SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
HELENA MARIA VIRAMONTES: Hello. Yes. I just want to say to please be advised that there was going to be a reception following the reading in the English Department lounge, and our guests will be swiftly ushered there without hesitation to sign books upstairs, not here. Also, the books will be on sale here by Buffalo Street Bookstore.
My name is Helena Maria Viramontes, and I'm the new director of the Creative Writing Program here at Cornell. Thank you. Thank you. And I'd like to welcome you to our first event of the 2015-2016 Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series.
As many of you already know, this Zalaznick Reading Series endowment has not only permitted us to bring to campus some of the most innovative and influential writers and poets of our times, but also, to assist in the provision of additional funds for other equally important endowed readings like the Chazen Poetry Reading and the McEneaney Memorial Reading.
Consequently, invite we have been able to invite emerging and mid-career writers, as well as alumni, Nobel laureates, and other exciting wordsmiths, cultural commentators, and visionaries to the Cornell campus in order to share their insights, craft, passion, and poetry. Indeed, we are extremely lucky.
At this time, I would like to thank J. Robert Lennon for navigating the directorship for the last few years. Thank you very much, John. And I would also like and extend our gratitude to the English Department staff members and to our events coordinator, Sarah Rice and of course, Mary Anne Marsh for all their work. And to our dutiful chair, Roger Gilbert, who's been a constant support, and we remain grateful. OK, Roger.
And finally, finally, the success of the program would not be possible without the efforts, wisdom, talents, and teachings of our extraordinary creative writers-- Alice Fulton; Ishion Hutchinson; J. Robert Lennon; Joanie Mackowski; Stephanie Vaughn; Larye Van Clief-Stefanon; and Ernest Quiñonez; Robert Morgan; along with Michael Cook, editor of Epic Magazine; Valzhyna Mort, our visiting writer; and our lecturer, Charlie Green. I thank them as I thank you now. Let's give them a big round of applause.
And now, I would like to call up my esteemed colleague and trouble maker, Ishion, who will introduce our speaker.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I like troublemaker. Hi. Good evening.
AUDIENCE: Good evening.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Ah, nice. Nice. I mean, if you're not up yet, when Ilya gets here, you're probably running for the doors. He'll be fully awake. It's really a great pleasure to introduce Ilya, a dear friend. And I just want to echo Helena's thank you to the Zalaznicks and extend my heartfelt love for my colleagues.
Asked to introduce himself the first day of his MFA seminar, more than 15 years ago, our poet exclaimed, "My name is Ilya Kaminsky, and I write for God." One auditor present at the table reported that Ilya actually shouted his response, which might permit us to think that the young Ilya was either a manic evangelist, indulging momentarily and memorably the sort of Slavic exuberance, not untypical of some of the greatest Russian poets.
Though I think in spirits, his outbursts placed him more in kinship with Milton's weirder ambition to justify the ways of God to men. Or more correctly, Ilya's statement partly marked and marks him for what he is, a poet of ecstasy. That is one who excites a kind of divine bliss in a listener, for he embodies to a radical degree, Phaedrus' notion of the true poet's writing as a form of divine madness.
I should say immediately that Ilya is not mad, though, last night, when the kind guy at the hotel asked him what brought you to Ithaca and he said, insanity. And he is not a religious poet. True, there are splinters of Christian and Judaic symbols in his poems, and he has mastered a broken liturgical syntax, which functions like a canticle, but it is through the figure of Orpheus, the authorizing the gods, Ilya's oracular, indefectible poetry takes roots.
He draws the whole nerve of the lyric into a taut web or a dragnet in which life threshes and poetry ruptures into passionate speech. His voice, unabashed torque cuts with dramatic momentum, as if uttered from an abyss. A poem of Ilya's a way of paying attention with the soul. Poetry is action in this animating voice filled with a music yearning like a god in pain. It terrifies us even as it consoles with joy.
And here I cannot resist citing just one line I admire so deeply to show a stunning instance of terror bounded with consolation. "When the fields are bombed, sadness is forbidden." There's a sense of satire here, but it is sympathetic satire and very chilling when placed in light of the ongoing horrible war in the Ukraine, Ilya's birth country, and the fact that it is a child's voice memorializing the Transnistria War in Moldova.
Ilya is a vital, in memoriam poet of the utmost privacy, similarly, the way Dickinson was during the Civil War. And like her work, his body of work will outlast and withstand in the words of Czeslaw Milosz, "the tests of brutal, naked reality."
Ilya's body of work consists of one full length collection, Dancing in Odessa, a book I like to call the gift that continues giving. It has won great acclaim and several awards on both sides of the Atlantic, and here is a very, very short sample-- the Florence Kahn Memorial Award, Moscow Pushkin Institute Award, a Whiting, the Ruth Lilly, the Lannan, and most recently, an award from China, from China, Ilya.
Adam Zagajewski declared Dancing in Odessa, "fresh as a young leaf in the spring," when it was published 11 years ago, and it endures unblemished in that perpetual spring, the way very few, if any, first books have done since, I would say, Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. Ilya has edited several critical anthologies , including The Echo Anthology of International Poetry, and his vigorous translation of Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Paulina Barskova, among others have added new grace notes to English.
To invite him up, I want to recall what the two frustrated 1623 editors of Shakespeare's first folio said in their preface, "If you don't like him, surely, you are in some manifest danger not to understand him." I know right they were. Shakespeare exceeds our full grasp, and Ilya is no less of such a singular and eccentric reach.
ILYA KAMINSKY: Thank you, Ishion. I'll never live up to that. I might just as well go back to San Diego. It's really humbling to be here. There's some brilliant, brilliant minds in this room, and I really don't know what the hell I'm doing here. So thank you for having me.
As you have noticed by now, I speak with a pretty heavy Russian accent, so by the end of this half an hour or 40 minutes, we will all speak with a heavy Russian accent as well. But just so that you don't suffer, I hope you all have a copy of the handout. Let me start with a little lyric called "We Lived Happily During the War."
We lived happily during the war, and when they bombed in other people's houses, we protested, but not enough. We opposed them, but not enough. I was in my bed, around my bed, America was failing-- invisible house by invisible house by invisible house. I took a chair outside, and watched the sun.
In the sixth month of her disastrous reign, in a house, of money, in the street of money, in a city of money, in a country of money, our great country of money, we, forgive us, lived happily during the war.
Can you follow me OK? More or less. Well, next, I don't know about tempo and stuff from a new book called Deaf Republic. It is a laundry book about a husband and a wife during the war. Their names are Sonia and Alfonso, and this is just some pages from that book, OK? The first one called "That Map of Bone and Opening Valves."
That was the morning strange helicopters circled. That was the morning we damned only the earth. We watched the soldier aim and the deaf boy, Petya, take iron and fire in his mouth, on the asphalt, that map of bone and opened valves.
Our puppets broadcast the news from balconies. It was the air. Something in the air wanted us too much. The earth was still. The tower guards ate cucumber sandwiches. On the second day, soldiers examined the ears of bartenders, of accountants, of soldiers.
They tore Pasha's wife from her bed like a door off a bus. You wouldn't know the wicked things silence does to soldiers. On the fifth day, we damned only the earth, and I no longer had words to complain, my God, and I saw nothing in the sky, and clearly I didn't know why I was alive.
We entered the city that used to be ours, past the theaters and gardens, past wooden staircases, and wrought iron gates. Be courageous, we said, but no one was courageous, and a sound we did not hear lifted the gulls off the water.
"Snow Falls in the Ears of the Town." The deaf boy bends toward the stage. Vaskenka's puppeteer, Petrovich, sneezes, and his puppet, a birchbark captain, collapses, one wooden ear in the snow.
A car swerves around the corner, and a real police Captain exists, stamping his foot on the asphalt. "Disperse immediately!" "Disperse immediately!" The puppet cries in a wooden falsetto. Everyone freezes. The deaf boy laughs until a hand claps over his mouth.
The Captain turns towards the boy and raises a finger. "You!" "You!" The puppet raised a finger. The puppeteer watches the puppet, the puppet watches the Captain, the Captain watches the puppeteer.
But all of us in Vasenka Square watch as the deaf boy leans back, gathers all the spit in his throat, and hurls it at the Captain. The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.
"Fire." Each man has a quiet that revolves around him as he beats his head against the earth. But I am laughing hard and furious. I say we were never silent. We read each other's lips and said one word four times, and laughed four times, in a loving repetition.
Our men, once frightened, bound to their beds like human masts, now stand up. Sound lifts from our throats, out of our ears, deafness passes through us like a police whistle-- Each screams to the wall, at a stove, at a refrigerator, at himself.
Life, to you, I stand answerable. Snow falls in the avenues and surprises the dogs. Whoever listens to me, thank you for the feather on my tongue. Thank you for our argument that ends. Thank you for my deafness, Lord, such fire from a match you never lit.
"Police Arrest Drunkard Petrovich's Wife." I watch him watching his woman get arrested. His face slashed like a stuck zipper in his coat. My dear soldiers, he yells. My dear soldiers! He yells at them like that. Dig a good hole. Lay me nostril up and shovel in my mouth the decent black earth.
"Mama Galya Throws Milk Bottles at Soldiers." Mama Galya Armolinskaya, 53, having more sex than you and I. When she walks across her balcony and a soldier, "Oh" stands up and another stands, then the whole battalion--
We try not to look at her breasts, but they are everywhere, nipples like bullets. Fat Momma in a small town, queen of bullshit! whiskey keeps her conscience clean. She aims milk bottles at security checkpoints-- on a yellow bicycle, she flies over the country, like the milkman.
A rim of ice on her bottle caps. Galya Armolinskaya, you are the luckiest Momma in the nation! Your iron bicycle tears with bright whiskey courage through an advancing rank of soldiers into daylight. You paddle barefoot, wearing just shorts. And let the law go whistle.
"While Helicopters Circle, Sonya & Alfonso Kiss in the Shower." I kissed a woman, whose freckles arouse the neighbors. She possessed two girlish nipples, which she displayed like medals for bravery.
Her trembling lips meant come to bed. Her hair, falling in the middle of the conversation meant come to bed. I walked in my barbershop of thoughts. Yes, I carried her off to bed on the chair of my hairy arms, but parted lips meant kiss my parted lips--
Lying under the cool sheets. Sonya! The things we did.
"National Anthem." "You must speak, not only of great devastation, but of women kissing in the yellow grass--"
I heard that, not from a great philosopher, but from my brother, Petrovich, whiskey kept his conscience clean. His eyes closed, he recited our National Anthem. "You must drink cucumber vodka and sing unite women and boys of this Earth! "You must speak, not only of great devastation," and he played the accordion out of tune, in a country where the only musical instrument is the door.
"Tedna Street." On balconies, sunlight, on poplars, sunlight on our lips, today no one is shooting. There is just sunlight and sunlight, and girl cuts her hair with imaginary scissors-- the scissors in sunlight, her hair in sunlight. A boy steals a pair of cordovan boots from an arrogant man in sunlight.
To speak and to say sunlight falling inside us, sunlight, when they shot 50 women on Tedna Street, a city stood up to tell you what we know. A child learns the world by putting it in his mouth. A boy becomes a man, and a man, earth. Body, they blame you for all, things and they seek in the body for it doesn't live in the body.
"Soldiers Arrest Petrovich." They shovel him into the police car. They shovel a man in the police car-- one morning, one morning, one morning, one morning in March, one dime-bright morning.
They shovel him into the police car. He runs and pauses and stops and stands in silence-- silence, which is a soul's noise. They take a man who once, watching our boy sprinkle themselves in the pub spat.
On the day of my arrest, I will be playing piano. There is no piano, no piano, but we thought we saw hundreds of old pianos form a bridge over waters from Batnaystan to Alechia-- and he sat at each piano.
What remains of a man is a puppet that speaks with its fingers. What remains of a puppet is a man, what remains of a man. They took you, Petrovich, is his voice he cannot hear, which is the cleanest voice.
"Flagpole." And that's a coffin of Petrovich, and as for the coffin of Petrovich, it got stuck on the stairs. And we carried it upside down. There were too many people and not enough bodies. Too many ears and not enough men attached to them.
In this nation, each man does something for his country. Some die, others give speeches. Too many people and not enough hands to wash Petrovich's body and trim his fingernails, the last favor a man does for a man.
Today, I have to screw on my face the expression of a person, though I am at most, an animal. And the animal, I am returned from a funeral to his kitchen. Look, God, I, that deaf, raw meet who speaks with fingers, I have come, God. I have come running to you in snowed streets. A sane man stands like a flagpole, without a flag.
"Of Marriage in Wartime." She scrubs me cold like a salmon until I spit soapy water. "Pig," she smiles. A man must smell better than his country, and she throws my shoes and glasses in the air.
Takes off my T-shirt and socks and kneels in honor of Petrovich, the taken, in honor of deaf boy, Petya. I dip a glass in the bath tub, drinking dirty water, soaping together that is sacred to me.
Washing mouths together, you can fuck anyone, but with whom can you sit it in water? She knew she had caught the fish, and I knew I had been caught. I whistle, told as she dries my chest. "Sonya, I am a glad man with you."
"11:00 AM Bombardment." I saw the blue canary of our country, pick breadcrumbs from each soldier's eyes. My body running up Arlemovsk Street my clothes in a pillow case. I looked for a man who looks exactly like me, so I could give him my Sony, my name, my shirt.
It has begun. Neighbors climbing the trolleys at the thief market, breaking all their moments in half, and Ilarov shouted, "I'm so fucking beautiful, I cannot stand it." And the army officers in clanging trolleys saved me. The neighbor's faces, you see in their ears.
And the army officer yelling, boys! Girls! Take your partner, two steps, shoot! I saw a man that looks exactly like me. He ran from a bus that bursts like an intestine in the sun. It has begun, soldiers tore Pasha's wife from her bed like a door of a bus.
While I lost four steps from home. I had not accept my body, but they came for me. I was kissing my wife. I saw the blue canary of my country, picked breadcrumbs from citizen's eyes, picked bread crumbs from it's neighbors' hair. The snow left the earth and fell straight up as it should. To have a country, so important. To run into walls in the street lights into love ones, as one should, watched their legs as they run and fall.
I saw the blue canary of my country, watched their legs, as they ran and fell to live. To live is to love, the great book commands. But such love is not enough! The heart needs a little foolishness!
So I fold the newspaper, make a hat. I pretend to Sonya, to Sonya that I am the greatest poet, and she pretends to believe it. My Sonya, her stories and her beautiful legs, her stories, and legs that open other stories!
Stop talking, while we're kissing. I see myself, a yellow raincoat, a sandwich, a piece of tomato between my teeth. I raise my infant daughter to the sky. I am singing, as she pisses-- Old fool, my wife laughs-- on my forehead and my shoulders.
¡"Lullaby. Little daughter, rainwater, snow and branches protect your white-washed walls, and neighbors' hands, all child of my Aprils, little earth of six pounds, my white hair keeps your sleep lit.
"Our Boys Want a Public Killing in a Sunlet Plaza." The boys drag a policeman, a sign in his arms, "I arrested the women of Vasenka." The boys have no idea how to kill a man. The bald man in a barbershop whispers, I will kill him for a box of oranges.
The boys pay a box of oranges. He eats a raw egg in a cup, smells of trickle of lemons in the snow, and he tosses that egg down his throat like a shot of tequila. He is washing his hands, he is putting his tongue where his tooth has been.
The girls spit and the informant's mouth. The pigeon settles on the stop sign, making it sway, an idiot boy shouts, Long Live Deafness! and spits at the soldier. His mother turns to the wall and kisses the bottle.
Deafness is suspended above blue tins and copper eaves, it fits and birches, light posts, hospital roofs, bells, and rests in women's breasts. Our boys signs start. Out girls wet and freckled, cross themselves. Tomorrow we will be sick as dogs, but tonight, we don't care enough to lie.
The bald man jumps and the policeman, hugs him, stabs him in the lung. The policeman flies above the sidewalk. We watch the loud animal bullets in their faces and smell the earth. It is the girls who steal the oranges and hide them in their shirts.
"Snow Falls in the Ears of the Town." Those who lived denied that any arrest took place. We were happy that time. It was a happy time. All shops were open for business. No one heard a thing. No one hears a thing.
Snow fell on the highway and on the fields. At the trial of God, people ask, why did you allow all this? And the answer will be an echo, why did you allow all this?
Here is a little poem called "Author's Prayer." It's from that book called Dancing in Odessa. "Author's Prayer." If I speak for the dead, I must leave this animal of my body. I must write that same poem over and over, for an empty page the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge of myself. I must leave as a blind man who runs through room 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.
I have one more of that poem, and then a happy poem. Are you going to survive?
ILYA KAMINSKY: The next poem is an Elegy for a Great Russian Poet, Osip Mandelstam. If you do not know who he is, you have another great Belarusian poet in this room, [INAUDIBLE] Morgan, and I'm sure she'll be very happy to tell you. All you need to know for the purpose of this poem is that Mandelstam was a poet who happened to write a poem against the government. It happened to be Joseph Stalin's government, which means that he was sent into exile, where he died. His wife, Nadezhda, was sent to another city, but she survived.
The poem was sometimes spoken in voices of Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam, and it's both prose and verse. That's all you need to know. Can you follow? All right. "Musica Humana." And then for Osip Mandelstam.
A modern Orpheus, sent to hell, who never returned, but his widow searched across one sixth of the earth's surface, clutching the saucepan with his songs rolled up inside, memorizing them by night in case they were found by Furies with a search warrant.
While there is still some light on the page, he escapes in a stranger's court with his wife, and the cloth smells of sweat. A dog runs after them, licking the earth where they walked and sat. in the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet, he will show her the way to silence, they will leave the radio talking to itself. Making love, they turn off the lights, but the neighbor has binoculars, and he watches, dust settling on his lids.
It is a 1930s. Petersburg is a frozen ship. The cathedrals, cafés down Nevski Prospect. They move, as the New State sticks its pins into them.
In Crimea, he gathered together, rich "liberals" and said to them strictly, on the judgment day, if you asked it, whether you understood the poet Osip Mandelstam, say no. Have you fed him? You must answer, yes.
I'm reading aloud the book of my life on earth and confess, I loved grapefruit. In the kitchen, sausages, tasting vodka, the men raise their cups. A boy in a white shirt, I dip my finger in the sweetness. Mother washes behind my ears, and we speak of everything that does not come true, which is to say, it was August.
After the light in the trees full of fury, August filling hands with a language that tasted like smoke. Now, memory, pour some beer. Salt the rims of the glass. You, who are writing me have what you want, a golden coin, my tongue, to put it under.
The younger brother of a cloud, he walks unshaven in dark green pants, and cathedrals, he falls on his knees, spreading happiness. His words in the floor are the skeletons of dead birds. I have loved, yes. Washed my hands. Spoke of loyalty to the earth. Now death is a lover boy, counts my fingers.
I escaped, and am caught, escape again, and I'm caught. Escape again, and I'm caught. In this song, the singer is a clay figure. Poetry is the self. I retreat the self. Elsewhere, St. Petersburg stands like a lost youth whose churches, ships, and guillotines accelerate our lives.
In summer 1924, Osip Mandelstam brought his young wife to St. Petersburg. Nadezhda was what the French call [FRENCH]. An eccentric? Of course, he was. He threw a student down the staircase for complaining he wasn't published. Osip shouting, "Was Sappha? Was Jesus Christ?"
Poet is a voice, I say, like Icarus, whispering to himself as he falls. Yes, my life was a broken branch in the wind, in the Northern ground. I am writing now the history of snow, the lamplight bathing the ships that sailed across the page. But on certain afternotes, the Republic of Psalms opens up and I grew frightened that I haven't lived, died, not enough to scratch this ecstasy into vowels, here, splashes of clear, biblical speech.
I played Augustine, the loneliness of their syllables, while Icarus skips falling, and I read Akhmatova, her rich weight binds me to the earth, the nut trees on a terrace breathing the dry air, the daylight.
Yes, I lived. The State hung me up by the feet. I saw St. Petersburg's daughters, swans. I learned the grammar of gulls' turn array and found myself for good, down Pushkin Street, while memory sat in the corner, erasing me with a sponge.
I have made mistakes, yes. In bed, I compared government to my girlfriend. Government, an arrogant barber's can trim of the skin, all of us dancing happily around him.
He sat at the edge of his chair and dreamed aloud of good dinners. He composed his poems, not on his desk, but in the streets of St. Petersburg. He adoring the image of the rooster tearing apart the night under the walls of Acropolis, with his song. Locked up in the cell, he was hanging on the door. "You have got to let me out. I wasn't made for prison."
Once or twice in his life, a man is peeled, like apples. What is left is a voice that splits his being down to the center. We see obscenity, fright, mud. But there is joy of shape. There is always more than one silence.
Between here and next Nevski Prospect, the years, birdlike stretch, pray for this man who lived on bread and tomatoes, while dogs recited his poetry in each street. Yes, count "March," "July," weave them together with a thread. It is time, Lord. Press these words against your silence.
The story is told of a man who escapes and is captured into the prose of evenings. After making love, he sits up on the 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 in his wife's neck so the skin of her belly tightens.
One would think of a boy laying syllables with his tongue, and therefore, a woman's skin, those are lines sewn entirely of silence.
Nadezhda, she's fine, looks up from the page and speaks. Voice of Akhmatova and I were standing together when suddenly, Mandelstam melted with joy. Several little girls swam past us, imagining themselves to be horses. The first one stopped impatiently asked him, "Where is the last horsy?"
I grabbed Mandelstam by his hand to prevent him from joining, and Akhmatova, too, sensing danger, whispered, "Do not run away from us. You are our last horsy." And Nadezhda continues to speak.
As I die, I walk barefoot across my country. Here, winter builds the strongest solitude tractors break into centers and gallop through plain speech. I'm 23. We live in a cocoon, the butterflies are mating.
Osip puts his fingers in the fire. He gets up early, walking around in his sandals. Writes slowly, prayers fall into the room. Moths are watching him from the window. As his tongue passes over my skin, I see his face from underneath its aching clarity.
That's Nadezhda speaks, standing in an orange light, her hands are quiet, talking to themselves. O, God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, your scale of good and evil, put a plate a worm food. The daughter continues to speak.
When my husband returned from Voronezh, in his mouth, he hid a silver spoon. In his dreams, down Nevski Prospect, the dictator ran like a wolf after his past, the wolf with sleep in its eyes. He believed then the human being, couldn't cure himself of Petersburg. He recited by heart phone numbers of the dead.
O, what he told in a low voice, the unspoken words become the traces of islands. When he slapped Tolstoy in the face, it was good.
When they took my husband, each word disappeared in the book. They watched him, as he spoke the vowels had teeth marks. And they said, you must leave him alone, for already behind his back, the stones circle all by themselves and fall.
And the last page of this poem. Osip had thick eyelashes to the middle of his cheeks. People are voting along Preston Street. What we were talking about, I don't remember. We turned onto Gogol Boulevard and Osip said, "I'm ready for that."
At his arrest, they were searching for poems all over the floor. We sat in one room. On the other side of a wall, neighbors, the Hawaiian guitar was playing. In my presence the investigator found them all and showed it Osip. He nodded slightly, taking his leave. He kissed me. He was lead out by seven.
At the end of each vision Mandelstam stands with a cloud of earth, throwing beats at the passers-by. You will recognize him alone. He hated Tsarskoe Selo. Though, Mayakovsky stop reading your verse. You're not a Romanian orchestra, but what harmony was, it a reveled and reveled in Nadezhda.
The snow fell inside her. She heard the voice of young chickens all over her flesh, not just her yes and no are difficult to tell apart. She dances, a skirt tucked between her thighs and the light stretching in a child's foghorns he is making love to her. He love blows within days and nights, he is traveling across her kitchen, touching furniture.
A small propeller in his heart turning as he spins. Outside, a boy pissing against the tree, a beggar curing at his cut. That summer, 1938, the walls were hot. The sun beat against the city slums, a city that loves to say yes to the powerful.
At the end of each vision, he rubbed her feet with milk. She opened her body, lying on his stomach. We will meet in Petersburg, he said. You have buried the sun there.
And I will read one more, just because it's a happy poem, so you shouldn't go home and have nightmares, OK? This is called "Praise." It's about two pages.
"Praise." It has an epigraph from a great Italian poet, Montale. And I'm sure Ishion, who loves him, would love to tell you about him. I hope you know how lucky you are to have him here, both Italian and German.
So here is an epigraph, but one day, through the great left, half-open, there are yellow lemons shining at us, and in our empty breasts, these golden horns of sunlight pull their songs. Montale.
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 refugee.
I go home and become a ghost, searching in the houses, I lived in. They say the father of my father, of his father, of his father, of 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.
Easier to lose this day trip tied in this ring, his wedding ring guardian my father, handed to my brothers and took hundreds and took hastily. In the family album, we sit like the mannequins of school children whose destruction, like a lecture, is postponed.
Then my mother begins to dance, rearranging this dream. Her love is difficult. Loving her is simple as putting raspberries in my mind. And my brothers had not a single gray hair. He is singing to his 12-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, and I give a lot of mercy to them that return. I do not return. I see the shore, the trees, a boy running across the streets like a lost god. The light balls, touching his shoulder. Where memory, an old flautist plays in the rain and his dog sleeps, the tongue half hanging out for 20 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 walk the streets, the shops, the bicyclist, the oleanders. I opened the windows of an apartment and say, I had masters once. They reared 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 it's old engine, it begins to move, and I think the trees are moving.
And a page is soiled corners. My teacher walks composing a voice he loves. 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, as immigrant's clumsy phrases fall in the 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, it 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 the past, as Montale saw it. The obscure thoughts of God descending among a child's drum beats, over you, over me, over the lemon trees. Thank you.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: So we have very little time for some questions. So Ilya, we'll take some questions, yeah?
ILYA KAMINSKY: They don't have any questions. Let's go.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I see a hand, not yet, but I've seen it. Oh, there.
AUDIENCE: What more are you going to [INAUDIBLE].
ISHION HUTCHINSON: What did you say?
ILYA KAMINSKY: He can't hear either.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: You've deaf me. It's contagious.
AUDIENCE: What war?
ISHION HUTCHINSON: What war? What war? Which war?
ILYA KAMINSKY: Do we need a name?
ISHION HUTCHINSON: What-- do we need a name? What's in a name?
ILYA KAMINSKY: It's complicated. The first poem that I was reading is obviously about the Iraq War, the American poem. After that, I was writing a lot of these poems, and the book was stuck. I didn't know it was stuck for a long time, and it moved more. It's finished in itself now with the Ukrainian thing.
I don't really want the book to be about any war, in particular. It's a fable. I don't need a name.
AUDIENCE: Does your work as a translator changed the way you write poems yourself?
ISHION HUTCHINSON: As a translator, did that change the way you write poems yourself? Translating, how does that play a role in your writing?
ILYA KAMINSKY: I'm sorry.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I'm so [INAUDIBLE]. Ask it again, please?
AUDIENCE: Yes. How does working as a translator changed the way you write your poems?
ISHION HUTCHINSON: How has working as a translator changed the way you write your poems?
ILYA KAMINSKY: Translation is an education. I'm a lawyer by education, so translating, what was an education? It's just getting inside another person's head and trying to figure it out. I never translate alone simply because [INAUDIBLE]. Russian is just so different from English. I mean, the literature is so much younger.
There's so many unusual possibilities that are no longer possible in English. So all of my translations, by far, are failures, but I don't think of them as translations. I really think of them as a kind of homage to a poet. I usually do it with another person, and we just try to read together and see what it is that we love about the poet.
So of course, they all influenced my poems simply because it's the deepest kind of reading I can think of. It's very close reading.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Jodie.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. Will you please, how and why you start loving poetry?
ILYA KAMINSKY: Everybody starts writing at 13, 14. Only the fools like us keep going.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Why?
ILYA KAMINSKY: He might tell you another answer.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Why did you fall in love with poetry?
ILYA KAMINSKY: Oh, that's a very different question. I thought you asked how did you start? It is the only medium I know that can make me fully alive. Lorca, great poet of Spanish language said that poet is a professor of five senses, and poetry is the only art that makes me alive without sex.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I think maybe one or two more.
AUDIENCE: Does your wonderfully expressive way of reading come naturally to you, or did you work on it? And I'm sure it comes naturally to some extent, but did you work on it? It's such a beautiful presentation.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Your style of reading.
ILYA KAMINSKY: He's a translator.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: We could get a hit together, because [INAUDIBLE].
ILYA KAMINSKY: We are.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Talk about your style of reading.
ILYA KAMINSKY: There are probably two or three answers to this. The simple answer is, I don't have a style of reading. All poets, when they write, they are be to themselves. The great poets in this particular program-- and they all read beautiful, as poets, personally.
Having said that, in my particular situation, this book came out a very long time ago. And I give the handouts, and I'm very slow writer. I don't believe in writing a book every three years, or maybe I'm incapable of it, just more too.
Anyhow, I do a lot of readings, and then you just discover that you're watching the fly, and that's a terrible thing. So my solution was, my reading must be exactly like my writing process. So you have to notice it, even with new poems, as I was reading, I was changing them. I'm trying to write the poem again. That is the only way it can be interesting for me.
Otherwise, it's an incredibly boring thing to stand all these poems. You must write them, otherwise, why bother. Does it make sense at all? It's a revision. Where I come from, people believe in mid-rush, so it's a kind of mid-rush, secular, obviously.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: So one more.
AUDIENCE: "Water Flows of Dancing as a Batik, is that more metaphorical or symbolic themes? What do you mean by water falls of dancing [INAUDIBLE]?
ILYA KAMINSKY: Can you dance? It's a very expensive question.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: He's interested to know why there's so much dancing? Is it a motif, a symbol, or--
ILYA KAMINSKY: That may actually be a great question for those of you, and I know the number of people who are trying to read the first book. With any book, you have your obsessions, and you need them in order for your poems to have anything at stake. But once the book is more or less done, you realize that your perceptions are also your limitations, or your mannerisms.
And so the simplest thing was that I have way too much repetition of the word dancing. And once I figured that out, I had to make a thing out of it. And it's not just the title, you have to find some kind of a-- the word formal is the wrong word, but sometimes it unites it in more than just a word.
And that's what I was trying to do in my revision of the book, to make it kind of a metaphor of principle. But at first, it was just a mistake that I had to overcome.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Because he's incapable of dancing, which is another thing. But we are going to continue the conversation upstairs. Please purchase copies of Ilya's book right here, and there's the Anthology of-- called it Ecco International Anthology of Poetry. You need that. Please buy his books, and come talk more upstairs.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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Ilya Kaminsky reads published poems, as well as poems from his upcoming collection "Deaf Republic," as part of the Fall 2015 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series. Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa and arrived to the United States in 1993, when his family was granted asylum by the American government. He is the author of "Dancing In Odessa" (Tupelo Press, 2004).