Sunday, April 4, 2010

5 Star Citizen-Poet: Ilya Kaminsky

A few years ago I heard a rumor about this amazing Russian poet that was driving up the west coast through the Pacific Northwest looking for coffee houses to read in and staying wherever he could find a couch. This kid, twenty-seven at the time, turned out to be Ilya Kaminsky -- now a renowned international poet and Lannan Foundation fellowship winner. His book Dancing in Odessa won the Dorset Prize, chosen by Eleanor Wilner. There's much more to say about his gorgeous poems, but that's not what makes him a 5 Star Citizen-Poet. Here are a few of the things that make him so deserving: Ilya co-founded Poets for Peace in response to the Bosnian war setting up poetry readings around the Bay Area. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, Ilya worked with poets across the country to organize benefit readings for the families of those affected. For many years, Ilya worked as a lawyer defending the rights of migrant workers until the Bush administration pulled the funding on his office. Today Ilya teaches at San Diego State and is editor-in-chief and poetry editor of Poetry International.

And as with the other 5 Stat Citizen-Poets, it's not about the bio. Ilya eats and drinks poetry and that includes creating an ever growing and flourishing poetry tribe around him. His generosity towards his students and towards his friends is all accomplished with an easygoing attitude that belies his kindness. One poet has called Ilya Kaminsky a "gentle genius" but I prefer 5 Star Citizen-Poet and dear friend.

That Map of Bone and Opened Valves

For B. T.
That was the summer we damned only the earth.
That was the summer strange helicopters circled.
We examined each others ears, we spoke with our hands in the air—
It is the air. Something in the air wants us too much.
On the second day
helicopters circle and our legs run
in the fever-milk of their own separate silences.
A sound we do not hear lifts the birds off the water where a woman
takes iron and fire in her mouth.
Her husband is trying to make
sense of her face, that map of bone and opened valves.
The earth is still.
The tower guards eat sandwiches.
On the third day
the soldiers examine ears
of bartenders, of accountants, of soldiers, you wouldn't know
the wicked things silence does to soldiers.
They tear Pasha's wife from her bed like a door off a bus.
On the sixth day, we damn only the earth.
My soul runs on two naked feet to hear Vasenka.
I no longer have words to complain
my God and I see nothing in the sky and stare up and
clearly I do not know why I am alive.
And we enter the city that used to be ours
past the theaters and gardens past wooden staircases and wrought
              iron gates
in the morning that puts ringing in our ears.
Be courageous, we say
but no one is courageous
As a sound we do not hear lifts the birds off the water.

From The Kenyon Review • Winter 2009 • Vol. XXXI • No. 1


  1. Hi Maureen,
    This is from the book that Ilya is working on Deaf Republic. Glad it spoke to you, too.