Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘Deaf Republic’

National Poetry Month: A long-anticipated new collection infuses beauty and irony into a dystopian war epic

Jake Marmer
April 15, 2019

Russian Jews speak of the war the way others speak about God or fate. Even those who, like myself, were born two generations after World War II ended, grew up in a space where stories of terrors and survival loomed so large that they dwarfed everything else life had to offer. And, in the absence of religious beliefs and traditions, in the unthinkably far mental distance from biblical or Talmudic narratives, it was the family lore of war stories that constituted the sacred text of the Russian Jewish experience.

This is why I read Ilya Kaminsky’s long-anticipated new poetry collection, Deaf Republic, as a sacred Russian Jewish ritual, taking shape in the new language, in the new country. The book is an epic, consisting of thematically linked poems, all set in a small town, which is occupied by an unnamed, brutal army. The citizens attempt to preserve their humanity as they grieve and resist. The epic opens with a defiant act by a young deaf boy, Petya, whose murder is implied in the space between the first and second poems. Petya is a mythic sacrifice whose death frames the tropes of resistance that appear throughout the book further on: “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens,” reads one poem. “In these avenues, silence is our only barricade,” reads another.

There is something defamiliarized and dystopian about the epic. Though some of the characters and street names are clearly Russian, others are not: The main character, Alfonso Babinsky, the puppeteer, bears a hybrid name that seems to bridge the whole breadth of Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Ukraine and Russia. The soldiers, on the contrary, are utterly faceless, devoid of any identity or affiliation. Horror and suffering are central to the book, but somehow, so is humor, and even bawdiness.

Ilya Kaminsky is an Odessa-born Ukrainian Jew who came to the United States with his family as refugees in 1993. When Kaminsky’s debut poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, came out, it won a number of prestigious awards and accolades from all across the poetry world. In the opening prose poem of that book, Kaminsky wrote: “My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices. On a crowded trolley, a one-armed man said that my life would be mysteriously linked to the history of my country.” It is as if deafness—which Kaminsky was, indeed, diagnosed with at the age of 4—is linked to a certain personal mythopoesis, to a sense of both alienation and chosenness.

Fifteen years have passed between the author’s first and second books. In the age of MFA programs and the incessant obsession with publication and visibility, that is an unthinkably long time. It is as if the sad race that characterizes the life of many contemporary American poets and writers simply was not applicable to Kaminsky. Moreover, the work that occurred between the two volumes offers an instructive and inspiring alternative to the race. In the space of these years, Kaminsky has established what may be termed his “poetic lineage”: In defining his worldview as a poet, through creative and scholarly writing, he paid homage to the poets of the past, whose works profoundly impacted him.

One example of this is Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, which Kaminsky co-translated with poet Jean Valentine. The two authors culled an exquisite selection of poems and excerpts from notebooks by this iconic Russian poet, remembered by her unforgettable line, in Kaminsky and Valentine’s translation: “In this most Christian of worlds/all poets—are Jews.”

Relatedly, Kaminsky wrote an introduction to Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, in Christian Wiman’s translation. In brief and powerful strokes it outlines the history of Russian poetry, and contextualizes Mandelstam, another iconic Russian Soviet poet, murdered in Stalin’s purges. Kaminsky reminds readers that Mandelstam approached Russian as a “non-native speaker” (the poet’s family bought their way out of the Pale of Settlement), and asserts that “no great lyric poet ever speaks in the ‘proper’ language of his or her time … a lyric poet wakes up the language: the speech is revealed to us in a new unexpected syntax, in music, in ways of organizing the silences in the mouth.” There is little doubt why this matters to Kaminsky himself, a Ukrainian Jewish poet, who writes in English, for an English-speaking public. In understanding Mandelstam in this fashion, Kaminsky is coming to an understanding of himself as a poet.

Kaminsky’s other projects—translations, anthologies, introductions—are all works of poetic citizenship, aimed at nurturing readership of the writings by others. Nearly every single one of the volumes is a collaboration, a work done in the company of other writers, and in that way, an invitation to the readers to approach and embrace poetry in the same way. The only pleasure that rivals the pleasure of reading poetry is that of reading it with others.

Perhaps the single most unusual work in the Kaminsky oeuvre is A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, which he co-edited with poet Katherine Towler. A collection of essays and interviews on the subject of faith, the book would seem anathema to the contemporary scene of American poetry, a space where faith is often something of an untouchable, undesirable subject matter. Yet, as the two poets state in the introduction, one day, over a friendly lunch, they found themselves speaking of religious experiences, and thus, their book is one that stemmed from the “desire to extend our conversation to other writers.”

In that way, Deaf Republic is nurtured by a commitment to poetry as a form of resistance, dialogue, and a noble spiritual vocation—ethos that hearkens back to poetry’s origins and its power. Kaminsky’s engagement with Soviet poets who wrote in the face of authoritarian regimes, and for whom poetry had unthinkably high stakes, imbues this work with urgency and pathos. Consider these lines from “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves”:

They tear Gora’s wife from her bed like a door off a bus.
Observe this moment
—how it convulses—
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.
I touch the walls, feel the pulse of the house, and I
stare up wordless and do not know why I am alive.

The two similes, bus door and paper clip, are striking because they refer to objects that are utterly mundane and seem to have relevance only in a world at peace. The violently assaulted humans being likened to these objects underscores the absurdity and irreconcilability of war and peace. Is it even possible to think of a paper clip in the same way, after reading this poem?

“Observe this moment,” says Alfonso Babinsky, and with him, the poet—but to whom does he say it? To us or to God, as in a later poem: “may God have a photograph of this”? To observe the moment’s “convulsions” is both a terrible and transcendent activity: It is as if one notices the very fabric of existence and time undergoing violent shocks.

Regardless, the senses are engaged and employed to their utmost in this excerpt: not only vision (“observe”), but also the touch (“I touch … feel the pulse”), and yet the sound is poignantly absent. It is as if Petya’s silence—the eternal silence of the murdered deaf boy—is now shared by all the characters in the book, as well as the readers.

The poems in Deaf Republic are juxtaposed with drawn gestures in sign language—“The town watches,” “Hide,” “Match,” “Curtain,” and more. Placed in the context of the poems, the gestures are hieroglyphic, expansive, and fraught in their brevity.

Certain isolated lines are haiku-esque, realistic yet almost spiritual in the intensity of the moments they capture: “In a bombed-out street, wind moves the lips of a politician on a poster” runs one line, eerie and apocalyptic. Another line, similarly vivid yet nearly surreal: “The arrested are made to walk with their arms raised up as if they are about to leave the earth and are trying out the wind.”

At times, a certain sense of naiveté seems to course through the poems. It is particularly apparent in representations of the soldiers that descend on the peaceful town. If Hannah Arendt spoke famously of the banality of evil, in Kaminsky’s rendering it is the “anonymity of evil.” Is it actually possible to have destructive forces without backstories, without history, or conflict of their own? Then again, the blankness of the army is ghostlike, almost hallucinatory, and perhaps, points not so much to an outside, occupying force, but rather the one in our midst. “In a Time of Peace,” the closing poem in this collection, describes a familiar scene: “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. In the car window. Shoots.” Later, the poet is even more explicit and accusatory: “It is a peaceful country./And it clips our citizens’ bodies/effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails.”

The most moving aspect of the collection is Kaminsky’s ability to infuse beauty and even irony into this difficult work. This irony is most apparent in the quotable and memorable “Galya’s Toast,” at once a nod to the tradition of elaborate toast-making and to the genre of praise poetry:

To your voice, a mysterious virtue,
to the twenty-six bones of one foot, the four dimensions of breathing,
to pine, redwood, sword fern, peppermint,
to hyacinth and bluebell lily,
to the train conductor’s donkey on a rope,
to the smell of lemons, a boy pissing splendidly against the trees.
Bless each thing on earth until it sickens,
until each ungovernable heart admits: I confused myself
and yet I loved—and what I loved
I forgot, what I forgot brought glory to my travels,
to you I traveled as close as I dared, Lord.

And to that, l’chaim.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).