Ilya Kaminsky’s much-anticipated second collection is an intricately crafted narrative that orbits the question of silence—silence in a time of unrest, political upheaval, and state violence. Winner of a Whiting Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union and is now one of the most well-known and acclaimed voices in contemporary poetry.
Told in two “Acts” preceded by a “Dramatis Personae” detailing Kaminsky’s cast of ill-fated characters, “Deaf Republic” tells the story of the fictional town of Vasenka, which falls silent after the military murder of a young deaf boy. Act One follows a young married couple, Sonya and Alfonso, who are expecting their first child; poems of violence and oppression intermingle with poems like “Still Newlyweds” and “Before the War, We Made a Child.” Act Two follows Momma Galya and her revolutionary puppeteers, women who lure occupying soldiers to their deaths. As the poems continue, images of hand signs the townspeople use to communicate with each other appear on the page, words like “hide” and “the town watches.”
While a triumphant ending to the long-form parable would have been satisfying, Kaminsky does not give readers this satisfaction—nor does he provide straightforward answers to his questions of deafness and voice. “We Lived Happily During the War,” the poem that precedes both Acts as a kind of prologue, stirs the reader’s consciousness without overt judgment: “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.” When the town of Vasenka falls silent after young Petya is shot and killed by a soldier, is this an act of defiance or an act of cowardice, even as pregnant Sonya gently spoons the child’s body on the ground, among the snow? When Petya dies, “[the] sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.”
Such lines are powerful examples of Kaminsky’s adept control of language. The poems speak clearly and do not mince words, but neither do they allow the reader to remain outside the poem. As the townspeople narrate the arrests and executions of the main characters, the reader becomes one of them, one of the silent resistance conspiring in vain, an unwilling victim of the book’s urgent questioning. Throughout the poems two lines run like a vein of blood ready to be spilled:
Observe this moment / —how it convulses—
Kaminsky knows how to make a reader ache. The narrative encompasses love poems, elegies, silent cries of anguish, and chapters in the ongoing struggle. We must watch Alfonso raise his child alone after Sonya is arrested and killed, we must watch the war orphan change hands to Momma Galya when the father follows the mother. Among poems of violence, the occasional lullaby breaks the book open.
Just as the collection begins with an unusually haunting poem, so it ends with another, “In a Time of Peace,” in which the image of Petya’s broken body returns once again, unwilling to leave the reader’s mind. This poem feels like the twin of “We Lived Happily During the War,” because of course, if the reader has been paying attention, they will know that this time has been anything but peaceful—and what is the cost of living happily despite it all? Must we be silent in order to survive? “Deaf Republic” suggests otherwise. From the final poem:
Ours is a country in which a boy shot by the police lies on the pavement
We see in his open mouth
of the whole nation.
We watch. Watch
The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy—
It is a peaceful country.”
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