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Ilya Kaminsky – Ⅰ



        …but one day through the gate left half-open

        there are yellow lemons shining at us

        and in our empty breasts

        those golden horns of sunlight

        pour their songs.

                                                                         – Montale





We were leaving Odessa in such a hurry that we forgot the suitcase filled

with English dictionaries outside our apartment building. I came to America

without a dictionary, but a few words did remain:


Forgetting: an animal of light. A small ship catches a wind and sails.


Past: figures coming to the water’s edge, carrying lamps. Water is

suspiciously cold. Many are standing on the shore, the youngest throwing

hats in the air.


Sanity: a barrier separating me from madness is not a barrier, really. A huge

aquarium filled with water weeds, turtles, and golden fish. I see flashes:

movements, names inscribed on the foreheads.


A swift laugh: she leaned over, intrigued. I drank too fast.


Dead: entering our dreams, the dead became inanimate objects: branches,

teacups, door-handles. I wake and wish I could carry this clarity with me.


Time, my twin, take me by the hand

Through the streets of your city;

My days, your pigeons, are fighting for crumbs—




A woman asks at night for a story with a happy ending.

I have none. A happy refuge,


I go home and become a ghost

searching the houses I lived in. They say –


The father of my father of his father of his father was a prince

who married a Jewish girl


against the Church’s will and his father’s will and

the father of his father. Losing all,


eager to lose: the estate, ships,

hiding his ring (his wedding ring), a ring


my father handed to my brother, then took. Handed,

then took, hastily. In a family album


we sit like the mannequins

of school children


whose destruction,

like a lecture is postponed.


Then my mother begins to dance, re-arranging

this dream. Her love


is difficult; loving her is 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

and drink.




I believe in childhood, a native land of math exams

that return and do not return, I see—


the shore, the trees, a boy

running across the streets like a lost god;

the light falls, touching his shoulder.


Where memory, an old flautist,

plays in the rain and his dog sleeps, its tongue


half hanging out;

for twenty years between life and death


I have run through silence: in 1993 I came to America.




America! I put the word on a page, it is my keyhole.

I watch the streets, the shops, the bicyclist, the oleanders.


I open the windows of an apartment

and say: I had masters once, they roared above me.


Who are we? Why are we here?

A lantern they carried still glitters in my sleep.


in this dream: my father breathes

as if lighting a lamp over and over. The memory


is starting its old engine, it begins to move

and I think the trees are moving.


On the page’s soiled corners

my teacher walks, composing a voice;


he rubs each word in his palms:

“hands learn from the soil and broken glass,


you cannot think a poem,” he says,

“watch the light hardening into words.”




I was born in the city named after Odysseus

and I praise no nation—


to the rhythm of snow

an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.


But you asked

for a story with a happy ending. Your loneliness


played its lyre. I sat

on the floor, watching your lips.


Love, a one-legged bird

I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,


is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.

O the language of birds


with no word for complaint!—

the balconies, the wind.


This is how, while darkness

drew my profile with its little finger,


I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,

the obscurer thoughts of God descending


among a child’s drum beats,

over you, over me, over the lemon trees.






Reprinted from Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press: 2004) by permission of the author.