Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

by Shawn Delgado

Deaf Republic: Poems
by Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf Press, $16.00 paperback, 80 pp.

Ilya Kaminsky’s long-awaited second collection Deaf Republic has made it into the hands of many this year, coming out in the spring and immediately gaining recognition as it made its way to final considerations for the National Book Award for Poetry. This can only be seen as a terrific and triumphant return after nearly fifteen years between collections—and let’s go ahead and say it here: Kaminsky’s first full-length collection Dancing in Odessa is a brilliant selection of erudite, musical poems that can take a house down with the weight of their heart. To any impatient readers or cynics who may see this decade-plus gap as the product of a creative lull, consider the three collections of translations and five anthologies that Kaminsky has had a hand in producing since 2010. To this reader, it would appear that Ilya Kaminsky has not only been busy, but has been more in the business of serving the world of poetry than his own grievances or ego.

This large scholarly body of work also reflects something central to the man behind Deaf Republic and the work itself: to read or be with Ilya Kaminsky is to enter the world of a man with one foot planted firmly on two distant continents, effectively two different worlds. Deaf Republic addresses an audience of 21st Century Americans, but evokes a world with powerful notes of a 20th Century Europe in everything from the names of its characters, the tyranny and train cars of an oppressive occupying military, and the puppet shows that eventually are converted from traditional entertainment to a radical and haunting insurgency led by Momma Galya Armolisnkaya, the puppet theater’s matronly owner. All these speak to a literary and historical lineage many Americans would recognize as easily as images of their own grandparents.

But before turning to the closet drama that is the centerpiece of Deaf Republic (with all the dramatic trappings of a two-act structure and a cast of Dramatis Personae to frame the harrowing narrative of the townspeople of Vasenka), I’d like to address the two poems that serve as an envelope for the thrust of the collection. While the story of Deaf Republic may feel Old-World European, the opening poem “We Lived Happily during the War” establishes an American voice, commenting on how many of us are able to live in relative comfort, safety, and ignorance while a “disastrous reign in the house of money” causes our nation to fracture as its values corrode. The speaker laments:

[…]       I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the closing poem of the collection “In a Time of Peace,” placed after the story of Vasenka has closed, there is the insistence of our lack of war at home with single-stanza lines such as “It is a peaceful country.” But amidst the mundane details of dentist visits, shopping for basil, and picking up the kids from school, “Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement / for hours.” While the questions aren’t handed to the reader directly, it would be hard to leave this collection without wondering what might be our personal definitions of peace, justice, and our relative responsibilities to either.

With those two poems as the frame, the heart of the collection is in the drama of the Deaf Republic, a drama of intense familial love, unabashed carnality, and fierce challenges to injustice. To this point, I’ve been using the term “drama” in a deliberate way, not to evoke the extreme and often tragic circumstances and events of this collection (though that would also be representative), but to get to idea that this collection—in both movement and construction—resembles a play for the stage of the imagination as much as it does a series of inter-connected lyric-narrative poems. This again, is one of the European, almost operatic, dimensions of the work—that is, if one is allowed to imagine an opera composed of silence.

The premise of the Deaf Republic is laid out beautifully in “Gunshot,” the first poem following the Dramatis Personae—a play-like introduction to the characters—but I’ll paraphrase the catalyst for this parable: At a puppet show in Vasenka, army soldiers arrive and tell the townspeople to disperse. A deaf boy, Petya, nephew to one of the puppeteers, spits on the Sergeant who had put a hand over Petya’s laughing mouth. One gunshot rings out. The boy lies
dead in the street and the citizenry of the town becomes deaf.

Apart from the stark, senseless violence, a detail arises that fascinates me. The last line of “Gunshot” reads “The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.” This would imply that the citizens are immediately deaf in the instant of the killing; the bullet and their vision are faster than the sound itself. However, a few pages later, the poem “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins” declares the new rebellion with its opening line “Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers” as if the dawn of a new day led to a conscious choice for deafness. It’s a paradox that fortunately isn’t explained further in the collection. As the narrative develops, there’s always a question of whether this collective deafness is an almost supernatural trauma that mimics the dead boy’s deafness or a spiteful gesture to undermine an authority built on violence. When the villagers go as far as to create their own rudimentary sign language, it’s unclear if their continuing words can be heard by any but the soldiers. There are examples of the neighbors remembering as another recited to his daughter, “You must speak not only of great devastation” from the National Anthem as he climbed other people’s porches with his eyes closed. Even “An idiot boy / whispers, Long Live Deafness! and spits at [a] soldier” mimicking other children who spit on soldiers from the blue tin rooftops, mimicking the deaf boy Petya’s capital crime.

The use of sign-language pictographs is another fascinating component of this collection. Across the pages of Deaf Republic, some of the poems conclude with an image corresponding to the sign-language of the townspeople, typically depicting two hands forming a sign along with a caption to label the gesture. For example, “Act One: The Townspeople Tell the Story of Sonya and Alfonso” displays a pair of hands touching at the fingertips, resembling a steeple. Beneath it is printed the single word “Town.” Often, these signs will reinforce an idea from the preceding title or poem, but these are not a major selling point or the big gimmick of the collection. While it’s worth noting that Kaminsky suffered significant hearing loss as a child and has insight into the experience of deafness, the actual signs in the collection are used rather sparingly, even electing to simply describe three in only the Dramatis Personae while leaving them out of the poems. Visually, these signs are similar at times to American Sign Language (ASL) while also remaining distinct inventions for the purposes of the townspeople this collection. There’s a delicacy and restraint in the collection that often supports and even enhances the passion and rage that outline the poems.

In the first act, puppeteers Sonya (aunt to the deaf boy Petya) and her husband Alfonso witness first-hand Petya’s shooting, but also show their rapturous, bodily love, and bear both their new child and the weight of the army’s suppression of the town. About two-thirds into the collection, the second act switches perspectives and picks up with the puppet theater owner, introduced by the townspeople as a woman whose fullness of life cannot be stifled by the circumstances: “Momma Galya Armolinskaya, 53 is having more sex than any of us.” She’s a brazen figure, unembarrassed of her body or her sexuality (her breasts become a prominent feature of the town’s geography), and her role as a resistance leader covers everything to mischief to murder. She’s also as unafraid of the soldiers’ retributions as she is unashamed, as she uses her troupe of female puppeteers toward some of the more drastic and radical resistance of the story.

Ultimately, while the events and the characters of Deaf Republic are compelling- and timely-enough to ensure that this is a memorable and unsettling collection, it’s the dynamic nature of the work that keeps leading me back to comparisons toward something orchestral or symphonic. There’s a tremendous range between the raw, aching love and the casual, careless discarding of lives in this collection; there’s the juxtaposition of military might with the quaint scale of a puppet theater; Alfonso and Sonya’s young marriage of bliss and fear against Momma Galya’s wise, stalwart, and crafty leadership; the shouting of soldiers versus the unhearing, unresponsive citizenry. But then there are also a number of poems that show pronounced restraint to devastating effect. In Act One, “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves,” displays Petya’s recently murdered body, but the power of metaphor is slowly stripped away for the pain of the true image:

The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip.
The body of the boy lies on the asphalt
like the body of a boy.

Note how the final line break emphasizes the tragedy in the literal simile. To the observers in the town, the body of a dead boy can only be like the body of a dead boy.

Even the shortest poem in the collection “Question” grows in depth as it becomes a recurring interlude or motif, posing variations on a single question and answer:

What is a [person]?
A quiet between two bombardments.

As the roles of that person change from “child” to “man” and then “woman,” the answer is always the same, always asserting life as a natural agent of peace, not one of the “bombardments” that humans create. When considering the role of the modern man in poetry, it’s easy to think of him as an inherently guilty figure skulking through the streets unable to sleep such as in Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” or an entity who is a walking void as with Mark Strand’s speaker in “Keeping Things Whole.” However, it’s refreshing that in a collection that implicates all of us as witnesses to man’s inhumanity to man, a book that does not spare its heroes punishment or the reader tears, Deaf Republic still speaks to our vital human presence as something to cherish, something not born of or stained by humanity’s worse inclinations or tendencies.

And to all the poets out there who are intimidated or jealous of such a work, I will grant you that elements of this collection begin in the author’s own experience—the fact of Kaminsky’s personal knowledge of deafness; the fact that Kaminsky’s Jewish-Ukrainian family received political asylum in the United States, leaving the Soviet Union while the author was in high school—likely contributed to the atmosphere and the concepts of this work. But let’s consider the transformative power of imagination at the same time. Biographic experience may be timely in the discussion of our contemporary mores and issues, good for anecdotes about individual identity, but what Kaminsky has achieved is so much larger. This is a parable without a time stamp. This is a book without an expiration date. Read this book now. The sooner the better. It will continue to matter as long as we have reasons to write.

SHAWN DELGADO grew up in Marietta, Georgia, and is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he earned a B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture. He currently lives in Greensboro, where he is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Editor of storySouth’s ‘Million Writers Award’.