by Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf Press, 2019.
Ilya Kaminsky’s second poetry collection, Deaf Republic, is an exhilarating and anguished poetic narrative. Sixty poems tell the story of an unspecified event wherein, “SOLDIERS—arrive in Vasenka to ‘protect our freedom,’ speaking a language no one understands.” The chilling poems that begin and end the collection suggest an acceptance of the preposterous—an all too familiar, yet distressing reality in today’s Unites States of America.
The first poem, “We Lived Happily during the War,” is a warning. And not necessarily a caution for what’s to come, but rather an exhortation that something onerous has already taken hold. This first piece is both a reality check and a call to action. Its title is the first line, and abrupt endings and enjambments help reveal how a muzzled protest will amount to a whole lot of nothing:
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—
The closing poem, “In a Time of Peace,” points at contemporary news tragedies and insists readers look again. The reminder aims to disturb. It succeeds:
I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors open
their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When the man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.
Later in the final poem, the line, “It is a peaceful country,” is negated by an allusion to the lethal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: “Ours is a country in which a boy shot by the police lies on the pavement / for hours.” The line, “It is a peaceful country,” is repeated and precedes, “It clips our citizens’ bodies / effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails.” Then finally, “This is a time of peace,” is placed in juxtaposition of, “I do not hear gunshots”—a suggestion that not to hear gunshots is a privileged choice mistaken for peace. But peace it is not.
Silence thus becomes a character in Deaf Republic, albeit a vexing one. In, “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins,” an unnamed town wields a collective reticence following the killing of a deaf boy. “Our country woke up the next morning and refused to hear soldiers.”
At ten, Momma Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on
the gates of the soldiers’ barracks.
By eleven a.m., the arrests begin.
Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.
This self-empowerment is a thrilling slice of insubordination. The peoples’ quietude harvests a profound togetherness amidst the hold of subjugation. Their invented sign language, depicted in the book by drawn images of hands in various positions, further insults the soldiers by denying access to conversations of the ensnared. Kaminsky makes it hard not to cheer for the underdog.
This silence is the peoples’ only deployable weapon, or so it seems. As such, it intimates a creative resourcefulness. A clever way to beat the messed up system. But Kaminsky takes care to dissuade readers from being too quick to laud the muted. In, “A Dog Sniffs,” unspoken thoughts segregate the oppressed. As one of the townspeople is whisked off by a military jeep, bystanders watch and do nothing. “The neighbors peek from behind curtains. Silence like a / dog sniffs the windowpane between us.” The dissenting strategy of silence, though seemingly effective, gives root to an unforeseen form of complicity with the oppressive power. In other words, a tactic meant to bond the persecuted people instead drives a wedge between them. The deaf begin to ignore each other, too.
When this life in a ridiculous hell becomes status quo—when senseless and shocking becomes norm—chances of a resulting uprising decrease. And when an occupied peoples’ collaborative and exuberant protest is so fatigued it becomes standard fare, there appears an unintentional acceptance of the regime. These are the details that trouble Kaminsky. Details, too, that ought to trouble us all.
Kaminsky’s impressive and timely work is, in a word, exhausting. But it’s also necessary—like standing up with voice in-mouth, in-hand, in-body while choosing not to allow the absurd to become the new normal. Deaf Republic is not about country, it’s about humanity. It forces readers to question togetherness. Truth be told, there is no easy way to be devoted, and Kaminsky illustrates this summary in the final lines of “Anonymous”:
I have to screw on the expression of a person
though I am at most an animal
and the animal I am spirals
from the funeral to his kitchen, shouts: I have come, God, I have come running to you—
in snow-drifted streets, I stand like a flagpole
without a flag.