blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
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 prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you.” So states Socrates to his jurors after he is sentenced to death in Plato’s Apology of Socrates. The philosopher goes on to say, “If you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable.” The same indictment might be applied to the soldiers and the occupying force in Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic.

A prologue poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” opens the book with the lines “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough,” and closes with:

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. (3)

The poem is an allegory, I presume, for the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and highlights the average American’s lack of compassion to the suffering of those affected by a war in which they (we) cannot fathom or understand because they (we) have not suffered through it. As a rhetorical strategy, allegory persists throughout Deaf Republic.

What follows is essentially a two-act play in verse that opens with the shooting of a young deaf boy, Petya, by a soldier in the occupied town of Vasenka, and the gunshot renders the entire town deaf. In the Dramatis Personae, the author presents the reader with a list of characters, one of whom is the “Townspeople of Vasenka” who serve as “the chorus, ‘we’ who tell the story,” the first of many parallels to Greek tragedy. After all, Greek tragedy was originally sung and considered verse. The first poem of Act One, “Gunshot,” serves as the parodos and introduces Alfonso and Sonya, two puppeteers, and Sonya’s cousin Petya who, after he spits in the face of a soldier, is shot in the street. The poem ends with the haunting “The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water” (11), as the gunshot deafens the entire town.

In frank and austere, yet highly lyrical verse, Kaminsky chronicles the aftermath of the shooting and how members of the town come together and perform small yet courageous acts of protest against an oppressive regime while others refuse to participate, instead remaining silent to the atrocities that unfold, all of which are the result of the brutal murder of a child at the hands of, essentially, an officer of the law.

Witness plays a crucial role in Deaf Republic. In “As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face with a Newspaper,” the townspeople “watch Sonya kneel by Petya” (12), and, later, “Fourteen of us watch: / Sonya kisses his forehead—her shout a hole / torn in the sky” (12). Further on in the collection, “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves” begins with “I watched the Sergeant aim, the deaf boy take iron and fire in his throat” (16). In another poem “We see the Sergeant stop a woman on her way to the market, . . . He loads her into a truck. He stops another. She does not hear. He loads her into a truck” (22), and when Sonya herself is arrested, “We watch four men shove / her—” (32).

It is difficult to say whether these instances of “watching” are acts of witness and testimony or a commentary on the bystander effect—on silence as complicity. Are the townspeople silenced and paralyzed by terror and fear, or by cowardice? In “The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso,” the chorus confesses, “We let them take him, all of us cowards” (43); however, the poem both opens and closes with the refrain “Now each of us is / a witness stand” (43), invoking the tradition of testimony. One refrain that exists in the collection, spoken by the chorus, is the command: “Observe this moment / —how it convulses—” (12, 16). We, the reader, are told by the townspeople to observe these atrocities and to bear witness to them, to not look away or ignore them, even when it might be easier, more comfortable, to do so.

Throughout Deaf Republic, Kaminsky inserts images of the sign language the townspeople invent in order to communicate with one another. The hand signals typically follow heartbreaking and traumatizing scenes. When Sonya, for instance, is killed by a firing squad, “Sonya looks straight ahead, to where the soldiers are lined up. Suddenly, out of this silence comes her voice, Ready! The soldiers raise their rifles in her command” (33). Below this final line is the sign for “The town watches,” the most frequent sign in the collection, signaling both the town’s witness and their helplessness. Other signs that appear represent the words “Hide,” “Story,” “Earth,” and “Be Good.” The signs themselves serv as another form of silence, forcing the reader to pause at a language that is not phonemic and therefore requires interpretation.

Greek tragedy teaches us that we are powerless to alter the will of the gods and that human error or misjudgment, what Aristotle called hamartia, is inevitable. Yet Kaminsky reminds us over and over again that our fate rests solely in our own hands. In “Alfonso Stands Unanswerable,” Alfonso speaks “Lord, such fire // from a match you never lit” (15), hinting that the townspeople’s resistance is of their own free will. Toward the end of the first act, “A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck” closes with the couplet:

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this? (40)

Each act of evil is committed by man, but man also has the sole power to stop that evil—the gods have no hand in it. It is only when Alfonso gives up his free will that he seals his demise. In “I, This Body,” Alfonso relents: “I, this body into which the hand of God plunges, / empty-chested, stand” (36). The defeated suppliant who has given up all hope, relinquishing their fate to the gods, it is in these lines that Alfonso himself becomes the puppet and God the puppeteer. The image is rendered complete when, eight poems later, “Alfonso hangs from a rope. Urine darkens his trousers” (44), the hangman’s noose serving as the puppet’s strings.

Between these moments of resistance and devastating acts of terror, Kaminsky reveals the tender intimacies of the citizen’s private lives: a child is born and, later, takes its first steps, a wedding and lovemaking are remembered and recounted. In one scene from “While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses,” a husband and wife bathe each other; the poem ends with Alfonso declaring, “You can fuck / anyone—but with whom can you sit / in water?” (29). In another poem, appropriately titled “Question,” the speaker asks: “What is a child?” and immediately answers: “A quiet between two bombardments” (28). The book reminds us over and over again that to love is perhaps, itself, an act of resistance. In the same scene with the bathtub, Alfonso calls out in exultation: “I am of deaf people / and I have / no country but a bathtub and an infant and a marriage bed!” (29). In the poem that immediately follows this one, the chorus commands:

Vasenka citizens do not know they are evidence of happiness.

In a time of war,
each is a ripped-out document of laughter. (30)

Even after Alfonso’s death, “Eulogy” returns to this idea of happiness. Three times the chorus proclaims, “You must speak not only of great devastation—,” the first instance followed by the explanation: “we heard that not from a philosopher / but from our neighbor, Alfonso” (45).

In Act Two we are given a few of these moments devoid of devastation. An orphan now, the baby Anushka is stolen from the soldiers by Momma Galya Armolinskaya who cares for her. Even in the aftermath of death, life must continue. In “The Little Bundles,” Momma Galya speaks:

Anushka, your pajamas—
they are the final meanings of my life.

To get you into your pajamas,

So much to live for. (58)

The owner of a puppet theater that is a front for a brothel, Momma Galya instigates the insurgency: her girls kill soldiers backstage during performances. Eventually, however, the soldiers begin to punish the town “for what Galya’s girls did” (62), and certain of the townspeople turn on Galya, blaming her resistance for the soldier’s actions, an anger misplaced.

In the last scenes of Galya’s life, she is attacked by her fellow townspeople and “Gracefully, our people shut their windows” (68). The townspeople ultimately choose to ignore injustice. Finally, too, when the resistance is over and the town has surrendered, the privilege of denial reigns: “Years later, some will say none of this happened; the shops were open, we were happy and went to see puppet shows in the park” (71).

Deaf Republic is, at its core, a book of rebellion, but it is also one of silence. Not only the silence of the townspeople who lose their hearing, but also silence as a symbol for the fear and cowardice to stand up against injustice—our collective silence in the face of atrocity. Throughout the collection, we are presented with a world that is not our own but bears a striking resemblance to the one we inhabit. An image that appears early on in the book is of Sonya’s open mouth, a mouth in which “We see . . . / the nakedness / of a whole nation” (12). The book closes with a coda or epilogue set apart from the two acts and, similar to the prologue, is set in America. The poem presents the lines:

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

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

We watch. Watch
others watch.

The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy—

It is a peaceful country. (75-76)

In these lines, Kaminsky faces the stark truth of a country—and the suggested truth of America, its failures and its shortcomings—and strips it bare for us, its citizens, to witness and to confront.  

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