Now riding the subway: A poem by Ukrainian Jewish poet Ilya Kaminsky


(New York Jewish Week) — Attention subway riders: A poem by the Jewish Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky has been featured on New York City’s trains recently. 

“Lullaby,” about a parent watching their daughter while she sleeps, shares space with advertisements and public service announcements as part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “Poetry in Motion” series.

Kaminsky, 46, was born in Odesa, a Ukrainian city that at the time was part of the former Soviet Union. He became deaf at the age of 4 due to complications from mumps. Like many thousands of Soviet Jews, Kaminsky and his family were granted political asylum and immigrated to the United States in 1993, settling in Rochester, New York. 

He visited the war-torn Odesa in January, visiting an uncle and enduring what he described on X as a night of “bombardments, fires, casualties.”

Kaminsky currently lives in New Jersey and is a professor in the creative writing department at Princeton University. He has published two poetry collections, “Dancing in Odessa” (2004) and “Deaf Republic” (2019), the latter of which won the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry and earned him a spot on the BBC’s list of “12 Artists Who Changed the World.”

“This is the book that will let readers see that Kaminsky is and has always been a chronicler of humanity itself, an amplifier of all its music, heard and unheard,” wrote The Forward in a review of “Deaf Republic.

Kaminsky is best known for his poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” the first poem in “Deaf Republic.” It explores the narrator’s  guilt while watching war wreak havoc in a distant country from his safe home in America, “our great country of money.” It went viral during the first weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“Lullaby,” also from “Deaf Republic,” arrived in subway cars and Metro North and Long Island Railroad trains in late January, accompanied by an illustration of a hummingbird and flowers titled “Urban Idyll,” by Elisabeth Condon.

“We begin a new year with new poems that elevate the journey. Poetry is the perfect complement to a season where time slows down,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA Arts & Design, in a press release. “In the artwork pairings, riders may find a soft breeze or a quiet moment of escape.” Kaminsky did not immediately respond to a request for comment when contacted through his publisher, Graywolf Press.

The Poetry in Motion program was started in 1992 by the MTA New York City Transit and the Poetry Society of America; since then, more than 200 poems and excerpts poems by the likes of William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou have appeared on public transit in more than 30 cities across the country.

The Poetry Society introduces two new poems to the subway system every few months, the New York Times reported. In addition to “Lullaby,” the MTA added “Sunday’s Empire” by Peter Gizzi to the rotation.

“The poems of Ilya Kaminsky and Peter Gizzi remind us that our lives are lit, not only by the sun rising over the horizon or reflecting off the fallen snow, but by family, neighbors, and community,” Matt Brogan, the executive director of the Poetry Society of America, said in a press release about Kaminsky’s poems.

“People are crowded into the subway, they’re going to work and they’ve got other things going on in their lives,” Brogan told the New York Times. “And we’re trying to bring a kind of bright moment into their day.”

Kaminsky is not the only Jewish poet to be featured on New York’s subway cars — the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai has had two poems spotlighted in the subway: “My Father” and “To My Love, Combing Her Hair.” And, of course, Jews are often prominent in subway advertisements, too, from dermatologist Dr. Jonathan Zizmor — aka Dr. Z — who advertised on the MTA for more than 25 years to photographer and Instagram blogger Mordechai Rubinstein, whose family’s celebration of Hanukkah was featured in a Nordstrom holiday campaign in 2022

On March 21 at 6:30 p.m., Kaminsky will read some of his work as part of “Speaking the World into Being: An Evening of Short Readings” hosted by Yetzirah, a literary organization that calls itself a “hearth for Jewish poetry,” alongside Four Way Books and Poets House. He is also teaching an online workshop titled “Poetic Lineages,” on March 31 at 1:00 p.m. with Yetzirah.