“What is memory? What makes a body glow”
Deafness, exile and contrapuntal awareness in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic
poetry, Kaminsky, Soviet, nostalgia, deafness, exile
In Odessa, language always involves gestures – it was impossible to ask someone for directions if their hands were busy. I did ask once: a man was holding two huge watermelons, one in each arm. But as I asked more questions, his face grew red and ah! one watermelon fell on the ground as he attempted to gesticulate through conversation. (…) He laughed like the most serious child I ever knew, telling me the story about the country where everyone was deaf. (Dancing in Odessa 41) .
I had the pleasure of attending Ilya Kaminsky’s performance at the Poetry International festival in Rotterdam, where he headlined in 2022. His readings were centred around his 2019 poetry collection Deaf Republic, but against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, talking about his birthplace, Odessa, was inevitable. The deafness in Deaf Republic, then, was put in relation to Kaminsky’s experience of exile from the city of Odessa, which is reminisced about in his debut collection, Dancing in Odessa. It is the convergence of deafness and exile, perhaps the most prominent themes in Kaminsky’s work, that this essay examines. In doing so, I not only discuss Deaf Republic but also Kaminsky’s debut poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa: a work reminiscing about Odessa, the city Kaminsky grew up in while it was part of the Soviet Union (59). His family fled Odessa when Ilya was still a child, and in 1993 they migrated to Rochester, New York. Deaf Republic, Kaminsky’s second poetry collection, tells the tale of the townspeople of Vasenka, a fictional Eastern European town in which the inhabitants go deaf in protest after the occupying military murders a deaf boy. “I had no hearing aids until I came to America. The Odessa I know is a silent city,” Kaminsky writes, who lost his hearing when he was four years old (“In a Silent City” 69). This essay investigates the ways through which Kaminsky’s deaf childhood in Odessa informs his writing. By focusing on the representation of his memories of Odessa and his contrapuntal awareness of both the United States and the former Soviet Union, I will attempt to showcase the overlap of Kaminsky’s experience of deafness and exile, which informs his nostalgic reminiscence of the city of Odessa.
Edward Said introduced the concept of contrapuntal awareness in “Reflections on Exile,” where he states that “most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home: exiles are aware of at least two; this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that—to borrow a phrase from music—is contrapuntal” (186). He continues to explain that new experiences occur against the backdrop of the memory of a former environment, and thus, sometimes both environments are experienced almost simultaneously and contrapuntally. Exile gives those arriving in a new place a sense of alienation and of being ‘Othered’. Here, I use the sociological definition of Otherness as a way to describe an oppressive force which “comes from the separating line or border created [used against members of marginalised groups], and from its exclusionary effect . . . the Others are in effect sent into ‘symbolic exile’” (Michal Krumer-Nevo and Sirit Sidi 300). Deafness can too be understood in terms of such symbolic exile. For Kaminsky, this experience is intertwined with the literal context of exile, which leads to a double alienation. Dancing in Odessa is filled with approaches to the experience of exile – both through meditations on Kaminsky’s lived experience and through the works of other Slavic Jewish writers, many of whom experienced exile: the poet Osip Mandelstam, who experienced political exile from the Soviet Union; the poet Paul Celan, who fled communist Romania to become an exile in Germany; and the Soviet poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, who went into exile in the United States. These three writers all share experiences with Kaminsky: he, too, is Jewish, and, like Mandelstam, Celan and Brodsky, an exile who fled communist rule. What sets Kaminsky apart from the three authors is that his deafness also informs his exile writing.
‘The Other,’ as Krumer-Nevo and Sidi note, is usually written about from the perspective of a Self, belonging to a person who conforms, more or less, to the norms of a society. As such, ‘the Other’ exists in contrast with the Self. I will first turn to Kaminsky’s second poetry collection, Deaf Republic, for an understanding of Kaminsky’s relation to deafness and Otherness. In Deaf Republic, the author refigures deafness – usually a trait that leads to marginalisation – as a universal quality; the loss of hearing, in Kaminsky’s writing, is now experienced by most characters, and is therefore no longer Othering. The collection, divided up into acts, begins its first act with the poem “Gunshot,” in which Petya, a deaf boy, is shot by soldiers after not having heard their orders (11). A few pages later, the poem “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins” returns to this experience:
Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. In the name of Petya, we refuse. At six a.m., when soldiers compliment girls in the alleyway, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears. At eight, the bakery door is shut in soldier Ivanoff’s face, though he’s their best customer. At ten, Momma Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on the gates of the soldiers’ barracks (4).
As illustrated above, deafness becomes a collaborative act of political resistance and the expression “NO ONE HEARS YOU” comes to be the slogan of a revolution. As the poetry collection proceeds, it becomes increasingly unclear whether the townspeople are pretending to not be able to hear, or if they have genuinely become deaf. Deafness, then, becomes a useful tool for resistance as well as a connective exercise. The Otherness and alienation that can be associated with deafness is, here, swapped out for solidarity. By choosing deafness, the townspeople of Vasenka refuse to subscribe to the demands of the occupying soldiers; deafness becomes their tool to protest.
Contrastingly, in Dancing in Odessa, deafness is not an invitation to community and solidarity with Otherness. Rather, the inability to hear contributes to the narrator’s sense of detachment from his surroundings. In fact, Dancing in Odessa largely focuses on sound throughout the collection: dancing is done to music, composers are mentioned and one section is titled “Musica Humana.” If Deaf Republic is a loud collection about silence (Brewbaker), Dancing in Odessa is a quiet collection about sound. Why does Kaminsky focus on sound in his nostalgic representation of Odessa? In one of Kaminsky’s prose texts, “In a Silent City: Searching for a lost Odessa – and a deaf childhood,” the author describes his experience of returning to Odessa when he was in his forties, long after he and his family had migrated to the United States. “I had no hearing aids until I came to America,” he writes, “The Odessa I know is a silent city […]. Decades later, when I come back to the city, I don’t feel I have quite returned until I turn my hearing aids off” (69). Kaminsky describes his experience walking around Odessa: “I turn off my hearing aids and walk up to walls, touch them with my fingers. This is the act of a fool who touches the sidewalks of the streets he once touched as a 15-year-old deaf boy” (70). Here, the reader is reminded of Said’s concept of contrapuntal awareness. As described above, contrapuntal awareness can be experienced by exiles or emigres, stemming from their position of being in-between at least two different cultures and (often) countries. It refers to the awareness of more than one place, which leads to an experience of these places not quite simultaneously, but contrapuntally. Here, Kaminsky’s in-betweenness, informed by his Soviet childhood memories and his adult life in the United States, facilitates a contrapuntal experience as he walks through the streets of Odessa in 2018. His experience of returning to Odessa, then, is also informed by his long absence from the city between 2018 and 1993; Kaminsky’s childhood memories fill in the gaps of his adult perception of the city. Additionally to Dancing in Odessa’s focus on the author’s personal recollection of his childhood, the collection is also deeply rooted in Kaminsky’s family history. Many of the poems in Dancing in Odessa are based on the stories told by the author’s father, which Kaminsky learned by reading his father’s lips during the time when they still lived in Odessa: “When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices,” he writes, and: “His words change to icicles as he speaks. I read them in the air” (5, 47). Thus, lips, bodies, and gestures are all central to the silent, embodied experience of Odessa in Kaminsky’s memory. The titular movement of the collection, dancing, is not a gesture necessarily done to music; even without sound, dancing is of great relevance to Kaminsky’s work. In “In a Silent City,” Kaminsky writes about his father’s adoptive parent, Shura – a Ukrainian man who rescued Kaminsky’s Jewish father when the latter was four years old and at risk of being deported to a concentration camp during World War II. Thereafter, Shura volunteers to fight in the army and, returning from the front, endures a long, harsh journey home to arrive in Odessa almost entirely deaf. Kaminsky describes seeing his father dancing at a wedding once and concludes: “This is a trick learned from Shura. A deaf man back from the war, unable to find a job to bring home food, Shura danced at strangers’ weddings, surprising his child and wife at night with plates of wedding cake” (“Silent City” 75). Here, dancing is a mode of survival, and can be linked to the music in the rest of Kaminsky’s work; to “Musica Humana” in Dancing in Odessa, for example, or the music danced to in the same collection. Kaminsky describes the silence in the fingers of an orchestra conductor before the orchestra makes “the music visible inside the bodies of others” (“Silent City” 75). This is confirmed in the opening poem of Dancing in Odessa: “I will praise your madness, and / in a language not mine, speak // of music that wakes us, music / in which we move” (1). It is not necessarily music itself, then, that is of importance in this collection; rather, it is the way our bodies react to it, dancing, surviving through dance.
As “In a Silent City” reminisces Kaminsky’s family history, Dancing in Odessa opens with the “Author’s Prayer” (1): a meditation on the author’s responsibility towards the dead and their history. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection, which primarily examines Kaminsky’s experience of displacement, reminisces Odessa through Kaminsky’s family history, and explores exile from the USSR through the stories of other exiled Soviet writers. An exiled Soviet writer is remembered most extensively in the poem “Musica Humana: an elegy for Osip Mandelstam” (Dancing in Odessa 17-30). Mandelstam was a Jewish writer from St Petersburg who experienced a period of exile in the Ural Mountains. After that, he was deported to a Soviet forced labour camp for his dissent poetry and eventually died there.
Kaminsky’s experience of exile also manifests itself through the author’s choice of language: he writes in English, a language he learned after his arrival in the United States. The final poem in Dancing in Odessa, “Praise,” opens as follows: “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” (55). The first section of the poem lists words, dictionary style, and assigns them new poetic definitions. The second section continues: “A woman asks at night for a story with a happy ending. / I have none.” (56). Yet, this is not an unhappy poem. Kaminsky’s mother returns to his poetry: she dances again, just as she dances at the start of the collection, bringing a cyclical nature to the poetry collection (11), which once more stresses the act of dancing as means of survival. “My father is singing / to his six-year-old silence,” Kaminsky writes, referencing his father’s death shortly after the family’s arrival in the United States. Ilya Kaminsky claims his father’s death is one of the reasons he writes in English – a language no one in his family spoke in the beginning, and even he barely did: “I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death [in Russian], as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, ‘Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry!’ . . . [The English language] was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom” (Colleen Marie Ryor 195). Kaminsky’s exile informs his descriptions of shared human experiences in many ways: he says his Russian poetry is “very formal,” and “in English [he] has no such intention. English . . . is an attempt to put life on a page – as much life as [he] can get there” (Ryor 195). The linguistic experience of exile – moving from one language area to another – further adds to Kaminsky’s contrapuntal awareness of Odessa. On the one hand there is the Soviet Union: a place where he was a child, spoke Russian, was deaf and lived with his parents. On the other hand, there is the United States: a place where he is a successful poet, speaks English, teaches at a university, is able to hear, and has a deceased father.
Grief is inseparably linked with exile for Kaminsky, as observed in his experience of turning off the hearing aid in Odessa: “it is 1993 again,” he writes, “silence doesn’t subscribe to the concept of time . . . when I turn the hearing aids on in these streets, my parents are dead again. So, I turn them off” (“Silent City” 77). This way, Odessa itself is almost experienced contrapuntally: geographically, it is one place, but exile has offered Kaminsky a period of absence from the city, which has brought about a strong distinction between the Odessa of 1993 and the Odessa of 2018, the year he visited and wrote “In a Silent City.” Being able to adjust his hearing aid and turn it off enables Kaminsky to immerse himself into his memories even further, through silence. Turning off the hearing aid allows for his embodied movement through the memories of Odessa he recounted from 1993 – “the country [he] left does not exist anywhere except in [his] imagination” (Ryor 196). Dancing in Odessa was published in 2004, and by then, Kaminsky had not returned to Odessa yet; the poet was basing his writings on the city solely on his personal recollection of it.
A sense of humanity, empathy, hope and solidarity glows throughout Kaminsky’s writing, whether that be in Dancing in Odessa, Deaf Republic, or “In a Silent City.” The opening poem of Deaf Republic, “We lived happily during the war,” resurfaced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and went viral for pointing out the public’s refusal to acknowledge the atrocities taking place in the country. The popularity of the poem caused Kaminsky’s poetry to be seen in a new light; the discussion of exile in his work is especially relevant nowadays as many of his fellow Ukrainians have become refugees after Russia's invasion and themselves have been sent into exile. Whether one has experienced exile or disability, Kaminsky’s poetry turns both into a connective exercise.
Often, his poems are highly detailed accounts of specific scenes and experiences, through which Kaminsky shows an incredible amount of respect for the many nuances of life. In its specificity, Ilya Kaminsky’s poetry manages to touch upon broadly, if not universally, shared experience. “All my friends say there are too many tomatoes in my poems. They say there is too much dancing. Is there enough? I don’t know” (“In Our Own Words”). By offering up detailed, specific experiences that are nonetheless joyful and relatable, even in a time of despair, Ilya Kaminsky offers his readers a tremendous amount of hope:
Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity. […] We must not deny it to ourselves. I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. […] If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world. (“In Our Own Words”)
1. Kaminsky, Ilya. Dancing in Odessa. Tupelo Press ; repr. Faber .
Brewbaker, Will. “Silence that is not silence: On Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘Deaf Republic.” LA Review of Books, 8 March 2019, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/silence-that-is-not-silence-on-ilya-kaminskys-deaf-republic/. Accessed 27 December 2023.
Kaminsky, Ilya. Dancing in Odessa. 2004. Faber, 2021, London.
---. Deaf Republic. 2019. Faber, 2019, London.
---. “In a silent city: searching for Odessa – and a deaf childhood.” Manoa, vol 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 68-77.
---. “In Our Own Words: Ilya Kaminsky, Bourne chair in poetry at Georgia Tech.” ARTS ATL, 2021, https://www.artsatl.org/in-our-own-words-ilya-kaminsky-bourne-chair-in-poetry-at-georgia-tech/. Accessed 23 Dec 2022.
Krumer-Nevo, Michal and Mirit Sidi. “Writing against Othering.” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 4, 2012, pp. 299-309.
Ryor, Colleen Marie. “Interview with Ilya Kaminsky.” Legal Studies Forum, no. 30, 2006, pp. 195-200.
Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Granta Books, 2001, London, pp. 173-186.
Parel Joy Wilmering is a writer, poet and printmaker. Her debut pamphlet The Queen of Cups and Other Poems was published in 2022 by SPAM. She is currently in the rMA Literary Studies programme at the University of Amsterdam, focusing on poetics, queerness and electricity. Follow her on Instagram @pareljoy.