“The distant reality every day questions me / like an unknown traveler who wakes me up in the middle of the journey / saying ‘Is this the right bus?’, / and I answer ‘Yes’, but I mean ‘I don’t know.'”
-Nikola Madzirov, “I Don’t Know”
Bergamot Station at night / Photo: Marvin Rand
It was with great excitement that I drove down to Frank Pictures Gallery in Bergamont Station to read poems alongside Tim Green, Nikola Madzirov, and Ilya Kaminsky last night. It is always a privilege to read alongside first-rate poets, but last night was something truly special. It was one of the final readings in the “Third Area” series to be held in this gallery, and my final reading in America before Val and I move to London.
But more than this, the lineup was particularly special to me. I was slated to read with Tim Green at the Carnegie Art Museum last year, but it ended up being too close to the due date of his new baby daughter. He read poems from American Fractal as well as some new work. Tim has been a great supporter of my own work, giving it exposure through Rattle, and is himself a fine poet — sonorous and absorbed when he reads, self-deprecating and down-to-earth in between.
Then I was introduced to the work of Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov, available now in English thanks to BOA editions and the Lannan Translations Selection Series. His poems took my breath away. In them, I found many of the elements of what I admire most about other Slavic-language poets, especially those far to the north in Poland — sensitive, clever observations, at times whimsical, but always with a deep undercurrent of existential longing.
There is much to admire and learn from in Ilya Kaminsky‘s Dancing In Odessa. Above all, there is bravery. Kaminsky weaves through a hybrid of forms and — more than just precluding poetry sections with introductory prose — in this book he includes anecdotes, recipes and even a list of new “definitions” for English words. What emerges is a kind of personal and cultural impasto — broad, thick strokes of lyrical “thoughts.”
This passage comes toward the end:
Then my mother begins to dance, re-arranging
this dream. Her love
is difficult; loving her is as 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
Couplets add energy and weight to this poem, since you are always either at the start or the end of a verse. The couplets in this passage, like so many of the poems in this book, eschew narrative in favor of impression and association. Quick shifts from thought to thought are balanced against a sense of unification — these are not random images, but carefully chosen pairings of diaphoric metaphor. Here is a coherence that is not so much plot- or idea-based, as something that rings true on an impressionistic level.
Though crafted, these poems are also bold. This is also definitely a book of poems that works together as a whole. Kaminsky’s poems in this book seem to feed off each other, and I see how certain individual poems I’d be reticent to call powerful in their own right do, in fact, move me and carry me along in this larger project. More than anything, here is a poet my own age writing poems that make me say, “Yes!” Thanks to Sandra for recommending this work.
Keith Woodruff has a poignant article on his site about his new relationship to statistics since the passing of his son. I, too, have experienced a profound thinning of the security blanket of probability since our own loss. Every time I got on a plane to and from Oregon, I was keenly aware of how I now neither can nor want to go back to the kind of drowsy false security of my privileged first-world life; nor can I bear to live under constant threat in my mind.
Our nation likewise had the psychic fabric of its imperviousness rent by the attack on the Twin Towers by airplanes. It was an immeasurable tragedy. Yet other countries suffer such losses in greater numbers and more frequently; other families lose more children than those who see adulthood. How can we live, awake to such fragility, without, in the process, being crushed?
Poetry is a kind of faith. The audacity of poem-making, in a world saturated with throw-away words, a preference for television and music, and suspicious indifference to all but the ironic — is itself a profession of belief. To commit one’s life to this art in such times is as irrational as any religion. Truly, we write against the odds.
Tonight I have been reading the poems of Ilya Kaminsky — a Russian poet from Odessa, deaf since early childhood, who, a year after arriving in America with little English, lost his father suddenly. He writes about Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others who survived the un-survivable, writing poems for which they could be killed or worse. Here is a fierceness of faith in humanity. What we pass on to each other in such thin books of poems is some likelihood of greater self-understanding — and a precious likelihood of hope.