Statements and Prayers

Dance in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky (68pp, Arc)
Jay Ramsay (200pp, £12, Waterloo Press)

Dance in Odessa, written in English was first published in the USA in 2004, where Ilya Kaminsky with his family had been granted asylum. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1977. The book is unusual to anyone who has been reading Arc's translated poets: it has no editorial material and, aside from a biographical note and acknowledgements, it's all poetry. He is not translated and has a clear, individual voice in English (American). Find him on YouTube and it is likely to affect the way you read him on the page.

Heart and soul he seems ambivalently homesick, paying homage to, amongst others, Marina Tsvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky and, amongst Europeans, to Isaac Babel and Paul Celan; and there is a poem, 'A Farewall to Friends / after Nikolai Zabolotsky

   Yes, each man is a tower of birds, I write my friends
   into earth, into earth, into earth.

   There, with lantern in hand,
   a beetle-man greets his acquaintances.
   You stand in white hats, long jackets,
   with notebooks of poems,

   you have for sisters wild carnations,
   nipples of lilacs, splinters and chcickens.

   Go now, I write as the pages turn
   to the shuffle of your steps across the room.

I have referred to his performnce on YouTube: this poem is typical of what also on the page has voice, has intense presence, does not stay still.

Intense while also, I would think, with humour. He needs to be represented by whole poems, where humour, I suggest, a relishing of the job in hand, is inherent in the very need to create. I say whole poems ideally, this is a whole section of the several pages of 'Musica Humana, an elegy for Osip Mandelstam
'; it begins as if both beginning and continuing:

   - the story is told of a man who escapes
   and is captured

   into the prose of evenings:
   after making love, he sits up

   on a kitchen floor, eyes wide open,
   speaks of the Lord's emptiness

   in whose image we are made.
   - he is out of work
- among silverware

   and dirt he is kissing
   his wife's neck so the skin of her belly tightens.

   One would think of a boy laying
   syllables with his tongue

   onto a woman's skin: there are lines
   sewn entirely of silence.

When did I last encounter a book of poems that opened with a prayer? It is complex, tortuous even, surprising and, as I sense his making of it, necessary. And perhaps prayer haunts the whole book, through which there are prose  passages holding firm the view steady, one might say, and the forms of the poems are variable to each's purpose. A section titled 'Natalia' begins with prose, has prose then running under the pages of a long poem; the book's title poem opens with image-making meshing into autobiography,

   We lived north of the future, days opened
   letters with a child's signtaure, 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 earth like partisans.

And so on for a page more. As reader, I go with the flow of the whole book, am beguiled by the means, by the life of it, by presence. There's an adventure here and the poetry lives.

In comparison, the many more pages of Jay Ramsay's Monuments are flat and repetitive; far from engaging truly with the wider world or with any immediacy of consequence, there is only a self-indulgence masquerading as these purposes. Ilya Kaminsky's prayer and the reach and depth of his book are of a quite other order of connectedness, of its essence poetry. Mysteriously yes, not exhausting but extending poetry's presence in the real world.

, on the other hand, reads as a gloss on everyday life, a superficial sermonising, making easy use of religious languages - Christian, Jewish, Sufi and of Gaia and of whatever else is around - and I dare say has its adherents as erzatz spirituality, but merely put into short lines doesn't make it poetry.

There is a generalisation one might make about poetry in general, that there is a superficiality when the track is laid too obviously in advance, which is apparent here; nothing appears discovered in the act of writing, the ego trips: a sameness of voice and tone, language and shape throughout. Here is the whole of 'Faith', part of a sequence called 'Summerland (2010)',

   How do ships lose their way?
   Foresaking their guiding star
   converging with icebergs...

   The church's tower mast re-faced
   the wall rebuilt with its fragments
   of Roman brick and string coursing

   the dividing wall taken down inside
   along with the keystone of the arch
   re-set askew, so that nothing

   after all is quite straight -
   only a Roman road
   but not the road of faith.

If you want this kind of thing, where the poet is always right and making sure we know it, do buy this fat book. But it has no place in the great traditions of religious poetry - from across the faiths - where there has been subtlety, uncertainty, fearfulness, humility, a desire to understand what is hard to find.  

Compare R.S.Thomas, Fawzi Karim, Michael Longley, David Scott, Amarjit Chandan, Abdellatif LaČbi, Gillian Allnutt and Wendy Mulford, where in their various ways poetry asks questions, arises for some not necessarily from stock 'religious' language, all engaging with what might be found, perhaps. And I turn again to John Donne, amongst others, whose great poetry cried out uncertainty.

This present book makes statements, supplies doctrinal punch lines. A poem titled 'Day Twenty One', for instance, ends, 'War and peace - peace and war,/ the polarity like a metronome / snaking in its trance of duality // until we get to the love beyond either'. Another ('The Bridge') ends, '... finding the one journey that has meaning/ which is God finding us finding God/ in our own soul.' It is cod mystical.

The predictable response to such criticism ias I am making here is that the maker of it doesn't understand or is afraid of it or is sadly immune to what (in such poems) is being said. There is no way out of this cycle of poem and response and response to that. For myself, I don't trust someone who at every turn is so sure they know; and the poetry it inevitably produces is second-rate.

     © David Hart 2014