“why did you allow all this?”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

15 of 100: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (2019, Graywolf Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I hesitate to say anything at all. Everything that needs to be said is contained in the drama depicted in these poems (organized as a two-act play). I want to both read this book over and over and never speak of it again.
  • That stance probably needs some explaining. I will try: Deaf Republic swiftly vacillates between death/violence to sex/love and back again. This is jarring both in a good way and a bad way: the love poems save us from the war in the streets; the war poems devastate us more on account of understanding the love that’s being stolen/interrupted. It continues. The brutality accumulates. Kaminsky succeeds in making everything feel precarious. There is horror everywhere. It exists alongside personal tenderness. These poems create a fear in me, not of a world that’s possible but of a world that is.
  • And how can we save/raise children in the middle it all?
  • Even though the poem portrays a village in the crossfire of war, I most related the lines of these poems to the current gun violence crisis in America: “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 had to stop reading for a few days after I read that line. In the end (the final poem), Kaminsky actually makes this connection, specifically to racially motivated shootings by police. Oh, the horrors that go on in America, that “peaceful country.”
  • There are several very powerful devices deployed in the collection, including the illustrations of signs (as in sign language), portrayal of the town/setting as a character (“Vasenka watches us watch…”) and the presence of puppets (not a metaphor). It took me a while to “get” the puppets. Having just finished the collection this evening, I am still absorbing all of it, but at the moment, for me, the puppets serve as a foil for the humans. Kaminsky practices great restraint in using this device. It could easily be overdone. Instead, the puppets are there as echoes of humans. Their simple presence (which isn’t overstated at all) sets up an inherent contrast with humans. And yet, humans can also be silent and lack volition. And this can be self-preservation. And we can hate them for it.
  • Going into this collection, I had read the frontis poem many times. “We Lived Happily During the War” had been making the rounds online, as it depicts our ability in these times (in any time in human history, of course) to compartmentalize our lives and go on as though everything’s normal… while the other suffers. Kaminsky captures both the shame and necessity of this, and he does so with incredible skill. I’ve tried to figure out how the poem so gracefully implicates everyone, all of us, without pointing a finger, but the only thing I have been able to attribute it to is the use of the first person. The “I” in this poem is as guilty and imperfect as everyone else: “around my bed America // was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house– // I took a chair outside and watched the sun.” I will never tire of this poem. It will always force me to contemplate the meaning of “complicit” over and over again.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “Sonya kisses his forehead–her shout a hole // torn in the sky, it shimmers the park benches, porchlights. / We see in Sonya’s open mouth // the nakedness / of a whole nation.”
  • “Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. / In the name of Petya, we refuse.”
  • “They fire / as the crowd of women flees inside the nostrils of searchlights // — may God have a photograph of this — / … Tonight / we don’t die and don’t die, // the earth is still, / a helicopter eyeballs my wife– // On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky // because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky.”
  • “quiet hisses like a match dropped in water.”
  • “Soaping together / is sacred to us. / Washing each other’s shoulders. // You can fuck / anyone–but with whom can you sit / in water?”
  • “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?”
  • “the flag is the towel the wind dries its hands on.”
  • I do not hear gunshots, / but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky / as the avenue spins on its axis. / How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.”

What others have said:

  • from Los Angeles Review of Books: “This complicated relationship with silence allows Kaminsky to define deafness not in relation to hearing but rather on its own terms. In a book about power and its abuse, this point is worth taking seriously. Kaminsky demands that we reevaluate our own language — about deaf culture, about silence itself — in a time when language in the larger, cultural public square has never been more vitriolic.”
  • from The New York Times: “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.”
  • from PANK: “Deaf Republic may be described as a hybrid, with text on a continuum between prose and poetry with each piece a dramatic monologue that moves the story forward. The intention, shape, and scope of the piece, a play, mostly poetry, intended to be read rather than staged, puts the text in the tradition of Closet Drama, a form that had some popularity during the Elizabethan and Jacobian periods and among the nineteenth century romantics. … This is political writing at its best–not ideological or hectoring poster board invective but the sound of human anguish–read the poems, weep, and be shaken.”
  • from Barrelhouse Magazine: “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.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

  • A large excerpt (12 poems) from the collection is available here in The New Yorker

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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