Criticism & Features

Year 2019: 30 Books

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky: 2019 Poetry finalist

By Mark Athitakis

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Graywolf) Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Graywolf)

We’ve been acculturated, especially these days, to what resistance sounds like: group chants, shared slogans, rallying cries from podiums, amplified for the masses. One of the inventions of Ilya Kaminsky’s second full-length poetry collection, Deaf Republic, is its exploration of the connection of resistance to not noise but silence. The people populating Kaminsky’s book—part play, part lyric poem cycle—have been shocked quiet in the face of martial law and a soldier’s murder of a child. The gunshot that kills the child has rendered the town deaf, and the collective silence provides both a proxy for their anguish and a way to defy the authorities. “Deafness is our only barricade,” as one townsperson puts it.

Deaf Republic invites the reader to experience it as a story of a handful of people reacting to a tragedy in oppressive times—it has a dramatis personae and an arc with the feel of a plot—arrests, bombardments, and struggle for survival. But it is also, poem by poem and line by line, an exploration of the urge to speak the unspeakable however possible. (“Watch, God—/deaf have something to tell/that not even they can hear,” Kaminsky writes.) Born in the Soviet Union and now living in Georgia, Kaminsky is an inheritor of the flinty lyricism of postwar Eastern European poets like Czeslaw Milosz, who at once engaged with violence and strived to push past it. (“I am not deaf / I simply told the world / to shut off its crazy music for a while.”) That gives the book a feeling of a throwback, an echo of reckonings of events that has occurred when the world was at its worst. But just as the book means to straddle poem and play, it demands to speak to both past and present. The book’s overture, “We Lived Happily During the War,” makes that connection explicit:

And when they bombed other people’s houses we

But not enough, we opposed them but not

Enough. I was
In my bed, around my bed America

Was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—

There is a word for the kind of person Kaminsky is calling out in those lines: quietist, a person who sits out the turmoil of the times in silence, hoping the chaos will soon abate. Deaf Republic urgently asks that we turn that silence into action.

— Mark Athitakis