Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey
by Ilya Kaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic uses deafness and sign language as a powerful metaphor for the capability to stand up to brutal regimes, the refusal to cooperate with evil, and our shared reactions to the violence of the world. It’s a book about love, the power of communication, horrific evil, and the double edge of silence—“an invention,” says Kaminsky in the book’s end notes, “of the hearing.”
If Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa was a joyful yet unsparing narrative of a boy, and the history of the city he came from, Deaf Republic is something altogether different: more ambitious, more sprawling, more imaginative. An extended metaphor that at once encloses the intimacy of marriage and the shocking aftereffects of violence. A play (it lists characters as “Dramatis Personae” and has sections labeled “Act I” and “Act II”), or a parable about a fictional country and the revolution, deaths, and lives of its people. There are revolutionary puppeteers, soldiers who shoot anyone for deafness or for speaking up, women who seduce soldiers and murder them, soldiers who murder women in the street.
The book begins with the shooting of a young boy, Petya, at a public protest in the fictional country Vasenka, and ends with the revolution over, all the brave insurgents dead. It’s a difficult, angry, angsty fairy tale and, at its heart, a dark warning about the nature of humanity. Did I mention the poems are interspersed with an invented sign language, the language the villagers use to communicate without the soldier’s knowledge?
From “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins”:
Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.
In the name of Petya, we refuse.
At six a.m., when soldiers compliment girls in the alleyways, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears. At eight, the bakery door is shut in soldier Ivanoff’s face, though he’s their best customer. At ten, Momma Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on the gates of the soldiers’ barracks.
By eleven a.m., arrests begin.
Our hearing didn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.
One of the most impressive aspects of Deaf Republic is the way disability—the plague of deafness that the soldiers vow to annihilate—is an expression of rebellion, an act of defiance against inhumanity. (Kaminsky himself is hearing-impaired.) Echoes of the violence in the history of Odessa, which he explored in his first book, resound in this book, along with contemporary news stories. He reframes hearing or not hearing as an act of resistance. From “Checkpoints”:
In the street, soldiers install hearing checkpoints and nail announcements on posts and doors:
DEAFNESS IS A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE. FOR YOUR OWN PROTECTION ALL SUBJECTS IN CONTAMINATED AREAS MUST SURRENDER TO BE QUARANTINED WITHIN 24 HOURS!
And Kaminsky’s characters—a female puppeteer who arranges the murders of soldiers, a pair of newlyweds who celebrate their new pregnancy while stubbornly refusing to bow down to the new order—offer touching glimpses into life before the war. Or despite the war; these characters enjoy entertainment, celebratory sex, and other small joys, although their inevitable massacre is more a foregone conclusion than a surprise.
The framing of the poems “We Lived Happily During the War” and “In a Time of Peace,” both set in America, indicates that Kaminsky has something to say about contemporary American culture. But to fully understand the indictment in these two poems, you have to read the whole story of Deaf Republic: the fictional monstrous behaviors of soldiers, the cowardice and bravery of the invaded country’s populace, the way that silence, murder, revolution, resistance, and sacrifice all fall inevitably together. From the first poem, “We Lived Happily During the War”:
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 poetic forms in this book, which include prose poems, lyric narratives, fragments, and poems in dialogue, indicate a narrative ambition that’s rarely seen in poetry collections. The story that Kaminsky intends to tell could have been contained just as easily in a play or in traditional lyric fiction. But Kaminsky’s ability to juxtapose stark reminders of evil with little pleasures could only be contained within the small, dense spaces of poetry.
Deaf Republic challenges us to think about listening, silence, and communication in a world that regards both violence and joy with dull indifference. As a disabled person myself, it made me think of my disabled body as an instrument of defiance against a world that regards bodies as mere tools or currency. Kaminsky’s work offers a way to consider how we challenge the evils we encounter every day, and how we value the small pleasures offered in the time “between bombardments.”
Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her web site is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6.