Reviewed by Caleb Curtiss
Last December, while introducing Ilya Kaminsky at Harvard University's Woodbury Poetry Room where he was to read from his new manuscript, Fanny Howe gestured to a screen that hung over the dais, commenting:
If you watch neo-realist movies from Italy to Tokyo, France and Moscow to Berlin, you will recognize the threatened landscape of Ilya's imagination and experience. The screen here, with his poems on it, will eerily be a reminder of subtitles in movies: you won't know which to watch.
This moment, preserved on Harvard's YouTube channel, gives way to a performance by Kaminsky who shares from his second book, Deaf Republic, a bracing literary accomplishment that challenges traditional conceptions of the domains in which poetry can succeed. Howe is right to frame Kaminsky's work as cinematic in nature. Presented as a script, perhaps for a stage play, Deaf Republic reads as a bildungsroman of sorts as it focuses upon the lives of the Barbinski family—Alfonso, Sonya, and later, their child Anushka—to tell the story of Vasenka and its occupation. The people of Vasenka, Kaminsky tells us, function throughout the book as a kind of chorus. The town itself, while fictional, could easily be thought of as Kaminsky's native Odessa, a connection he treats with a light touch, allowing the boundaries of place to bleed into the general landscape of parable.
Early on, we watch anxiously as Petya, a young boy who is deaf, mocks an occupying soldier. "Everyone freezes except Petya, who keeps giggling. Someone claps a hand over his mouth." Their exchange ends with the soldier shooting the boy and leaving his body where it falls for the whole town to see. This wanton act of murder registers as an unspeakable trauma for Vasenka, prompting the townspeople to respond by absorbing the boy's deafness, appropriating it as both a means of memorializing Petya and of protesting his murder: "Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. / In the name of Petya, we refuse." Bewildered by this development, the occupying forces begin to treat deafness as a crime, as we see in "Checkpoints":
In the streets, 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!
Here, the soldiers grasp something about Vasenka's collective action several beats before Kaminsky reveals the full scope of power suggested by the town's communal deafness. The occupation's brutal response to what initially looks like a benign threat helps shift the fabulist tone implied by the book's central premise into a more urgent, eerily contemporary space. It is quite a feat to watch as Kaminsky repeatedly brushes up against these fabulist and dystopian tropes without allowing them to overtake the work itself as he manages instead to wield their import as a means of defamiliarizing certain iterations of violence and oppression that many in his American readership have come to dissociate from their own society.
As the people of Vasenka carry on with their lives, their deafness offers itself up for a close reading. The people of Vasenka neither hear nor talk, but through sign language, they continue to listen and to speak with one another, in effect shifting their means of communication to a wavelength that precludes their occupiers' participation: "In these avenues, deafness is our only barricade." Shortly after Petya's death, we see a scene in "The Townspeople Circle the Boy's Body" wherein the people of Vasenka form a kind of boundary, a line the soldiers cannot cross, as Sonya cradles the boy's body where it fell: "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." This image might best explain the power of Vasenka's deafness: a circle made up of people who face inward, focusing their energy on one another, creating a space where they are unoccupied. And yet Kaminsky finds space for us, his reader, within this circle by way of a remarkably effective creative decision: the signs Vasenka uses appear to us as visual diagrams throughout the text.
At first blush, these graphic representations seem a bit out of place in a book of poems, though it does not take long for them to do their work. Like complementary subtitles that appear at the bottom of our screen, we come to recognize them as instructions that eventually show us how to see certain events of Deaf Republic as if we ourselves were conscripted as members of its chorus. Kaminsky labels a pair of adjacent fists pressed together at the sides, index fingers extended as "Army convoy"; the backs of two hands, crossed at the wrists and displaying an inward-facing peace, or perhaps a victory sign, stands for "The town watches." That these illustrations are translated with captions creates yet another layer of interpretation for the reader to digest as they become central to each page on which they appear. In the book's end notes, Kaminsky explains the origins of his 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.
This particular distinction helps bolster the sense that the signs presented in Deaf Republic serve as neither reduction nor simplification of the circumstances they stand for; rather, each stands on its own as a compressed signifier for an unspeakable experience—indeed, the very unspeakability of Vasenka's experience is part of what they signify as the signs themselves define the language of a people who have been made subject to the flattening gaze of a powerful other. Neither a part of, nor separate from the poems they appear alongside, each image serves simultaneously as Vasenka's collective voice and as a metatext that directs and informs our gaze as the narrative rives and coheres from poem to poem. All the while, the very fact of these signs as they exist on the page represent and celebrate Vasenka's defiance in the face of an existential threat.
At the heart of this defiance lies Alfonso and Sonya's unwillingness to foreclose on their personal lives in favor of the public tragedy that seems to be overtaking them—an idea Kaminsky actualizes in his tender and at times deeply intimate portrayals of the Barbinskis: “In a bombed-out street, wind moves the lips of a politician on a poster. Inside, the child Sonya named Anushka suckles. Not sleeping, Alfonso touches his wife's nipple, pulls to his lips a pearl of milk.”
In 2004, Kaminsky published his first collection, Dancing in Odessa, which tells, in part, his own story: that of a kid who grows up in the Soviet Bloc only to relocate and settle in the United States as a teenager; a young man diagnosed with severe permanent hearing loss when he was a child, who could not forget his own experiences or the stories of those who came before him. In a 2014 interview for the anthology Heart to Art: Interviews with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Artists and Their Allies, Kaminsky discusses his hearing loss, commenting:
In a Russian grade school, being deaf was often thought equal to being mentally unstable. Being both deaf and Jewish made things even more complicated. So I refused to wear hearing aids as a kid. I had the illusion that if I didn't talk to others, my deafness would disappear.
After his family moved to Rochester, New York, Kaminsky describes the impact of his culture shock, both as an immigrant and as a person with hearing loss.
I had no choice but to wear hearing aids for the first time in my life since my Russian lipreading skills were basically useless in American high schools. The attitudes to deafness in this country are vastly different: My classmates regarded my TTY as some sort of "magic boxes" that allowed me to "secretly" communicate with the teacher during the class—and I was more than happy to let them have that illusion!
While these experiences may have played a more explicit role in his first book, their presence can still be felt as they guide the broader thematic strokes of Deaf Republic, where the ground is ever shifting, and the invisible is made manifest.
As Vasenka defines its identity around its deafness, it grows into an ungovernable sovereignty that speaks to a broader truth of the human condition: as members of a self-defined society, we are inextricably linked to, and reliant upon one another. In his 1960 book-length essay, Crowds and Power, Bulgarian Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti speaks to this paradox: "A nation's consciousness of itself changes when, and only when, its symbol changes. It is less immutable than one supposes, a fact which offers some hope for the continued existence of mankind." Undergirded by the notion that, as individuals, we exist in a fixed relationship with a common signifier that defines our understanding of the group in which we exist, Canetti argues that a shift in this relationship can produce dramatic social change—change not dissimilar from what we see from the people of Vasenka. Kaminsky offers a key as to how this might be so in his essay, "Of The Strangeness That Wakes Us," in which he quotes the poet Joseph Brodsky, to whom he is often compared due in part to their shared background as Russian-speaking English language poets from the former USSR.:
I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won't resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than Russian. To write about them in Russian would be only to further their captivity, their reduction to insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation.
As a second language allowed Brodsky to tell a Russian story as it could not have been told in his native tongue, the signs in Deaf Republic allow Kaminsky to show his readers a new symbol through which we can redefine our relationship to a story that is currently being told today in the streets of Crimea and the West Bank, Belfast and Minneapolis, Chicago and Harare, in the shadows of our own hearts and in every crowd that gathers across the globe.