Dancing in Odessa


Once in a rare while, if you are terribly lucky, you read a poet whose poems are so numinous, so breathtaking, whose rhythms are so full of music that you wish they could enter your body, could breathe with the lift and fall of your own breath—whose images, no matter how foreign to your own experience, enter your mind and are fixed there, changing forever your perception of the world. Ilya Kaminsky is such a poet.
Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky tops the list because he is one of those rarest of finds in this or any century, a writer who establishes what poetry can be.
The New York Times’ ArtsBeat
He is the most gifted young poet of them all. He is a true poet whose work will be read in the years to come.
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
This is an intricate, muscular, startlingly powerful collections, one that amazes by image and statement, by its shaped whole, and by the sheer scope of its poetic observation. Kaminsky is truly a descendant of Odysseus, after whom his birth city was named, and his poems reflect both Odyssean wanderings and the liberation of mind that opens the way to craft. Inventiveness of language, the investigative passion, praises, lamentation, and a proper sense of the ridiculous are omnipresent. Kaminsky poems are wholly local yet unprovincial, intimate yet free of ego. This book is a breathtaking debut.
— Jane Hirshfield, Ploughshares
Stunning, moving,... Kaminsky is an uncommonly outward-looking poet, and dislocation and loss seem to have deepened his sense of the preciousness of things... In ‘Natalia,’ a poem dedicated to his wife, Kaminsky writes: ‘She slept in my bed/ I slept on a chair, she slept on a chair/ I slept in the kitchen, she left her slippers in my shower, in my Torah, her slippers in each sentence I spoke. I said: those I love/ die, grow old, are born. But I love the stubbornness of her bedclothes!’ Not many young American poets would dare use an exclamation point with so little irony. [but] ...there’s nothing simplistic about Kaminsky’s moralism, or his praise. They’re too deeply informed by experiences he refuses to romanticize — by a sense that all precious things are threatened.
— Eric McHenry, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
How does Ilya Kaminsky write so gorgeously in a second language he’s never clearly heard? Maybe it’s that he has the right ambition: ‘All I want is a human window / in a house whose roof is my life.’
— Jonathan Kiefer, San Francisco Magazine
Unlike so much of the style-over-substance ‘poetry of gesture’ that overruns many contemporary journals, Kaminsky uses style not as an end to itself, but as a vehicle (and a remarkably lucid one) for telling us something important about our lives.
— Peter Kline, Meridian
Kaminsky is a lyrical, serious poet…it’s sometimes impossible to believe he is not a native English speaker. His poetry is carried along by its perfect pitch.
— Jay Michaelson, Forward
Dancing in Odessa is a rich, reverberative dance with memories of a haunted city — and memory itself: letters with a child’s signature, a raspberry, a page of sky.’
— Carol Muske-Dukes, Los Angeles Times
Ilya Kaminsky, a poet who had them crying in the aisles with his reading from his book, ‘Dancing in Odessa’, (the best poetry reading I have ever attended) ... imagine Czeslaw Milosz at 28, and you begin to get the idea.
— Grant Cogswell, Seattle Belltown Messenger
The fact that he has achieved a style that is simultaneously so sonically dense, imagistically rich, emotionally stirring, socially and historically inventive, and, while following in the footsteps of acknowledged literary legends, still emerging as uniquely his own, and all by the age of twenty seven, is nothing short of astonishing. Dancing in Odessa is a triumphant debut, announcing the arrival of a poet whose talents, and potential, are limitless.
— Adam L. Dressler, Perihelion
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. Kaminsky demonstrates a reckless willingness to break all rules of North American poetic propriety and somehow to make it work, and sing.
— Eric Gudas, Slope
I love Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa. When I reread it, I feel Mandelshtam’s black sea stir as it crushes against my pillow, I feel that poetry comes to me closer than ever.
— Valzhyna Mort, PEN.org
I recently just read Ilya Kaminsky’s book Dancing in Odessa and was completely blown away by it. I heard him read at AWP last year and was moved to tears, but only recently explored his work on the page. I read the book three times—once out loud, twice by myself. The words are so delightful and easy to breeze through, but the more time that you spend with the words, the more gifts they give you.
— Fatimah Asghar, HARRIET, Poetryfoundation.org
Dancing in Odessa is an amazing collection….Kaminsky expands the idea of what American poetry can do. Writing in his non-native tongue, he possesses a magical ability to make words we have grown tired of fresh again. Kaminsky has lines that are howlingly funny next to lines of unspeakable horror; his invocations of romantic love are brave and sometimes goofy, just like the real thing. His scope is not limited to himself, it is sweeping—it includes not only his family, but also an imagining of other writers and people. This scope resists the smallness of mind that seems to infect so many current books of poetry, the inwardness, dullness, and misery. This collection cannot help but make a statement about humanity, and not a simplistic one, but a realistic, morally, and politically informed one, about how human beings overcome evil and hardship. Beneath the narratives of the poems themselves is an underlying spirituality. Dancing in Odessa is a collection full with ambition, intelligence, and passion; well constructed with humor, whimsicality, and unrelenting desire for truth. I am constantly reminded in reading this book of Voltaire: ‘Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.’ This is poetry that walk a tightrope between edification and entertainment, between suffering and enlightened laughter. I am looking forward to reading more of Kaminsky’s work in the future.
— Jeannine Hall Gailey, The Pedestal Magazine
This is the real stuff. He writes like a child 100 years old, not for bravura display but for the sake of those souls whose being he feels, and they are many. This is poetry I am grateful to read. The beauty of this book radiates.
The San Francisco Reader
Ilya Kaminsky is or should be a matter of some interest to us. Born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, in 1977, Kaminsky arrived in the United States in 1993, at which point his transition to English began. In this he follows other transplanted poets (Joris, Hollo, Waldrop, et al.) while retaining a strong, often an uncanny sense of an earlier time and place. In his major gathering of poems, Dancing in Odessa, the city is itself a persistent presence, and in the poems therein is a virtual channeling of the voices. The movement across borders & languages is one of the distinguishing characteristics of poetry in our time, a nomadic phenomenon, not easily dismissed
— Jerome Rothenberg, Poems and Poetics
He writes poems full of surprising extrapolations of meaning based on partial or fragmentary perception. In another poet’s hands, Kaminsky’s story would have been an occasion for memoir. I can easily imagine (heck, with a little research, I could probably write) the book Kaminsky mercifully did not write. Kaminsky’s ‘real life’ is subordinated everywhere to a voice (riddling, comic, and impertinent, like a child-character in Shakespeare) and a sensibility (Bruno Schulz-like, the rudderless logic always on the brink of capsizing): ‘I see her windows open in the rain, laundry in the windows / she rides a wild pony for my birthday, / a white pony on the seventh floor. // “And where will we keep it?” “On the balcony!” / the pony neighing on the balcony for nine weeks. —From My Mother’s Tango. This combination of empirically-verifiable detail (seven floors, nine weeks) and spectacle so weird that it defies testimony might be called ‘Surrealism.’ But the Surrealist contract is broken almost immediately in the poem, when Kaminsky asks, ‘What was happiness? A pony on the balcony!’ It doesn’t take being deaf to imagine a mother driven to insane lengths to amuse her son, and it’s the raw emotion of the question, following the surrealistic coolness, that resounds. ‘What was happiness?’ is an old man’s question: what’s it doing in a book by a twenty-seven-year-old? This is a distinguished first book.
— Dan Chiasson, Poetry
Dancing in Odessa is born under two signs— memory and ecstasy. Ilya Kaminsky proceeds like a perfect gardener—he grafts the gifts of the Russian newer literary tradition on the American tree of poetry and forgetting.
— Adam Zagajewski
By having his foot in two cultures, it allows him to show us the universal significance of his experience with an unexpected originality that is not bound by the cultural constraints of what we were expecting. These poems truly have emigrated to us from Odessa, and we should welcome them with open arms, their optimism and the manner in this they open and turn the personally rooted image into something larger than personal: ‘The darkness, magician, finds quarters behind our ears.’ He presents us with Odessa, and in the end even Odessa becomes more than a city of Kaminsky’s origin: ‘Odessa is everywhere’ — it becomes the world itself.
The Brattleboro Reformer
Dancing in Odessa is stunning and universal. These poems are a gift.
Columbia: Journal of Literature and the Arts