I did not know I craved poetry about Eastern Europe until encountering Ilya Kaminsky’s work. In his 2004 debut Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press), the way Kaminsky wove cultural identity and politics together spoke to my experience as an immigrant whose parents lived through the disappearance of the Soviet Union, as well as my own questions of identity and the legacy of trauma. In Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019), Kaminsky repeats this success, transporting readers to the fictional town of Vasenka, which is in an unnamed and occupied country. Together, they serve as the backdrop for an exploration of the ways in which we are sometimes willingly deaf, whether socially, culturally, or politically, to the hardships of those next to us, to say nothing of those living on another continent. Kaminsky draws our attention to the way history continues to repeat itself, despite both the allegorical and historical examples we readily have at our disposal that should prevent us from making the same mistakes, reminding me of the Russian expression “stepping on a rake,” which refers to the perpetuation of past mistakes and the inability to learn from them.
In the opening poem, “We Lived Happily during the War,” Kaminsky points out that distance appears to influence our level of empathy. The collective “we” addresses the fact that, even today, our responses to the horrors happening elsewhere are “not enough.” Since we, the assumed readers, are living in “our great country of money,” we are not living through that reality of danger and suffering that others are and can therefore escape from it whenever we want, “liv[ing] happily during the war.” The “Dramatis Personae,” which is located right after the opening poem and lists the various “characters” in the collection as if in a play, further heightens this tension between us and them, reality and fantasy. In both dichotomies, the latter is always considered to be removed from the present and located at a safe distance, allowing for a privileged examination and dissection of it. Judith Butler speaks to the anxiety that arises when that which is deemed fantastical, or “theatrical,” cannot be removed from the real in her 1988 essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” writing: “In the theatre, one cay say, ‘this is just an act,’ and de-realize the act, make acting into something quite distinct from what is real […whereas on] the street or in the bus, the act becomes dangerous […] precisely because there are no theatrical conventions to delimit the purely imaginary character of the act[.]”
Divided into two “acts”—the first telling the story of Sonya and Alfonso, while the second focuses more on Momma Galya and the consequences of the first act—Deaf Republic is a collection driven by narrative and sharp wit in equal measure, as Kaminsky tells us, in “Soldiers Aim at Us,” that “On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky: / each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky.” The poems in Deaf Republic are tenderly real, showing its readers the moments of happiness and intimacy that continue to exist even in times of struggle and chaos, like in “While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses,” as Alfonso tells us: “Soaping together / is sacred to us. / Washing each other’s shoulders. / You can fuck/ anyone—but with whom can you sit/ in water?” Kaminsky is strategic with how he structures the collection, as the second act about Momma Galya gives weight to the fast-paced, action-driven first act, with the final poem of the collection, “In a Time of Peace,” serving as a culmination that speaks directly to anyone who is still skeptical about why history matters to us here and now.
In his 1941 book, The Art of Color and Design, the painter and design theorist Maitland E. Graves theorized that there are seven elements of design, such as line and color, that can be found in every design ever created. In Deaf Repubic, Kaminsky plays with this concept as he structures the world readers are transported to. Kaminsky captures an atmosphere through small details like the town square that, for me, felt hauntingly familiar, playing into my memories of Ukraine, as well as the stories my parents would tell, of growing up in the city and a town when the country was still a Soviet republic. Deaf Republic has an element of authenticity to it that things like Sokovia, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, lack because Kaminsky does not push details over the thin line that separates fact from stereotypes. Instead, poems like “Checkpoints” are allowed to contain multiple meanings that are picked up differently by different readers; for me, the announcement that “Deafness is a contagious disease” invoked the Russification my late grandfather spoke of and the secondary status of the Ukrainian language when he was growing up, speaking also more broadly to the ongoing linguistic tensions and oppressions that go back to the time of Stalin.
Perhaps the most important and fascinating parts of Deaf Republic are the drawings of hand signs found throughout the collection. Partially invented and partially “derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.),” the signs frequently repeat the same word or phrase several times over the course of the collection, adding emphasis as well as weight to the situation captured by a particular poem. The signs are not only a form of descent the villagers create to protest the murder of the boy, Petya; they are also a recurring visual reminder of the tension between action and inaction in such situations of violence, and of the different forms that political dissent can have.
It is helpful to see the animated versions created by Miwon Yoon for a New Yorker preview of Deaf Republic from 2019; Yoon’s illustrations emphasize and build on the theatrical quality of the “Dramatis Personae” by, at times, invoking stage directions and recalling the role of the Chorus in Greek drama. “Galya’s Puppeteers” is one of the most powerful instances of this because of the way the hand gesture compliments the poem. The words Be good, symbolized by both hands curved together as if moulding a ball, carry all the emotional weight of the female puppeteer and women of Vasenka in one simple gesture in a way that words can never quite capture.
For those who enjoy Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, it is worth noting another poetry collection that echoes many of the same themes while complimenting them with its own contribution on the subject of loss and language: Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, 2018). One of my favourite lines in Deaf Republic can be found in the “Notes” section at the very end, which feels like a poem in itself, as Kaminsky writes: “On Silence: Deaf people don’t believe in silence. It is the invention of the hearing.” Antrobus’s poetry echoes this concern by illuminating how able-centric our current society is, and there is a fluid bridge-like relationship between the two collections that is rewarding as much for their differences as it is for their similarities.
In and of itself, Deaf Republic is an exploration of the different kinds of emptiness, the different forms of silence, and the question of complacency, particularly for those who simply take in news of war and atrocity and do nothing, “Our silence stand[ing] up for us.” Deaf Republic is a rich collection that keeps giving no matter how many times you reread it, whose power only strengthens the more you sit with it. Kaminsky reminds us that there is room for humour in difficult situations and topics—how can you not love Momma Galya Armolinskaya yelling “Deafness isn’t an illness! It’s a sexual position!”? He also gets us to look inward first, at our own actions, instead of rushing off in search for a cosmic power to blame, since “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?”