Dancing in Odessa
One of the difficulties of reviewing is the unhappy balance between the urge to review a title as if the reviewer’s attention focused solely on the work at hand—one reader, one writer, a world complete—and the compulsion to directly address the context in which the book is received. It’s a problem: On the one hand, the act of reviewing itself summons recognition of the wider world through which the book moves; on the other hand, how much knowledge of the book’s receipt is really useful to a discussion of its content? Am I reviewing the book or am I reviewing its readers?
I mention this because I don’t find much in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa to appreciate, and in that failure, it seems as if I am one of a bare handful of human persons immune to its charms. I don’t take pride in this fact; I’m not a contrarian. If I walk outside my door and find a parade passing by, peopled with happy citizens of all ages, I’m not going to recoil in horror at the spectacle of human joy; I’m not that suspicious. In fact, I’d be delighted to witness such delight, and (I think logically) I’d be curious as to the cause for celebration. I would join the parade, if only to see where it was heading, where it would all end or what caused it to begin.
But I have to tell you, all that excitement would equal expectation: for the extension of my faith, I would want something good. And if, upon arrival at the prime mover of all this excitation, I found nothing remarkable, I would have a dilemma. There’s some latitude allowed by the vagaries of taste, but that latitude isn’t infinite. When the discrepancies become wild enough, and polarized enough, there comes a moment that requires serious and self-conscious critical evaluation.
If Ilya Kaminsky’ Dancing in Odessa is remarkable, exhilarating, marvelous, superb, beautiful, brilliant, passionate, glorious, and fresh, then either I am quite mad, or else a vast and subtle perversion has subtly warped the minds of my fellow readers. I know, the numbers are on the side of those legions moved by Kaminsky’s efforts, and probability suggests that in this case I stand alone because I am absent some essential faculty that, were I to posses it, would grant me access to the Promised Land of his poetry. I do kinda wish I could get there from here; on the basis of the reviews alone, to say nothing of the personal testimonials, it’s a fine land, all the honey and twice the milk, filled with the glories of human feeling. But before Carolyn Forche and Adam Zagajewski gently stuff me into my short white coat and trundle me off to the Home for Wayward Critics, I’d like to make a case as to how Ilya Kaminsky has not done what he has been reported to do, and how the community’s willful misapprehension of Dancing in Odessa could perhaps cause harm proportionate to the excess of its welcome.
I think the success of Dancing in Odessa documents the difficulties of how a reader’s will can both enable and interfere with the effect of language. This difficulty arises from the relationship between language that can transfix and language that can transfigure, and it is the reader’s great but unfortunately freestanding desire to be transfigured that creates the problem. To be transfigured by language, of course, is to be conscious of how that language has changed you: this can be a feeling of uplift or terror, of renewal or despair, of the assertion of the force of life as expressed in words. This desire for transfiguration doesn’t always translate to a desire for affirmation, exactly: the problem comes not from the reader’s belief that they can know what they want before they get it. Some express this desire as a desire for meaning, but not meaning in the broadest sense; when they clamor for meaning, they mean Meaning: life, death, birth, work, love, history, community.
I don’t demonize this desire. People go to church and to football games and backyard barbecues and tear-jerkers for a reason, and that reason is not ignoble. But nor do I valorize the desire, and assume that this one form of Meaning trumps all other forms, or—more importantly—all other considerations relative to the achievement of transfiguration. For random instance, I worship at the altar of Miss Lonelyhearts, because I think it articulates the challenge of having a soul, and I admire the force and candor with which the novel recognizes that challenge. But while I could appreciate the sentiment of that effort, I could not be transfigured by the experience of reading Miss Lonelyhearts if the language in which it is written were less transfixing. A beautiful language, that novel has: bitter, sharp, odd, and also intimate in the way vernacular must be, but bold and lucid when the time for lucidity finally comes.
The point is that the intent to transfigure cannot be uncoupled from the ability to transfix. Attention to language is the step that cannot be skipped, and language—the invention language requires—is the weakness of Dancing in Odessa. As a poet, Kaminsky has a big heart but little mind, and that lack is not only a weakness in and of itself, but also erodes my faith in those very things the scale and transparency of his heart are meant to secure.
The book is essentially a collection of gestures and approximations. These gestures are explicitly bold from the very start:
If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.
Yes, I live. I can cross 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.
No one should tell any poet how high they should set their own standards; I applaud ambition, but I will also hold the poet accountable for meeting the standards he sets. So that’s a hell of a syllogism to set yourself, son: to speak for the dead, to praise even the darkest days. To speak for the dead, to perform that kind of deep ethical necromancy, you must master both your tongue and theirs; to praise from within the darkness you must make a language that knows that darkness, or your praise will be hollow. In a poem that establishes the prayer, the full range of the wish and desire of the poet, I can accept a measure of shorthand: the overture, of course, cannot be the show. But note how even here Kaminsky approximates: dancing in his sleep, laughing in the mirror, descriptions that stand in for life, but do not themselves tells us of life.
It isn’t the last you’ll see of this dancing, which only seems fair, given the title. But what frustrates is the way Kaminsky uses the idea of dancing to paraphrase properties for which he does not have more compelling language: within “In Praise of Laughter” Kaminsky’s grandfather “danced naked on the table in front of our house” and the we of the poem, “the people of Odessa”, also “dance to keep from falling, / between the doctor and the prosecutor.” Clearly, dancing thus represents a kind of will to live, an activity forced by circumstance but nevertheless defiant of those circumstances. Okay: despite its obviousness, the assumption that the burdened dance despite and because of their burdens, I suppose this will do. But for how long? How many times can Kaminsky make copies of copies, if even the original is somewhat faded? His Aunt Rose returns to dance her way through the poem that takes her name; his mother dances in “My Mother’s Tango,” a girl with whom he’s sleeping dances in “American Tourist”: “naked in her galoshes she waltzed / and even her cat waltzed.”
There’s only so much of this I can abide, even in a section devoted to the collective meaning of dancing in Odessa. I cannot abide it at length because it is a form of redundancy in which the repetition is not meant to gain either depth or precision with each re-introduction of the language; the device repeats because the poet has nothing to say and no means by which to say it, once he has established that yes, these people, these dancing people, they are filled with life, here in Odessa, and what is Odessa like? Odessa is filled with characters as its characters are filled with life, and we know them to be characters indeed, thanks to the kinds of kooky character things they do, you know, like dancing, which they are, in that place, that is Odessa!
The weakness of this conceit and its unimaginative execution characterizes the whole book. It’s one thing to find such abbreviations sufficient for your own life; it’s quite another to shoehorn the lives of others into so limited a language. So when, in the long poem “Musica Humana," which claims to be an elegy for Osip Mandelstam, Kaminsky presents the following—
Nadezhda, her Yes and No are difficult
to tell apart. She dances, a skirt tucked between her thighs
and the light is strengthening
—I recoil, not because I have a principled objection to invoking or even imagining Nadezhda or Osip Mandelstam, or Akhmatova, or Tsvetaeva, or Babel, or even (weirdly) Celan. What I object to is the way Kaminsky turns these figures into proxies of his own demonstrably minor faculties. Thus, in “Isaac Babel,”
Isaac Babel knows: he invented 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.
and in “Paul Celan”, the poet sees
” . . . Celan in his old robe 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 did not mind. How convenient for a figment of one’s imagination to not mind having been imagined. Yet even could he object, why would he, for what unquiet dead could resist reincarnation as one of the Life-Filled Dancing Poets of Odessa?
What’s happening here isn’t evocation, invocation, inhabitation or even ventriloquism. I suppose it need not be more than Kaminsky’s meditations on these figures, but if so, it’s unfortunate that no element of these meditations suggests the power of the writers Kaminsky calls forth. If he cannot express any measure of their merits, and cannot offer any inspired language with which to elegize them, then what has he done, but tap into our collective and cursory intuition that, ah, yes, these are writers of import, and import is important?
Unfortunately, Kaminsky does no better with references wholly within the frame of his intimate knowledge than he does with the literature that surpasses that knowledge. The fourth section of Dancing in Odessa, “Natalia” promises the pleasures of unalloyed and unapologetic love poems. After a brief prose introduction that depends upon even more dancing, we are introduced to the promise of lovers who will “whisper to each other our truest stories.” Sweet, if (again) an obvious shorthand for intimacy.
Yet in the following poems, we once more return to the symbolic freight of
“A serious woman, she danced
without a shirt, covering what she could.
We lay together on Yom Kippur, chosen by a wrong God . . .”
“(And suddenly) the joy of days entered me. She only danced under apricot trees in a public park, a curious woman in spectacles whose ambition was limited to apricot trees.”
” Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life.
You can find us, Lord, she is a woman dancing with her eyes closed
and I am a man arguing with this woman
among nightstands and tables and chairs.
Lord, give us what you have already given.”
Before I am dragged straight to hell for being the very bad man who took a bite of the boy with the bolshoi serdtse, and lest my criticism of Dancing in Odessa seem to rest entirely upon my belief that dancing is a fragile structure upon which to hang enormous ambitions (I could find similar evidence of insufficiency in Kaminsky’s habit of analogizing cities to improbable aggregations, or his tendency to telegraph complexity by making and reversing assertions), let me pay particular attention to that prayer: Lord, give us what you have already given. This is the petition that both defines this book and the extraordinary welcome it has received. If we desire affirmation, and this desire is no indulgence or indignity, then what we owe to this desire is full attention and respect to the nominally simple virtues around which Dancing in Odessa is built. In failing to pay that attention, Kaminsky has done no favors to the spirits of wisdom and resilience by which he seems sincerely moved, and in over-valuing his sincerity at the expense of his poetry, his champions have done Kaminsky an equal disservice. It is good and right to “speak of the music that wakes us,” but to speak of the music is not to make the music, and without the music, the speaking remains empty.