Dancing In Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky. Tupelo Press, 2004. 58 pp. $16.95

reviewed by Eric Gudas

Ilya Kaminsky’s infectiously ecstatic poems waltz through the boundaries of the everyday world into the world of myth, as if there were no division between the two. Dance figures not only in the title of Kaminsky’s debut book, Dancing In Odessa, but in the poems’ lilting rhythms and compelling images: “naked in her galoshes she waltzed, / and even her cat waltzed.”

Twenty-seven year old Kaminsky, who emigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union as a teenager, writes in an English that revels in its own awkwardness: “[T]o the rhythm of snow / an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into place.”  The appeal of Kaminsky’s poems stems from their ability to turn that “clums[iness]” brilliantly to their advantage in passages that flirt with banality before side-stepping it: 

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.

In a passage like this, Kaminsky demonstrates a “reckless” willingness to break all rules of North American poetic propriety and — somehow — to make it work, and sing.

Lest Kaminsky begin to sound like a blissfully innocent naïf, unaware of his own skill, I hasten to mention Dancing In Odessa’s many homages to such writers as Celan, Mandelstam, Montale, and Brodsky. These homages, which comprise roughly half of the book, demonstrates Kaminsky’s eagerness to situate himself in a lineage of the twentieth-century witness-poets whose strengths rest both in the political sweep of their work and in extreme idiosyncrasies of style. Oddly enough, however, these literary tributes betray Kaminsky’s youth more than his poems about love and family. It is difficult to makes poems about other poets as compelling about poems about one’s own experience—even when, as seems the case with Kaminsky, the experience of reading and identifying with Mandelstam et al is as much an experience as eating. Indeed, the best poem in Kaminsky’s sequence, “Musica Humana: An Elegy for Osip Mandelstam,” contains a recipe for “‘Cold Mint-Cucumber Soup.”

In “Praise,” the book’s closing poem, Kaminsky triumphantly claims, “I have learned to see the past as Montale saw it.” If the claim is perhaps less compelling to the  reader than to Kaminsky, there is, nonetheless, optimism and joy to spare in Dancing In Odessa. The book’s title section, and the sequence of love poems “Natalia,” contain enough verve for an entire book. I love the presence of Aunt Rose in these poems — “From her mouth, a smell of wild garlic — / She moves toward me in her pajamas / arguing with me and herself.” At their best, Kaminsky’s poems compel us to feel, “How magical it is to live!” (35).

Eric Gudas's poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Southern Review, and other journals.