blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Deaf Republic
Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf Press, 2019

spacer Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019)

I tend to think of Shakespeare as a poet first, not a playwright: the language in the play is so evocative, so tightly wrought, so like poems, that I’ve often wondered why he didn’t work more intentionally with the page. There is little to be gleaned through performance that couldn’t be gleaned (more fully, in fact!) by reading the plays through. Or so I thought. I recently had the good fortune to see Sam Gold’s bewildering interpretation of King Lear—the king’s lightning-sharp invective against his daughters, nature, and the heavens themselves still thunders in my ears. But it was the final scene of Act III that left the entire theater islanded in silence. The Earl of Gloucester, shackled to a chair with duct tape, is declared a traitor. The Duke of Cornwall—portrayed by Russell Harvard, who was born deaf—commands his servants through sign language to hold the chair steady. Then—to the horror of everyone on stage, to the gasps of the audience—he grooves out Gloucester’s eye. But as he collects himself to dig for the second one, something astonishing happens. Cornwall’s servant, who has served as an interpreter throughout the play by speaking the lines Cornwall signs and signing the speech of others to Cornwall, stops and says, “Hold your hand, my lord!” The rest of their exchange is signed, unheard. The substance of the argument, however, is disturbingly clear. The unexpected silence occupying these seconds at once intensifies the intimacy between servant and lord, creating a private language between the two, while also alienating Cornwall from his power: his ability to give commands. The tension and void between them is only broken when Cornwall switches registers to a more familiar language of violence. They fight, the servant is killed, Cornwall puts out Gloucester’s other eye. The curtain falls. We, with Gloucester, enter into darkness.

As I sat in a noiseless room and the intermission eased our attentions away from the terrible spectacle we’d just witnessed, the stark silences of Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, his second collection of poems, seemed rendered into life. Though the narrative of the book is easy enough to follow—after a young deaf boy is killed rather senselessly by soldiers, the town of Vasenka is taken over and variously resists and resigns itself to different modes of silence—I found the particular qualities of those silences and the tonal extremities of the poems nearly impenetrable. That is, until the deafness in this sequence of Lear laid its claim on me: the haunting abyss of Cornwall and his servant quarreling onstage, of the other characters in the background mutely watching, the hush covering the audience. It’s this final quiet that most disquiets me: what does it mean that we sat by and watched a man lose his sight? Moreover: what does it mean that we read of tragedies like this each day? What decisions are we making when we act merely as an audience to these scenes? Deaf Republic troubles us all with this question: what kind of silence do we hope to inhabit?

The connection between Kaminsky and Shakespeare is not mere coincidence: the poems of this book are structured as a two-act play, complete with a list of dramatis personae alerting us to the characters scattered throughout the pages—the townspeople of the fictional town of Vasenka, who serve as a sort of Greek chorus; the puppeteers Alfonso Barabinski and his wife Sonya, the central figures of the first act; their child, Anushka; Momma Galya, the puppet theater owner who instigates an insurgency against the soldiers who occupy the town, the “I” of the second act; various soldiers, who speak “a language no one understands,” which is to say, the language of mute force; and Petya, the deaf boy whose murder in the book’s first act sets the tragedy of Vasenka’s occupation and eventual surrender in motion. As the title suggests, deafness is the dominant feature of this world’s landscape; illustrations throughout the book teach readers the sign language created by the people of Vasenka, a form of both intimacy and dissent. Ilya Kaminsky himself is deaf, the result of a misdiagnosed case of mumps by a Soviet doctor when he was a child. Though he was born in Odessa, located in modern-day Ukraine, he moved to the United States over two decades ago and is now a citizen.

It’s tempting, then, in light of the biography, to read Deaf Republic as a staging of direct personal experience—all poetry is in some way a translation of experience into form, after all—and our particular moment in American poetry almost expects this kind of reading. But from the opening poem, “We Lived Happily during the War,” it’s clear the consciousness behind these lines is far too expansive to be understood so simply:

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—

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

I love the frenetic, angry energy of these lines, an excess that nearly forgets then recreates its own music with those wild enjambments—and then the unexpected repose of perfect iambic pentameter as the poem recedes momentarily from the chaos it thrusts us into. But it is a repose that opens the mind to the light knock of guilt, indicting the speaker and (as it should be) us along with him:

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

Interestingly, this poem and the last in the book are set in America, not Vasenka—but the catastrophes and the aftermath echo, at times exactly, between this world of parable and our own. In Vasenka:

Sonya kisses his forehead—her shout a hole

torn in the sky, it shimmers the park benches, porchlights.
We see in Sonya’s open mouth

the nakedness
of a whole nation.

And in America:

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement
for hours.

We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.

In the open mouth of Sonya and the boy in these poems, we hear the “Never, never, never, never, never” of King Lear’s final despair, or Christ’s “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” on the cross. That America and Vasenka share this language, these images, and therefore the same history means that our current turbulent moment in America inevitably presses into these poems. But then there’s also the awful truth of the matter—that this mad period in our country is unspectacular, even if it is still terrible. As in the poems of Constantine Cavafy, there is a measured but cutting irony throughout these poems which amounts to a rare, refreshing moral incisiveness. The exceptional thing about America, Kaminsky’s work insists, is how we’ve so long ignored our shared story with the rest of the world.

And yet, as in all moments of extremity, there is still life, there is still joy—despite ourselves. Whether it’s the private tenderness of Alfonso watching Sonya in the shower hold her “breasts in [her] hand— / two small explosions,” where the language of war infiltrates their private speech and is transformed into something more secret (and, therefore, more powerful), or Momma Galya declaring, after she becomes Anushka’s guardian in the second act, “She just pooped on the park bench, marvelous cretins!” one of Deaf Republic’s chief virtues is this mixture of tones and dictions, which capture the incongruous but no less complementary textures of life. “To live,” as Alfonso says, “the heart needs a little foolishness!” Or, as the national anthem of Vasenka reminds us: “You must speak not only of great devastation—.”

For this reason, I’m hesitant to label these political poems: every poem, if it honestly engages with the urgencies of the poet’s life, inevitably situates itself into a political reality. Nor am I trying to relitigate a tired (and wrong) argument that so-called political poetry is somehow less artful or less demanding than seemingly less socially concerned modes of writing. What I mean, though, is that Kaminsky’s aim here is as ambitious and unclassifiable as the parables of Kafka, the troubling modern psalms of Paul Celan. (Both are abiding presences in the book.) In fact, the poems are weakest when they cleave too closely to a more conventional civic language outside the strange clarity they achieve elsewhere:

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—
to have a country, so important—

But this is picking at breadcrumbs. Few poets can claim such originality, intensity of feeling and expression, and conscience. In Kaminsky’s first book, Dancing in Odessa, we encounter a poet of overwhelming talent with ardor to match:

Love, a one-legged bird
I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.
O the language of birds

with no word for complaint!—
the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness
drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscurer thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats,
over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, Paul Celan, and Isaac Babel also haunt the pages of Kaminsky’s debut and occasionally hamper the poems: one can feel the pressure of the “Great Ones” bending the poems into lines and music not yet totally fulfilled. In Deaf Republic, we hear the result of Kaminsky’s endeavor—he’s listened hard to the silences between his poems, his poems and the poems of his masters and has returned with lingering harmonies entirely his own, raised to a sky through which God listens but does not speak:

I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright the sky (forgive me) how bright.

Silence, after all, is “something of the sky in us,” as Kaminsky writes in one of the strongest poems in the collection, “Such Is the Story Made of Stubbornness and a Little Air.” I return, in the end, to the silences from Lear, of Cornwall’s servant, the other characters beholding the torture of Gloucester, and those of us in the audience. Silence in this instance only comes alive when it is a conscious choice; silence only comes alive when it is a verb. As in the silence of the servant who refuses to speak for his lord: it would be an obscenity to translate the language of violence. His inaction therefore becomes a moral choice.

The silence of the other characters onstage is, on the other hand, imposed on them—power demands and expects their complicity. But I wonder if there is another silence possible in that scenario: the silencing—that is, through a communally enacted deafness—of Cornwall’s evil command to hold Gloucester down, a language of peace from which Cornwall would be excluded. This is the first kind of silence we find in Vasenka, the silence inhabited by Sonya and Alfonso in the first act, entered into freely and without force, at once setting us apart from and welcoming us into community. In this way—this freedom, this holiness—silence resembles nothing else but love. Confronted with such a choice as I was, in the audience—whose silence will we remain faithful to?—Deaf Republic answers as from the mouth of Cordelia: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.”  

Ilya Kaminsky is the author of three collections of poetry: Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019), Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), and Musica Humana (Chapiteau Press, 2002). He has also coedited and cotranslated many other books, including The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Ecco, 2010) and Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Alice James Books, 2012). He is the recipient of a Whiting Award in poetry, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His poetry has appeared in both the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Kaminsky holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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