On Monday, the Kenyon Review’s virtual reading series continued with a reading by Mariya Zilberman, a candidate for the Review’s Fellowship in Poetry. Selected every two years, Kenyon Review fellows are given the opportunity to teach classes within the Department of English and assist with a variety of projects through the Review.
Originally born in Minsk, Belarus, Zilberman earned a masters of fine arts from the University of Michigan and has been recognized through an abundance of literary awards and fellowships, including by the Vermont Studio Center, Community of Writers and Yiddish Book Center. She was a Ploughshares 2020 Emerging Writer’s Contest winner, was published in the May 2020 issue of the Columbia Journal and currently acts as a reader for The Paris Review and a development fellow for Freedom House Detroit.
Zilberman’s reading centered around her debut poetry collection, which focuses on immigration, assimilation and identity. In a brief introduction to her developing collection, Zilberman discussed the significance of Jewish ethnography in her work’s foundation — particularly in its integration of portions from Jewish author and Belarus native S. Ansky’s 1912 detailed ethnographic questionnaire.
Much of Zilberman’s collection revolves around responding to and interacting with some of Ansky’s questions, which were developed prior to World War I to provide insight into the stories, songs and superstitions interwoven in the culture of Ashkenazi Jews during this time period. A multitude of Ansky’s questions, interspersed throughout all nine of the pieces she read, address the identity of Ashkenazi women in the early 20th century.
Zilberman read nine poems, each of which incorporated elements of different settings in Belarus that she noticed upon her return there 27 years after her immigration to America. She recalled her feelings of uncertainty before this journey back to Minsk, but excitement at finding a newfound sense of belonging and connection to her homeland upon arriving. Her poems explore, as she put it, “what it means to be from somewhere,” and take a deep dive into her sense of belonging to her birthplace and its culture.
The first two poems Zilberman read, titled “Grief Aspic” and “Girlhood Jinx,” reference political turmoil and societal expectations in Belarus, emphasizing female gender roles. In “Girlhood Jinx,” Zilberman begins to examine this specific female identity, discussing her own ancestry and experience with the Yiddish language, striking readers with lines like, “It so happens I am sick of being a woman.”
Other poems Zilberman read, including “Yanka Kupala Street,” “Cusp Harvest” and “Among Tender Grasses,” examine landscapes of Belarus, notably those closely related to her ancestors. Notes of the harsh and violent histories associated with these places are delicately and purposefully placed alongside peaceful depictions of the beautiful landscapes. Zilberman juxtaposes the profound emotions she felt in visiting locations like a past family circus and the village site near Minsk, where many of her family members were massacred, with soft descriptions of flowers, sunlight and recent growth.
In “In Hunger, In Grace,” Zilberman’s experiences come together with those of Ansky and create a sort of dialogue between their histories. “[This piece] is where narrative threads of past and present align,” she shared at the reading. In connection with these joined narratives, Zilberman’s final poem, “Civics Unit,” casts a light on the American immigration process and how it “disembodies the people who come into this country.” Her collection demonstrates an exploration into the rebuilding of a cultural identity so easily lost in this process.
The sense of urgency with which Zilberman delves into the intersection of the past and the present, incorporating strikingly personal yet widely appealing cultural accounts, is deeply moving and eloquently paints the portrait of an individual’s journey into her roots.
More information on Mariya Zilberman and her poetry can be found on her website mariyazilberman.com.