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Philadelphia Inquirer
May 8, 2003
book review
Channeling a persecuted Russian poet
By Frank Wilson

Musica Humana
By Ilya Kaminsky
Chapiteau Press. 32 pp. $12

In 1934, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested. He had written what has been called "a 16-line death sentence" - an epigram aimed at Joseph Stalin. In it he described Stalin's fingers as "worms" and compared his mustache to that of a cockroach. He also called the supreme leader of the Soviet Union a murderer in general and a slayer of peasants in particular. Stalin failed to see the humor.

Mandelstam was subjected to an interrogation so brutal he was left a broken man. Exiled to a remote province, he was able to return to Moscow in 1937, but a year later was arrested again. This time he was sent to a labor camp. He died in the Gulag Archipelago, in a transit camp near Vladivostok in 1938.

The title poem of Ilya Kaminsky's Musica Humana is subtitled "an elegy for Osip Mandelstam." Kaminsky, 27, was born in Odessa - "the city named after Odysseus" - in what is now Ukraine. He came with his family to the United States - to Rochester, N.Y. - 10 years ago. He writes in English, but his poetic sensibility is distinctly Russian. There is the easy fluency in the dialectic of imagery and metaphor that seems to come naturally to Russians. Theirs is a poetry that has less to do with saying than with seeing - or rather the saying and the seeing are somehow one. The seeing is tactile, synesthetic, the image presented in such a way that it isn't merely beheld, but embraced and felt: "... it was August. / August! The light in the trees, full of fury. August / filling the hands with language that tastes like smoke."

This is Mandelstam addressing "you, who are writing me" - the saying in this elegy is done mostly by the martyred poet himself, which seems only fair, given how savagely he was silenced during his lifetime: "... like Icarus, / whispering to himself as he falls... /... my life as a broken branch in the wind / hits the Northern ground. / I am writing now a history of snow... "

Kaminsky has Mandelstam describe himself as Icarus, but Kaminsky himself, in one of the prose notes prefacing the sections of the poem, describes him as "a modern Orpheus: sent to hell, he never returned, while his widow searched... clutching the saucepan with his songs rolled up inside... . " Mandelstam's life's work would have been lost had it not been for the devotion of his widow, Nadezhda, who collected his poems, memorized them, and hid copies of them (her memoir Hope Against Hope recounts the harrowing tale of her husband's persecution at the hands of the Soviet authorities).

By keeping things simple, by keeping the focus on Mandelstam's misfortunes, and never drawing attention to himself, Kaminsky achieves in this elegy a quiet grandeur. The other sequences in the chapbook, "Natalia" and "Praise," are solid poetic base hits, but "Musica Humana" is a line-drive shot over the fence.

Ilya Kaminsky bears watching. He has a fine ear and a sharp eye. Above all, he has a purity of outlook that is akin to innocence - and every bit as appealing.

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