by Illya Kaminsky
(Graywolf Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach
Ilya Kaminsky’s second book, Deaf Republic, is both a book of stand-alone poems that hold in their individuality and gravitas and a heart-breaking play where the second poem, “Dramatis Personae” lists the characters and each subsequent poem builds with setting, narration, dialogue, and dramatic action. The craft and the moral weight of this work left this reader in awe.
In Vansenka, a fictional occupied town, the plot is set in motion when soldiers gun down a deaf boy in the poem “Gunshot.” The townspeople respond by pretending to be deaf. The reader walks with the townspeople as they resist, gets to be inside the heads of the puppeteers who lead the insurrection, and suffers all the consequences. Like the people of Vansenka, the reader must live with harsh truths. It’s not easy or pretty, but necessary.
The poems center on several themes: how to resist, how poetry can or cannot address violence, despair, hope, and complicity. These are not small topics but explored via Kaminsky’s deft hand, images, and humor, we get lines like these from “Soldiers Aim at Us”:
a man cannot flip a finger at the sky
because man is already
a finger flipped at the sky
Kaminsky uses the image of man literally standing up to make a philosophical statement about resistance. However, in the overarching themes of the book, the “fuck you” of the finger is given silently through a full body gesture.
While “Beautiful are the women of Vasenka, beautiful,” their resistance is fully embodied when the women of the town in “Gaylas’s Puppeteers” lure the soldiers into the puppet theater for sex and then “when finally he passes out, she strangles him with a puppet-string.” Death by puppet string is so bleak as to be ridiculous, but it also symbolizes the small lethal power the townspeople hold.
Kaminsky addresses head-on a conflict inherent in this work: can poetry be used to describe the horrors of occupation? Obviously, the book is evidence he believes it can, and yet, one of the strongest moments in the book refutes poetic tools. “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves” is full of imagery and metaphor, but in the middle of the poem Kaminsky writes:
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.
By setting up one simile and then using the same pattern to refuse to make a simile, Kaminsky hurls the reader out of the fictive dream. The reader must wake up and see this boy only as a dead boy. Through this moment, which occurs early in the book, Kaminsky warns the reader that some horrors cannot be shown through plays of language. So, even as the reader continues on in a world of imagery and metaphor, they are asked to also stay present to horror.
One of the biggest horrors this books addresses is not what the soldiers do to the people, but what the outsider does not do. In the first poem, “We Lived Happily During the War” Kaminsky writes:
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough, I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—
Kaminsky uses line breaks as a dangerous pause to switch focus and meaning. The line “enough. I was” finishes one sentence and starts another, but as a line together the words suggest the speaker believes their survival was enough without worrying about their neighbor, a strong indictment. Kaminsky uses the same doubling in the next line, creating the image of a bed floating in America and then stripping that support away in the next line. The effect is disorienting. These line breaks simultaneously delight in their layering of meaning and point to the horror of our own culpability. Kaminsky makes sure structure matches meaning. During a poem about bombardment, the lines are confusing, surreal:
It has begun: I see the blue canary of my country
pick breadcrumbs from each citizen’s eyes—
pick breadcrumbs from my neighbors’ hair—
the snow leaves the earth and falls straight up as it should—
The first of several poems titled “Question” is small (presented here in its entirety) and quiet just like the newborn in a moment of peace.
What is a child?
A quiet between two bombardments.
Sometimes Kaminsky specifically uses the structure as a counterpoint to the meaning. In “What We Cannot Hear,” he juxtaposes a wistful folk tune over a speaker’s wife being taken by the invading army:
They shove Sonya into the army jeep
one morning, one morning, one morning in May, one
Kaminsky’s most unusual craft technique is his incorporation of sign language. He tells us early in the book that the townspeople invent their own sign language. Periodically, a poem ends with a drawing of a sign, labeled with what the sign means. Kaminsky is both illustrating the poem and teaching the reader their language as the townspeople are learning it. We become one of them. One of the last poems in the book is just made of signs without any words. Two powerful things happen in that moment: the reader has to go back through the book to remind themselves of the signs’ meanings, literally revisiting the history, and they are forced to be in silence with the townspeople, while feeling the thrill and power of having a language that subverted the system, no matter how precarious their situation.
Kaminsky does not let us relegate bombardments and murder to some fictive town. He frames this dramatic fairy tale with poems set in our modern Western world, bringing the pain very close. Kaminsky is a Jewish, hard-of-hearing, Ukrainian-born Russian refugee who has lived on the US/Mexico border. He brings all those identities to bear in a dramatic poetic fable for our time. We are now in a deaf republic where so many are willingly deaf to others. These poems help us to listen.