Two Russian-Jewish-American poets illustrate the line between immigrant and exile
Ilya Kaminsky and Matvei Yankelevich are not the only Russian-born Jewish poets in the United States these days, but they might be the best known. They couldn’t approach their aggregation of hyphens—Russian-Jewish-American—more differently. Kaminsky writes as an exile, Yankelevich as an immigrant.
Kaminsky, whose award-winning first book, Dancing in Odessa, was published when he was 27, sounds just like what an American reader would expect a Russian poet to sound like. His work is full of fine, dramatic gestures. Here is “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 the empty page is a white flag of their surrender.
If I speak of 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.
Kaminsky has no qualms about taking on the whole burden of modern Russian history. He is happy to assume the whole burden of modernist Russian poetry—in English no less. The pathos of his situation is thick enough to taste. As befits this pathos, his poetry is oratorical and full of liturgical repetitions:
Let us wash our faces in the wind and forget the strict shapes of affection.
Let the pregnant woman hold something of clay in her hand.
For the secret of patience is his wife’s patience
Let her man kneel on the roof, clearing his throat,
he who loved roofs, tonight and tonight, making love to her and her forgetting,
a man with a fast heartbeat, a woman dancing with a broom, uneven breath.
Let them borrow the light from the blind.
This poem, from his as-yet-unpublished second book, shows that Kaminsky’s universe is folkloric in its themes and presentation. It is populated as much by archetypes as by people.
Kaminsky’s poetry is unequivocally Russian. You can hear this when he reads: Ecstatic lyricism is his hallmark. Most American poets are pretty flat performers of their poetry. Not Kaminsky. To hear him chant his work—and there is at least one remarkable recording on the web—is to be overwhelmed by just how theatrical, how foreign he seems. As he once said in an interview, he views exile as a “wonderful gift.” Like his hero Joseph Brodsky, he cuts an amply romantic figure.
In contrast, Matvei Yankelevich’s recent book Boris by the Sea is anything but dramatic. Yankelevich has gotten a lot of attention for his translations of Daniil Kharms, a Soviet-era author who died of starvation in 1941. Kharms was something of a character—a 19th-century dandy in the Stalinist ’30s—and also something of an absurdist:
It’s hard to say something about Pushkin to a person who doesn’t know anything about him. Pushkin is a great poet. Napoleon is not as great as Pushkin. Bismarck compared to Pushkin is a nobody. And the Alexanders, First, Second and Third, are just little kids compared to Pushkin. In fact, compared to Pushkin, all people are little kids, except Gogol. Compared to him, Pushkin is a little kid.
And so, instead of writing about Pushkin, I would rather write about Gogol.
Although, Gogol is so great that not a thing can be written about him, so I’ll write about Pushkin after all.
Yet, after Gogol, it’s a shame to have to write about Pushkin. But you can’t write anything about Gogol. So I’d rather not write anything about anyone.
In so many ways, this is vintage Kharms. It is funny, of course, but frustrated and frustratingly inconclusive. By rights, this piece shouldn’t exist because it cancels itself out. It hovers indecisively at that moment when it comes into being.
While it’s tempting to read Kharms’s work as a series of parables about the horrors of the first decades after the Russian Revolution, it’s not really about that world at all:
There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.
He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.
He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing to speak of! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.
We’d better not talk about him any more.
The red-headed man is not a bureaucratic non-person. He is an ontological one.
Kharms wrote plays, novellas, short pieces of prose, and poems. They cohere through their refusal to draw normal causal connections. His narratives hang suspended because their beginnings do not begin and their endings bring nothing to an end. Nothing starts, nothing finishes.
Yankelevich has learned a lot from the master. It is hard to call Boris by the Sea poetry, though it is necessary to do so because in the end, Boris runs afoul of narrative. It also asks to be read closely, like poetry. Boris consists of short texts, some with line breaks, some presented as little bits of dialogue, some as little hunks of prose. They are both like and unlike Kharms:
Boris lived in his room and thought about why people need each other. People need each other, thought Boris, to check each other for ticks. People need each other for solving the problem of what is inside.
In a similar vein, Yankelevich writes:
Boris looked himself over and realized there were many parts of him that he could not see. And only a small part of these parts was on the surface.
The ticks are a nice, idiosyncratic touch but only a touch. The “problem of what is inside” is Yankelevich’s chief philosophical worry.
Boris has no defining features beyond a naive, sceptical interest in things. So to call him a character is perhaps going too far. He has characteristics. They do not develop. Each text, each small section of texts finishes up more or less where the book does, that is, where it kicks off.
Yankelevich differs from Kharms in a fundamental way. Kharms presents the world as if it made no sense. Yankelevich presents personality as if it made no sense. Boris is as cut off as Descartes’s famous “cogito,” which is only certain that it exists because it can doubt. It is as lonely as Descartes’s spiritual son, Samuel Beckett:
Boris had no parents—he appeared.
Or maybe he just didn’t remember them.
He simply had no faith in the past.
And he didn’t go there.
You cannot imagine anyone in Kaminsky’s poetry not having a past. If anything, the past is where they all go. Boris is not an exile precisely because he does not originate anywhere. No history sparks his nostalgia.
Boris by the Sea is peculiarly Jewish. Yankelevich once asked his father what it meant to him to be Jewish. His father—an outspoken dissident during the 1970s and the only Jew (according to his son) who did not want to leave the USSR—replied that it lay with his tendency to see nothing but text, to see everything as if it were constructed by words.
If the word precedes the world, then language itself comes before everything else. And language is a real problem for an immigrant. As befits someone who moved to America when he was four, Yankelevich writes a flawless English. Nevertheless, I do catch a few—just a few—Russianisms in the book. Sometimes his cadences give him away, but only sometimes. That is about it, a little trace to remind you that Yankelevich wasn’t born here.
Boris, the resident alien of Yankelevich’s book, cannot help coming across as undeniably Russian. Even if you do not know that Boris By the Sea started in Russian, you can hear that it lives in a space between languages. It translates linguistic dislocation into philosophical scepticism, a sense of not belonging in your words into a sense of not belonging at all.
Boris By the Sea is a singular book. There have been excellent—and sadly neglected—American poets who have written similarly odd poems. That said, no one to my knowledge has written about immigrating into a new language as completely and at the same time as obliquely as Yankelevich. That is what makes him so fully hyphenated—so recognizably Russian at the same time that he is so consciously American.