into the darkened room,
         touches my cheek.
         Father the wind. Child the boat.
         Wind touches the sail!
         In the morning secretly, in his ear,
         I whisper the dream.
         And he smiles, saying, Lada.
         "Dear" and "Ship," two words in one,
         dynasty of green light.
         A word harbor welcomes us, saying:
         in this we can hide, we can live.
        Lada, my father's voice. This sea.
         This sail. This tender wind.

-- in a room large enough for everything to be buried
the boy sleeps; the silence draws through the streets,
falls open. His father, in another room,
unlights the lamp and leaves the world alone.

Evening revolves on its pale axis. In this room,
a bookcase is laden with stories of Don Quixote and Odysseus
as they dance, holding their trousers up
in this room full of rain for a boy
about to awake, lighting a lamp over and over.

A bookcase, a table, a prayer, a dry cheek: what opens,
against all evidence, is unopened. In this room
the living are asleep, the dead
are unburied, thoughts passing through their hands.

The boy sleeps in this room where the father
would read aloud, unearthing
the Russian speech so that the Cyrillics sparkle.

The doors open and close and open and close and open --
a boy turns and turns in his sleep.


We lived by the sea, a province full of promise --
candelabras, ancient arcades flood with the future
of a Republic. Was it something in the air or
something inside our heads? Or the sea's dark, nervous influence?

Love cities. This is what my father taught me,
walking the streets half sleeping, singing
ships swaying in the distance.
The lamplight falls and follows my hand.

Things give themselves away, a chair, a glass of wine
small islands helplessly half-flooded.
I open the window, say in a low voice, my father.
The rain begins far off and comes no closer.


         When you died, I saw Odysseus praying. The difficult man
         took the words like young girls, kissed their lips.

         In a dream, you stood on your knees, untouchable.
         I stretched my hand. The dark was eating my fingers.


         Here stands my father between Yes and No
         out of his hands, so many wings of birds

My son, fame is a rescue that comes long after the ship is sunk.
The war is over now, I have forgotten
what city was under the siege. The cities sleeping are homesick

and defenseless. At night, I raise my cup
and toast the seagulls crying overhead.
I don't know how to live on Earth, Telemachus.

I bless these gulls, my fierce political comrades.
and mend the weeks of rain in my hands
and drink the rain-water to forget.

I touch your forehead in order to remember.


We lived under the auspices of apricot trees. When I read from Chapman's Homer in the English neither of us could speak, father joked: "What is the difference between an Odessa Jew and an Englishman?" "An Englishman leaves without saying goodbye. The Odessa Jew says goodbye but doesn't leave."


-- because the true understanding
is always silence: my father walks

in the opposite direction
of my journey: "It's cold outside, close the window!"

"If I close the window, will it be warmer outside?"
but the sky was all around us once,

we played chess with empty matchboxes --
son of a waltzing father, father of a waltzing son

waltzing away from himself
he blessed me with his loneliness, a light winged being.

-- but my father comes from work to see my father
translating Odyssey at the kitchen table,

the even numbered pages are the wind,
on the other pages: our bodies practice war

against themselves. The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail.
In my blood, a small ship slides on without a crew.


The year I died, I wrote a psalm to the Lord, spoke
his language, watched my body in its sleep.

I recall: you stood -- Beautiful! -- your naked shoulder
propping up the ruined world,
birds came out of your head, growing to enormous size.

That winter, I traveled: L.A., New York. The words
I wrote hung like old pants that don't fit.
I sat on the train station, heard announcements,
got on a wrong train, saw you, Lena, Abram
-- your bodies are broken toys.

As Marina said: to love
is to see a man in the form of God;
not to love: to see instead a table, a chair.
Chairs rule the world! an arm chair, a sofa, a flat seat,
the government of plain wood.

The dead return like seagulls, we laugh and laugh.
First I lose my shirt. Then you turn, sprinkling

seawater in my face. We will live! the city will
give off light like a piece of crystal,
the soil will pray, the water will have wings.

(I am thinking of you as my memory cuts itself into vowels, the line opens on a shore, the sails. Stay awake. Send the photographs of the boy and your new poems to a province of gratitude, a train station where no trains arrive.)

As the night uncurls we discover light
falling on the walls, from where?
"Go into exile, --
write your Tristia," a Gypsy fortune-teller laughs
opening her dress.
I recall her vowels filled with the rain.
I escaped, yes -- a butterfly in a parking lot
or man in a parking lot, his chest full of yellow wings.

I lived as though the city was on fire --
faces from the metro followed me to the house and upstairs.
There I sat, cataloging memories
fragile as chrysanthemums on a wind.
I turn back, laundry flattens on the balconies like sails,
mornings full of light make my hands harden with language.
It's August. The sun begins a routine narration, whitening their bodies --
mother, father dancing, moving as the darkness speaks behind them.
It's August. Light washes the balconies. August,
the speech in my mouth thickens as a pear, dark sister of sweetness. I
retell the story a light etches
into my hand: Little book, go to the city without me.


. . .but one day through the gate left half-open
there are yellow lemons shining at us
and in our empty breasts
these golden horns of sunlight
pour their songs.

          -- Montale

Time, my twin, take me by hand
through the streets of your city;
my days, your pigeons, are fighting for crumbs -


A woman asks at night for a story with a happy ending.
I have none. A refugee,

I go home and become a ghost
searching the houses I lived in. They say -

the father of my father of his father of his father was a prince
who married a Jewish girl

against the Church's will and his father's will and
the father of his father. Losing all,

eager to lose: the estate, ships,
hiding this ring (his wedding ring), a ring

my father handed to my brother, then took. Handed,
then took, hastily. In a family album

we sit like the mannequins
of school-children

whose destruction,
like a lecture, is postponed.

Then my mother begins to dance, re-arranging
this dream. Her love

is difficult; loving her is simple as putting raspberries
in my mouth.

On my brother's head: not a single
gray hair, he is singing to his twelve-month-old son.

And my father is singing
to his six-year-old silence.

This is how we live on earth, a flock of sparrows.
The darkness, a magician, finds quarters

behind our ears. We don't know what life is,
who makes it, the reality is thick

with longing. We put it up to our lips
and drink.


I believe in childhood, a native land of math exams
that return and do not return, I see -

the shore, the trees, a boy
running across the streets like a lost god;

the light falls, touching his shoulder.

Where memory, an old flautist,
plays in the rain and his dog sleeps, its tongue

half hanging out;
for twenty years between life and death

I have run through silence: in 1993 I came to America.


America! I put the word on a page, it is my keyhole.
I watch the streets, the shops, the bicyclist, the

two women strolling along the water front.
I open the windows of an apartment

and say: I had masters once, they roared above me,
Who are we? Why are we here?

the tales they told began with:
"mortality," "mercy."

A lantern they carried still glitters in my sleep,
confused ghosts who taught me living simply.

-- in this dream: my father breathes
as if lighting a lamp over and over. The memory

is starting its old engine, it begins to move
and I think the trees are moving.

I unmake these lines, dissolving in each vowel,
as Neruda said, my country

I change my blood in your direction. The evening whispers
with its childlike, pulpy lips.

On the page's soiled corners
my teacher walks, composing a voice;

he rubs each word in his palms:
"hands learn from the soil and broken glass,

you cannot think a poem," he says,
"watch the light hardening into words."


I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation

but the provinces of human longing:
to the rhythm of snow

an immigrant's clumsy phrase
falls into speech.

But you asked
for a story with a happy ending. Your loneliness

played its lyre. I sat
on the floor, watching your lips.

Love, a one legged bird
I bought for forty cents as a child, and released;

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.
O the language of birds

with no word for complaint! -
the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness
drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscure thoughts of God descending

among a child's drum beats,
over you, over me, over the lemon trees

Ilya Kaminsky
ILYA KAMINSKY was born in Odessa, formerly the Soviet Union, and moved to the U.S. in 1993. He has won the National Russian Essay Contest, the National Shepardi Prize for Poetry, and most recently the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine. In 1999 and 2000, Ilya served as a George Bennett Fellow Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy. His manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Walt Whitman Award. He has also received the Florence Kahn Memorial Award and the Milton Center's Award for Excellence in Writing. Current work appears or is forthcoming in The New Republic, American Literary Review, DoubleTake, Salmagundi, Southwest Review, Tikkun, The American Writing, Literary Review, and Mars Hill Review.  Kaminsky also writes poetry in Russian. His work in that language was recently chosen for 'Bunker Poetico" at the 2001 Venice Biennial. His most recent chapbook, Musica Humana, is available from Chapiteau Press.
Author's Prayer
A Farewell to Friends
Paul Celan
Elegy for Joseph Brodsky
Isaac Babel
Marina Tsvetaeva
Traveling Musicians
My Father Between Yes and No*
*a poem in progress
Editor's Note: "Author's Prayer" and "Marina Tsvetaeva" previously appeared in Mars Hill Review. "Paul Celan" first appeared in Tikkun. "Elegy for Joseph Brodsky" previously appeared in Southwest Review.  A brief portion of "My Father Between Yes and No" was published in The New Republic. A different version of the poem appears in American Literary Review. "Praise" previously appeared in Salmagundi.