By Ilya Kaminsky
The scholar of religion Albert Blackwell has remarked of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” that its “chorales are not dramatic music, but they impart musical drama.” Hymn verses appear five times in the oratorio, descending through the keys of E, E-flat and C major toward the darkness and radical tonal uncertainty of the Crucifixion itself. For others, like the directors Jonathan Miller and Peter Sellars, the drama of this musical work has required actual staging.
It could be said of the poet and critic Ilya Kaminsky’s new book, “Deaf Republic” — his second full-length collection — that it is not dramatic poetry, but that it imparts poetic drama. What is essentially a collection of lyric poems is presented as if it were a play in two acts, including a list of “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning. The characters, setting and action of this non-play seem to derive in an enigmatic way from the facts of Kaminsky’s own life — he is described as “hard of hearing,” was born in Odessa when it was part of the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States at the age of 16 knowing no English — and in a direct way from his identity as a sentient human being in an age of global warfare against civilians. These poems bestow the power of sacred drama on a secular martyrology.
[Read Ilya Kaminsky’s essay for The Times Magazine about returning to the Odessa of his childhood.]
Set in a town called Vasenka under martial law and including a chorus of townspeople as in ancient Greek drama, “Deaf Republic” traces the consequences of the murder of a deaf boy who spits at a sergeant while attending a puppet show (public gatherings have been outlawed) in the town square. This gives rise to an insurrection organized by a Mother Courage figure and puppeteer named Galya Armolinskaya in which some of the townspeople feign deafness to the soldiers as a gesture of civil disobedience. That deafness, however, is a morally ambiguous condition, for as Kaminsky presents it, it may be in one moment a kind of self-quarantine from surrounding corruption and at another an expression of the human tendency to remain indifferent to others’ suffering. One poem declares, “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens,” while another includes the double-edged line “deafness is our only barricade.”
In a narrative that is depressingly familiar to anyone who follows today’s news, citizens are tortured and executed amid the horror of what emerges as a small-town civil war. It claims the lives of the newlyweds Alfonso and Sonya Barabinski, also puppeteers, whose erotic life flowers in the birth of Anushka, a child of the insurgency. Puppets are hung on the porches and doors of those arrested, like tokens for the angel of death. Briefly the rebellion gains the upper hand; one soldier is publicly executed, and others are strangled after being intoxicated by women. But by Act II, mass reprisals against citizens are taking place, and the soldiers are firebombing the stores of those suspected of participating in the rebellion. The cycle of repression and retribution appears to be unending. And lest any reader take comfort in the distance provided by reading these poems as parables rather than as news, Kaminsky begins the volume with a poem titled “We Lived Happily During the War,” and elsewhere twice declares, “Our country is the stage.” The complacency of the United States, in the face of the wars it has made or supported, is as inescapable as its indictment.
“Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands,” goes the verse in the Gospel of Matthew describing the mocking of Christ. And that act of spitting — the ultimate gesture of hatred and contempt — recurs throughout “Deaf Republic.” Poetry lives by specifics (indeed, this is what makes it the most effective weapon against demagogy and tyranny), and Kaminsky is wonderfully attentive to such repeating patterns of details, contributing to the impression that his book is a through-composed whole, rather than simply a sequence of individual poems. Civilian warfare is conjured most effectively through occasional vivid images: “Trolleys burst like intestines in the sun.”
It is possible to speak of the deaf, referring to the physical condition, or the Deaf, referring to the cultural group. By situating these poems in a country at war, Kaminsky forces the reader to consider both the ways in which we define our social belonging and the loyalties according to which we operate. Sign languages used by deaf people vary according to country and geographical region. Interspersed in Kaminsky’s text are pictographs depicting two human hands (the fingers steepled, for example, to indicate “town”), belonging to a sign language that the book’s notes indicate was invented by the citizens of Vasenka as they “tried to create a language not known to authorities.” Kaminsky’s poems also engage with “Deaf gain,” the idea that there is a positive advantage to communication that is beyond verbal language, as they do with “audism,” the stance of cultural superiority based on the ability to hear. In “Deaf Republic,” hearing is a liability, and deafness is both an asset and a challenge, leading to the defiant declaration that “The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.” The only silence in this book comes from God, who witnesses and does nothing: “Such is the story made of stubbornness and a little air— / a story signed by those who danced wordless before God.”
The poet Anthony Hecht found in Kaminsky “a superb and vigorous imagination, a poetic talent of rare and beautiful proportions,” and part of the power of “Deaf Republic” lies in its exercise of the imagination, rather than what Kaminsky has identified as the “relentless search for irony in things.” There is irony, of course, when those who have been deaf to the suffering of others (and will be so again) choose to feign deafness as an eloquent response to oppression. But that is no easy irony. And “Deaf Republic” is no easy book. A visit to this republic will not leave the reader unchanged.