Blesok no. 97, July-August, 2014

Dancing In Odessa

Ilya Kaminsky

Author’s Prayer

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 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.

Dancing In Odessa

In a city ruled jointly by doves and crows, doves covered the main district, and crows the market. A deaf boy counted how many birds there were in his neighbor’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialed the number and confessed his love to the voice on the line.

My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices. On a crowded trolley, a one-armed man said that my life would be mysteriously linked to the history of my country. Yet my country cannot be found, its citizens meet in a dream to conduct elections. He did not describe their faces, only a few names: Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad.

In Praise of Laughter

Where days bend and straighten
in a city that belongs to no nation
but all the nations of wind,

she spoke the speech of poplar trees –
her ears trembling as she spoke, my Aunt Rose
composed odes to barbershops, drugstores.

Her soul walking on two feet, the soul or no soul, a child’s allowance,
she loved street musicians and knew
that my grandfather composed lectures on the supply

and demand of clouds in our country:
the State declared him an enemy of the people.
He ran after a train with tomatoes in his coat

and danced naked on the table in front of our house –
he was shot, and my grandmother raped
by the public prosecutor, who stuck his pen in her vagina,

the pen which signed people off for twenty years.
But in the secret history of anger – one man’s silence
lives in the bodies of others – as we dance to keep from falling,

between the doctor and the prosecutor:
my family, the people of Odessa,
women with huge breasts, old men naive and childlike,

all our words, heaps of burning feathers
that rise and rise with each retelling.


What is memory? what makes a body glow:
an apple orchard in Moldova and the school is bombed

when the schools are bombed, sadness is forbidden
– I write this now and I feel my body’s weight:

the screaming girls, 347 voices
in the story of a doctor saving them, his hands

trapped under a wall, his granddaughter dying nearby –
she whispers I don’t want to die, I have eaten such apples,

he watches her mouth as a blind man reading lips
and yells: Shut up! I am near the window, I

am asking for help! speaking,
he cannot stop speaking, in the dark:

of Brahms, Chopin he speaks to them to calm them.
A doctor, yes, whatever window

framed his life, outside: tomatoes grew, clouds passed and we
once lived; a doctor with a tattoo of a parrot on his trapped arm,

seeing his granddaughter’s cheekbones
no longer her cheekbones, with surgical precision

stitches suffering and grace:
two days pass, he shouts

in his window (there is no window) when rescue
approaches, he speaks of Chopin, Chopin.

They cut off his hands, nurses say he is “doing OK”
– in my dream: he stands, feeding bread to pigeons, surrounded

by pigeons, birds on his head, his shoulder,
he shouts You don’t understand a thing! he is

breathing himself to sleep, the city sleeps,
there is no such city.

Aunt Rose

In a soldier’s uniform, in wooden shoes, she danced
at either end of day, my Aunt Rose.
Her husband rescued a pregnant woman

from the burning house – he heard laughter,
each day’s own little artillery – in that fire
he burnt his genitals. My Aunt Rose

took other people’s children – she clicked her tongue as they cried
and August pulled curtains evening after evening.
I saw her, chalk between her fingers,

she wrote lessons on an empty blackboard,
her hand moved and the board remained empty.
We lived in a city by the sea but there was

another city at the bottom of the sea
and only local children believed in its existence.
She believed them. She hung her husband’s

picture on a wall in her apartment. Each month
on a different wall. I now see her with that picture, hammer
in her left hand, nail in her mouth.

From her mouth, a smell of wild garlic –
she moves toward me in her pajamas
arguing with me and with herself.

The evenings are my evidence, this evening
in which she dips her hands up to her elbows,
the evening is asleep inside her shoulder – her shoulder

rounded by sleep.

My Mother’s Tango

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.
At the center of my life: my mother dances,

yes here, as in childhood, my mother
asks to describe the stages of my happiness –
she speaks of soups, she is of their telling:

between the regiments of saucers and towels,
she moves so fast – she is motionless,
opening and closing doors.

But what was happiness? A pony on the balcony!
My mother’s past, a cloak she wore on her shoulder.
I draw an axis through the afternoon

to see her, sixty, courting a foreign language –
young, not young – my mother
gallops a pony on the seventh floor.

She becomes a stranger and acts herself, opens
what is shut, shuts what is open.

American Tourist

In a city made of seaweed we danced on a rooftop, my hands
under her breasts. Subtracting
day from day, I add this woman’s ankles

to my days of atonement, her lower lip, the formal bones of her face.
We were making love all evening –
I told her stories, their rituals of rain: happiness

is money, yes, but only the smallest coins.
She asked me to pray, to bow
towards Jerusalem. We bowed to the left, I saw

two bakeries, a shoe store; the smell of hay,
smell of horses and hay. When Moses
broke the sacred tablets on Sinai, the rich

picked the pieces carved with:
“adultery” and “kill” and “theft,”
the poor got only “No” “No” “No.”

I kissed the back of her neck, an elbow,
this woman whose forgetting is a plot against forgetting,
naked in her galoshes she waltzed

and even her cat waltzed.
She said: “All that is musical in us is memory” –
but I did not know English, I danced

sitting down, she straightened
and bent and straightened, a tremble of music
a tremble in her hand.

Dancing in Odessa

We lived north of the future, days opened
letters with a child’s signature, a raspberry, a page of sky.

My grandmother threw tomatoes
from her balcony, she pulled imagination like a blanket
over my head. I painted
my mother’s face. She understood
loneliness, hid the dead in the earth like partisans.

The night undressed us (I counted
its pulse) my mother danced, she filled the past
with peaches, casseroles. At this, my doctor laughed, his granddaughter
touched my eyelid – I kissed

the back of her knee. The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.
And my classmate invented twenty names for Jew.
He was an angel, he had no name,
we wrestled, yes. My grandfathers fought

the German tanks on tractors, I kept a suitcase full
of Brodsky’s poems. The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.
At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.
We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream.

At the local factory, my father
took a handful of snow, put it in my mouth.
The sun began a routine narration,

whitening their bodies: mother, father dancing, moving
as the darkness spoke behind them.
It was April. The sun washed the balconies, April.

I retell the story the light etches
into my hand: Little book, go to the city without me.

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