Among the contemporary poetic voices, the name of Ilya Kaminsky shines bright. An American-Ukranian poet, Kaminsky has already earned name and critical acclaim, publishing two collections of poetry, which have received rave reviews in front-ranking literary journals and newspapers. His latest collection is Deaf Republic (2019), whereas the first collection is titled Dancing in Odessa (2004).
My visit to the UK is memorable for various reasons, and visit to Oxford is, of course, special, but attending a poetry reading in the evening at Oxford University is more special. It is indeed an enriching experience for me.
As I decided to go to London to present my paper at a prestigious international conference organized by the University of London on Translating Women, I considered Oxford prior to any other places for exploration. Instantly I wrote to Adriana, a professor of Oxford University, a great translator herself and an editor – once she had published my work in a Stanford University journal. She graciously welcomed me and informed me of the poetry evening on 29 October. Without giving a second thought, I agreed to visit Oxford and attend the poetry session that evening.
I took a train from Salfords, Surrey, to London Bridge, from where I had to change the train. When I boarded the Oxford-bound train, I started feeling excited. We chose to meet at Gail’s on Little Clarendon Street, which is close to St Cross College, Oxford University, at 3 pm. I was well ahead of time, so it was an opportunity for me to wander around the calm and quiet atmosphere of the city. Architectural beauty of Oxford must fascinate each and every visitor who takes an interest in the wonderful city. Already cold, the weather was inclement for a bit rain in the morning, but it could not conquer me for my cold-defeating outfit.
Adriana came at sharp 3; we exchanged greetings and had a wonderful coffee time at the Gail’s, talking poetry, translation, and our current projects and teaching. After about one hour, we moved from the spot to look around the inner atmosphere of St Cross College. Except for teachers, staff, and students, no one is allowed to visit the campus, and therefore, it was a great opportunity for me to wander around the campus, visit the excellent library, seminar hall, dining hall, and many more. It’s truly the great seat of learning, the best university where brighter minds disseminate and earn knowledge. No one has time to waste; they are either studying or writing; no chaos anywhere.
Balliol College of the Oxford University is one of the oldest ones that I visited as well. No wonder that the architectural beauty of the university is matchless, so is true about the Balliol College. There are so many trees in the campus, flowers blossoming in some of them; leaves were already yellow in a few trees.I had a sort of distinctive feeling at the campus. Wandering around some other places around, we moved ahead to the Oxford Bookshop, from where I bought quite a good number of books, mostly literary journals, magazines, and poetry collections. Visiting Bodleian Library was another addition to my enthralling experience at Oxford. Opened in 1602, it is one of the oldest and biggest libraries in Europe, and the main research library at the University of Oxford – it has about twelve million items.
The event started exactly at 5:30 pm as scheduled, with an amazing introduction to the poet, at St Edmund Hall, Queen’s College, Oxford. Erica McAlpine, Associate Professor of English, Oxford University, herself a practicing poet and translator, gave a stimulating introduction to Ilya as a poet of distinctive stature. Attended by Alice Oswald, the newly appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry, the poetry evening got a touch of different aura.
Ilya, rich in humour, thanked Oxford and the organizers for the wonderful evening, and started reading from Deaf Republic, an outstanding collection of poetry that has already received wide recognition. At the outset, the participants were provided handouts of the poems. Ilya selected a number of poems from the collection, which were, I believe, well chosen, and made an impact on the audience who came out of the hall impressed and amazed. The poet read the chosen poems so wonderfully that the audience were enthralled – he poured emotion fully, and there was full reflection of cadence in his reading.
Ilya Kaminsky is a poet who “writes deafness as a form of dissent against tyranny and violence.” Kevin Young writes in The New Yorker that Deaf Republic is “a contemporary epic that, like Homer’s Iliad, captures the sweep of history and the devastation of war.” A great number of renowned poets and critics have offered words of praises, which have added value to the book.
Grabbing a signed copy from the spot, I started reading the poems that moved me enough to continue, and I finished the book while travelling around the city by train, especially during my travel from London to Manchester. Among the poems from Ilya’s reading, “We Lived Happily during the War,” “Deaf Republic,” “Gunshot,” “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins,” “The Map of Bone and Opened Valves,” “Of Weddings before the War,” “Before the War, We Made a Child,” “Firing Squad,” “Lullaby,” and “In a Time of Peace” seemed more powerful to me. But the book contains many such great poems.
The poem “We Lived Happily during the War” begins thus “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough. I was / in my bed, around my bed America / was falling…”. The poet is vociferous against war, but he takes deafness as a weapon to dissent. In “Gunshot,” the poet writes, “Our country is the stage,” in which, as the poem moves forward, soldiers march, people hide for safety, but gunshots “lift the gulls off the water.” A very brief, only two-line, poem draws my attention. Titled as “Question,” the poem asks a question “What is a child?” and then answers “A quiet between two bombardments.”
The last poem that Ilya read is “In a Time of Peace,” which is about everything but peace. The word “peace” is reiterated in the poem, but there is no peace anywhere. Even in the time of peace, innocent people are shot, killed, and the dead bodies lie on the road. “…When the man reaches for his wallet, the cop / shoots. Into the car window. Shoots. / It is a peaceful country.” When the poet writes “It is a peaceful country,” he ironically presents the state of his country. Throughout the whole collection – which is about war, violence, and silence – the poet strives to locate peace, but peace remains elusive.
It was my first visit to Oxford, and this poetry evening made my brief stay at the university extraordinary. Oxford is a place that one wishes to step in again and again, and if there is a poetry reading at Edmund Hall, one should never miss it. I look forward to my next visit to Oxford, the city of arts and letters and poetry.
Mohammad Shafiqul Islam is Associate Professor, Department of English, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology.