Ilya Kaminsky at The New Vernacular



– Thank you so much for being here today. I'm gonna read some poems, and as you have noticed I speak with a very heavy Russian
accent, so on your chairs you should have your
handout with those poems. If you can pick it up, that will make the next 10 minutes really easy for you. Otherwise, maybe hard to follow. Okay? All right, the first one
is called Author's Prayer. 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 the 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. Can you follow me okay? More or less? One page down there is
a poem called Maestro. Okay, Maestro? Maestro. What is memory? What makes a body glow? An apple orchard in Moldova
and the school is bombed and 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 the rescue approaches,
he speaks of Chopin, Chopin. They cut off his hands. Nurses say he is doing okay. 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. (speaks foreign language) That's Russian, sorry about that. The next poem is called Aunt Rose. 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 a 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. Okay a slightly happier poem
called My Mother's Tango on the following page. Are you awake, more or less? Awake, yeah, okay. My Mother's Tango. I now 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, yes. 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, 60, 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. The next poem is called American Tourist, and it's a bit of a love poem. And then one more and I'll
be out of your hair, okay? 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. And the last poem from me, just one more I'm sorry. It's short enough, I promise. Dancing in Odessa. The last poem on the following page. 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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