Odessa: it doesn’t sound like a particularly Russian word. Maybe Spanish, or Italian. Actually, it was named after Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s (if Homer existed) great epic poem, The Odyssey. Any word, when it begins with an open o sound, immediately attracts my attention, probably because I have unusual onomatopoeic pleasure-firings in the synapses of my brain. Metrically, it would scan as an amphibrach, the middle syllable getting the stress. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all prosodic on your asses. The word Odessa is tasty, balmy. It’s also a city in Ukraine in the former USSR, about as far south as you can get.
A port city on the legendary Black Sea, it has always been noted (after St. Petersburg and Moscow) for its writers and for its wonderful soup of cultures — Russian, Yiddish, and Ukrainian. It’s long been a center for Russian and Yiddish folklore, out of which comes the indispensable fiction writer Isaac Babel. Here’s a good piece of general wisdom and writing advice from that master: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.”
Alexander Pushkin (who died in a duel in 1837 at age 37) is arguably the greatest 19th-century poet in any language. Though I think our own Walt Whitman, who published the first edition of Leaves of Grass at age 37 in 1855, pound for pound, a few decades Pushkin’s junior, could have gone 15 rounds with him, easy. Pushkin was exiled to Odessa for a little over a year for annoying the czar. This happened often in Russia, well into the 20th Century. A good deal of the 19th and much of the 20th Century was tough for Russian writers. If it wasn’t the czar then it was the gottdamn commies! One could be sent to the gulag for something one had written if it upset the czar, and later, Stalin and his crew. And after that time…
Again, I’m not going to get all Stalin on your asses, but Stalin, unlike most paranoid dictators unencumbered by a conscience, had a soft spot for writers — some of them. There’s the famous story, perhaps apocryphal, very likely not, of Stalin calling up Boris Pasternak (at the time Russia’s greatest living writer) and asking him what he knew about the poet Osip Mandlestam, who had written negatively of Stalin. The poem, usually given the imposed title “The Stalin Epigram” in English, didn’t name Stalin directly, and it wasn’t published, only passed from mouth to ear to mouth (two rounds to likely spies). Here are a few lines from that poem: “the ten thick worms of his fingers/ his words like measures of weight,/ the huge laughing cockroaches of his top lip,/ the glitter of his boot rims.”
Stalin was worried about what poets were writing! I remember writing some fairly critical things about Ronald Reagan (though not by name either): not a peep, no FBI agents following me around, I didn’t even get audited by the IRS. The story goes: Stalin wants Pasternak’s opinion of Mandelstam’s poetry. Calls him up at 2:00 a.m. Pasternak’s shaking in his pajamas. Pasternak speaks highly of Mandelstam’s poetry, but not too highly. He knew if he said Mandelstam was a great poet (which he was), Mandelstam was a dead man: he was still young and unknown enough that a bullet could be put in the back of his neck without raising much of a fuss. If he said he was a lousy poet, ditto, likely that night. So, Stalin sends Mandelstam into exile in 1932, first in Voronezh and later, to the Far East where he died, essentially, of starvation and disease. No official account of his death was recorded, but he died around 1940. Man’s a problem? Kill the man. Problem solved. Stalin said something like that. Imagine Pasternak standing there holding the black phone after the line from the Kremlin goes dead. I was happy to read somewhere that as Stalin lay dying he was terrified and kept saying he heard wolves howling.
Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, had memorized all but a handful of her husband’s poems by the time of his first arrest, in case his manuscripts were destroyed, which they were. When asked why she didn’t also memorize that extra handful, she said, “Because he wrote them to another woman.” Her two memoirs of the Stalin years, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, bear monumental witness to those times.
Anna Akhmatova is another great 20th-century poet associated with Odessa. Born there in 1889, her first long poem, “Near the Sea,” was written about the city. “Anna of all the Russias,” she was called, reverently. She managed to avoid death or the gulag (though her son did not) during the Stalin years but suffered deprivation, constant surveillance, was unable to publish, etc. Her main crime: she wrote personal poems, love poems. It was Soviet Realism or nada. To keep her son alive and get him out of the gulag, she forced herself to write a few poems in praise of Stalin. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow, humiliating for her, but her readers understood.
Before I take us from Stalinist Russia to San Diego, California, and introduce you to the poet Ilya Kaminsky, I want to tell you a bit more of where Kaminsky was born and raised — you guessed it — Odessa — until 1993, when at the age of 16 he came to America. Odessa’s climate is temperate. It ain’t exactly Palm Beach, but compared to the cold associated with most of Russia, it’s pretty close.
It is a city rich in multiculturalism, combining Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish influences, particularly in its language and folklore. Russian and Yiddish songs and poems written around or about Odessa abound. The songs often portray a rare city, more impressive than Vienna or Paris. A city that embodies progress, a sense of carefree freedom, but a place that is also dangerous: an ideal place for a poet to be born and raised.