Poetry News

Ilya Kaminsky Remembers Odessa

By Harriet Staff

Poet Ilya Kaminsky contributes an essay to the New York Times's magazine about looking back at his childhood in Odessa. "What I remember most of all is washing Leo Tolstoy’s ears. The year is 1989, the mornings of revolution, the year when my birth country begins to fall apart," Kaminsky writes. From there: 

His ears are larger than my head; I am standing on the shoulders of a boy who is standing on the shoulders of another boy. I am scrubbing the enormous bearded head on a pedestal — in the center of Leo Tolstoy Square, one block from our first apartment. This is childhood: Once a year, my classmates and I are sent to the center of the square. Our assignment is to wash the head of a dead writer. We climb on top of one another’s bodies and scrub Tolstoy’s nostrils, ears.

In the distance, my parents laugh, watching. Their deaf boy climbs and scrubs the enormous ears. Behind them, a band of sailors marches along — Odessa is a seaport, with a large navy school. The young captain shouts, though I can’t hear him: left, right, left, right. The sailors’ legs go up and down, up and down. Aware I see her from my Tolstoy post, my middle-aged, slightly heavy mother begins to march at the end of their column, her legs high, mimicking their legs, her skirt flying up, as my father salutes.

I had no hearing aids until I came to America. The Odessa I know is a silent city, where the language is invisibly linked to my father’s lips moving as I watch his mouth repeat stories again and again. He turns away. The story stops. He looks at me again, but the story has already moved on.

Decades later, when I come back to this city, I don’t feel I have quite returned until I turn my hearing aids off.

Click — and people’s lips move again, but no sound.

No footsteps of grandmothers running after their grandchildren. No announcements by tram-conductors as the tram stops at a station and, finally, I jump off.

A cab whooshes by me and abruptly parks at the curb. I do not hear the screech of its brakes.

This is the Odessa of my childhood: my father’s lips open, in Proviantskaya Street. I see a story. He bends to pick up a coin. The story stops. Then, as he straightens up and smiles at me, it is a story again.

Read more at the New York Times.

Originally Published: August 9th, 2018