Ilya Kaminsky: A Poet At The Height Of His Powers, Questioning Everything
Deaf Republic: Poems
By Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf Press, $16, 80 pages
The poetry world has been waiting for Ilya Kaminsky’s new collection for fifteen years — but this is the book that will bring him wide readership outside of the small yet passionate continent of poetry readers. This is the book that will let readers see that Kaminsky is and has always been a chronicler of humanity itself, an amplifier of all its music, heard and unheard. With this timely, occasionally terrifying, and perfectly structured book, Kaminsky proves something else: that he is also the clear heir to a magnificent tradition rooted in Odessa, his native city, which has produced a long line of distinctive giants of Jewish literature, each of whom traversed languages and continents — and confronted hatred head-on — on their way to literary innovation, and often, literary immortality.
For the uninitiated, Odessa writers do not shy away from difficult material, and have long chronicled political violence. “Deaf Republic” — Kaminsky’s contribution to what might be thought of as the Odessa literary line—is a parable in poetry, and it is about politics and violence, along with silence and speech. The book takes place in a town called Vasenka, which is a feminine form of the Russian name Vasil, meaning “royal.” Still, as I read and reread, I kept thinking about Odessa’s writers, and the lives of men like Odessa-born literary genius Isaac Babel, who was shot to death on Stalin’s orders.
“Deaf Republic” is both personal and communal, from the title onward. Kaminsky has been largely deaf since age 4, so the first part of the title reflects his own experience; but “republic” invokes Plato and the tradition of great philosophical questions, of a dialogue on justice and the role of the state. Kaminsky has always been interested in communal space, global space, and translating his understanding of it for us, so this material isn’t a great departure. His first publication, a chapbook titled “Musica Humana” — made it clear that he was most interested in humanity itself, and this remains what rumbles beneath all his work, and animates his questions.
Structure is part of the artistry of “Deaf Republic” too; it is also what will make it accessible to those who don’t read poetry regularly, because the book serves as a guide to its own world. It begins with one poem set apart from the rest — a frontispiece. This is exactly the structure of Kaminsky’s earlier book, “Dancing in Odessa”; in that book, the frontispiece was “Author’s Prayer,” which begins like this:
If I speak for the dead, I must leave this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over, for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without touching the furniture.
I often return to those lines: “If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge/ of myself.” It is those lines that make me think of a particular subset of dead writers—those who once lived in Odessa, which has a fascinating and multilingual place in Jewish literary history. There is Babel, who wrote in Russian, and was the author of “Red Cavalry,” stories informed by his real-life experience as a Bolshevik war correspondent traveling with the Cossacks during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920, as well as the unforgettable “Odessa Stories” about the characters of the Jewish community there, like Jewish gangsters and their drive for survival; Babel was known for changing his style from story to story, as the translator Peter Constantine has detailed in his helpful translator’s essay in “The Collected Babel.”
There is Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), one of the two fathers of modern Hebrew poetry, who moved to Odessa at 18 to be near two literary giants — the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, and the essayist and philosopher Ahad Ha’am, who wrote in Hebrew.
As I read “Deaf Republic,” I found myself thinking of Bialik, who was orphaned as a child and had his own close-up with violence — he headed a commission to investigate what happened in a bloody pogrom, and spent a month interviewing survivors and witnesses. The result of Bialik’s labor was unforgettable poetry, titled “In the City of Slaughter.” (A Tsarist censor gave it a different title, “The Burden of Nemirov”; the publication of the poem itself was also slowed by the censor, but it was finally printed in December 1903.) When Bialik and others like him left Mother Russia, the influence of literary Odessa, with its mapping of violence, hatred, silence, and speech, moved from Russia to Israel, and from Russian to Yiddish to Hebrew; now, with Kaminsky, the Odessa literary legacy, moves to English.
Kaminsky described, in an interview with the novelist Garth Greenwell in Poets & Writers, how he first encountered poetry — and specifically, the poetry of Osip Mandelstam — while working for free at a newspaper in Odessa. “In the hallway at a newspaper I met an old man with a cane, Valentin Moroz, a legendary Ukrainian-language poet, a man who was often in trouble with the party officials in Soviet days.”
“He was reading Osip Mandelstam in the hallway, sitting next to me in the hallway, unable to sit still, unable to read quietly, unable to pretend that he isn’t inhaling the large gulps of free air with every line of verse. His voice trembling as he read a stanza, then turning to a young deaf boy: “Do you hear? Do you hear? This is Mandelstam, this son of a bitch, Mandelstam, no one writes better than this son of a bitch Mandelstam. Don’t you know this Mandelstam?”
Mandelstam, who was Jewish, was another one of Stalin’s murder victims, and is widely considered one of the four leading Russian poets of the 20th century; the others are Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak. Kaminsky’s experience of Odessa was silent, and his initial encounter with Mandelstam read aloud was different: he did not have hearing aids until the age of 16, when he came to America. And so, this book explores the role of silence, and the role of speech, but it is framed in opening and closing poems that give it timeliness and an urgency, layered over Kaminsky’s timeless subject of what a human being is.
The first poem in Deaf Republic is “We Lived Happily During the War.”
I have already seen this poem taped to colleagues’ doors and shared widely. The title is in the communal voice — “the “we” — but the poem itself alternates between I, we and they. The poem announces that what follows will be public — communal and personal, as the “we” often is. Then it flips to the third-person, and something that might initially seem impersonal, as in the state. The short poem, coupled with the title, makes clear that this is going to be about the republic, about the future of us.
After the frontispiece “We Lived Happily During the War,” the book moves t a Dramatis Personae. Here, too, we know the book is going to be political, because there is an entry for SOLDIERS:
Soldiers — arrives in Vasenka to “protect our freedom,” speaking a language no one understands.
Beyond this, the book is organized in two acts. The reader quickly understands the subtext — we are each acting a particular role, right now, in our personal and political lives. The book is illustrated by drawings of hands making signs. My initial thought was American Sign Language, but I was wrong; the end of the book explains this in a note:
ON SIGNS: In Vasenka, the townspeople invented their own sign language. Some of the signs derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.) Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.
SILENCE: The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.
If there ever was a time to think about the role of language, and the role of silence, our current moment is it, and “Deaf Republic” feels more urgent because of what is happening in America and the world right now. After the opening poem and the Dramatis Personae, the narrative begins with a poem titled “Gunshot” and an arresting first line: “Our country is the stage.”
Next, we get to see the characters introduced in Dramatis Personae — a couple, both puppeteers, named Sonya and Alfonso; a deaf child, soldiers, and puppets — grappling with life, death, resistance, and silence. Soldiers have marched into town, and the townspeople are seen reacting to violence, such as a dead boy’s body lying in the town square in a poem titled “The Townspeople Circle the Boy’s Body”:
The townspeople lock arms to form a circle and another circle around that circle and another circle to keep the soldiers from the boy’s body.
We watch Sonya stand (the child inside her straightens its leg). Someone has given her a sign, which she holds high above her head: THE PEOPLE ARE DEAF.
As the narrative of Deaf Republic continues, it is punctuated by several grand unforgettable questions, asking what a man, woman, and child are. An example:
What is a woman? A quiet between two bombardments.
Then there are the repeated explorations of deafness — what it is and what it isn’t, along with what silence does and does not mean. For example:
What is silence? Something of the sky in us.
There is one moment in this book which feels especially Jewish to me, and that is the two-line imagined trial of God. The idea of witness, a concept explored at length by Jewish thinkers like Elie Wiesel, is also here, and expressed in that razor-sharp combination of personal and political:
Now each of us is a witness stand.
Threaded throughout Deaf Republic are questions, which also function as refrains—What is a man? What is a woman? What is a child? — and these have a tinge of prayer to them. The Yom Kippur prayers are full of medieval poetry exploring what man is. The last poem in this book, set off just as the first poem here is, feels very American. It is clearly about police brutality, and about the image of America versus the reality. “It is a peaceful country,” Kaminsky writes and the reader must ask: is it, really?
So many of us have been asking ourselves what America really is, what the world really is, over the past few tumultuous years. The last poem in “Deaf Republic” considers those omnipresent questions as it melds three perspectives — the I, the we, and the third person “they.” It makes sure that these poems are read as personal, communal, but also as a way of thinking about what seems impersonal, what seems to be happening to someone else, whether it is war or police brutality. It forces us to consider that even if something is not happening to us, we are still witnesses. We “lived happily during the war.”
There is a forced optimism in America, an almost religious insistence on gratitude for the country and its “goodness.” In the last line here, Kaminsky nods to that:
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.
In those parentheses, placed near the end, I heard two other towering poets I have been re-reading lately: Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest whose great poem against despair still asks who, exactly, he was fighting, in his despair, and considers that he was fighting God himself, and who ends his poem with a thought in parentheses:
That night, that year Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
I also heard Elizabeth Bishop and her famous poem “One Art” which chronicles loss, which she terms “the art of losing.” It ends with the unforgettable parenthetical “(Write it!) like disaster”.
Though Hopkins and Bishop had nothing to do with Odessa, they do deal with surviving loss, and survival. They do know something essential about silence and speech. “Deaf Republic” chronicles all sorts of loss, and survival, as it considers both silence and speech; loss is not parenthetical here, but rather, its driving force; the dedication page mentions Kaminsky’s late parents.
This is the work of a poet at the height of his powers questioning everything — questioning what we are all losing and what we have all already lost — and talking back to himself, in the imperative, as Hopkins and Bishop do. Bishop commanded herself to write, and Kaminsky, perhaps, commands himself to ask our forgiveness as he makes us consider that everything we thought we had is only a parable, a fable in verse, a fairy tale playing out on a stage, punctuated by gunshots. Yes, there is joy, and humor, storytelling, and lust here, as there is in Babel’s work, but the reverberating question is closer to what obsessed Odessa’s poets and philosophers, who looked at violence and considered its meaning: why we were silent, why we let ourselves focus—in this moment of all moments — on the brightness of the sky.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner