So Much to Hear in DEAF REPUBLIC, Ilya Kaminsky’s Startling New Poetry Collection

Ukranian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky reading at Centrum, Port Townsend, July 21st, 2018. Photo credit: Colette Tennant

We Lived Happily during the War

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.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

Ilya Kaminsky (1977 – ) from DEAF REPUBLIC, Greywolf Press, March 5th, 2019

A poem from a book (DEAF REPUBLIC) that demands our attention. The prelude poem for a book, for a wartime lyric narrative in poems, in two searing acts. A novel in poems. A one-of-a-kind book unlike anything I have read. And this book may be only Ilya Kaminsky’s second book but in the English-speaking poetry world Kaminsky, a Ukranian American, is dramatically better known than one book, and soon two, would suggest. Yes, he has edited numerous anthologies of international poetry but it’s more than that.

Kaminsky has a beguiling presence, a tough sensitivity and openness combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry that makes him stand out as one of the more imposing poets of his generation. And anyone attending one of his readings will attest to the power of that poetic presence. And what he has succeeded in doing with his new book will cement his stature even more, I think. (It is worth noting that the book’s title, DEAF REPUBLIC, has its own echo with Kaminsky. He became deaf at age 4. Since then, thanks to technology he has regained most of his hearing.)

I have chosen to feature Kaminsky’s prelude poem precisely because it stands apart from the rest of the collection, except for the last poem in the book. These book ends provide the lyric meta-narrative for the collection but the specific narrative in time and place is contained in the book’s in-between two parts, two acts. The book-end poems talk to us, living in the now. But they contain the poignant fable-like wartime of another time. Far enough away for us to see, hear it and feel it more clearly, perhaps, than events closer to us.

The meta-narrative speaks poignantly to me in 2019 surrounded by stories and images of war and violence from all around the globe. But the blood and guts reality stays far outside my living room. Even if I had a TV in my living room, I don’t, the images would likely die inside the warm comfort of that room. The prelude poem wants to wake me, a reader, as does the last poem, also part of our “now” time, not part of the rest of the poems in Act One and Act Two.

The plangent cry in the collection’s first poem: we lived happily during the war. A war inside and outside America. Or to put it another way we sort of woke up to all this but not really. Well, this poem is the preparation for a wake up that will happen, did happen to me, if you read this particular narrative of an occupied town that fought back in a war until it couldn’t. That went deaf to their enemies so the rest of us might hear it on highest volume. Here is a poem early on in Act One.

As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face
with a Newspaper

Fourteen people, most of us strangers,
watch Sonya kneel by Petya

shot in the middle of the street.
She picks up his spectacles shining like two coins, balances them on his nose.

Observe this moment
—how it convulses—

Snow falls and the dogs run into the streets like medics.

Fourteen of us watch:
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.

She stretches out
beside the little snowman napping in the middle of the street.

As picking up its belly the country runs.

Ilya Kaminsky, ibid

I have read poetry books that have a narrative thread. But not the way Kaminsky does it in his book. Narrative is important, yes, but it must elevate, not degrade the poetic, the lyric value of the work. It must not fall into lineated prose. See here how the narrative supports the lyric leaps that blow the focus of the poem wide open. Narrow eye of the narrative (Fourteen of us watch). Huge eye of the lyric (We see in Sonya’s open mouth//the nakedness/of a whole nation).

And now I need to share a great metaphor as way of discussing lyric and narrative! I remember a high-end wine dealer using a automobile metaphor to describe the two key attributes of wine – tannins and fruit. He said think of the tannins as a car chassis or frame and the fruit, the car’s body.

I thought of this when thinking about the two key attributes of a poem. The lyric, the time out of time moments in a poem created by image; and metaphor; and narrative, the story embedded in the poem. Narrative as chassis and lyric as the body.

I think of this a lot as I read my advance copy of Kaminsky’s DEAF REPUBLIC, scheduled for release on March 5th, 2019. While some of the poems of DEAF REPUBLIC have been out in the world for almost ten years through literary magazines, the full impact of Kaminsky’s poetic project can only be appreciated when reading his collection together.

Yes, the book tells a story of the violence of war. It’s victims. But the deaths in this book, poem by poem, are also triumphs of the human spirit against tyranny. And before they die they experience beauty and bring beauty to the world. And even in the bombed out ruins of the city there is astonishment:

A Cigarette

Vasenka citizens do not know they are evidence of happiness.

In a time of war,
each is a ripped-out document of laughter.

Watch, God—
deaf have something to tell
that not even they can hear.

Climb a roof in Central Square of this bombarded city, you will see—
one neighbor thieves a cigarette,
another gives a dog
a pint of sunlit beer.

You will find me, God,
like a dumb pigeon’s beak, I am
every which way at astonishment.

Ilya Kaminsky, ibid

Let me be clear, his book is an astonishing imaginative project. Each poem, its own complete vehicle, chassis and body but each poem part of a larger narrative. Each one connected. Like a cortege, a line of cars heading to the graveside from a funeral. And this metaphor, too, is apt. This book, a travelogue to a final resting rest for so many characters in this collection killed in the city or town of Vasenka, perhaps in Russia, occupied by enemy soldiers at a time of war and occupation. But for me, Vasenka, even with its Russian name, seems as if it could be an anywhere city overcome by anywhere war. Any city, anytime. Warsaw, Allepo, Kigali, and on and on.

Kaminsky’s poems form their own cortege. Poem after poem driving forward telling a sometimes exuberant story, the finest extraordinary and ordinary aspects of humans in a crisis, and other times a harrowing story of tragic death, betrayal, subjugation and submission.

We get the big moments, a boy shot in a street. Citizens later surrounding the corpse in protest. And the smaller moments. A couple in the intimacy of a shower and bedroom. A couple we get to know in a three-dimensional way. And over-arching all that happens in this book is its title, the central metaphor, Deaf Republic. In protest to their occupation by enemy soldiers the citizens of this city or town stop speaking. Pretend to be deaf, the metaphor for silence that derives from this and threads the collection together.

The narrative is compelling in this book but the lyric moments give it its lasting impact. Lines that I want to hold such as: it/ only takes a few minutes to make a man etcetc; or on earth/ a man cannot flip a finger at the sky// each man is already/ a finger flipped at the sky; or I am not a poet, Sonya/ I want to live in your hair; or What is silence? Something of the sky in us; or speaks to men/ as if they are men/ and not just souls on crutches of bone.
I have deliberately tried not to be too specific about the narrative arc in Act One and Act Two. That’s to avoid having to use a spoiler alert. And I want to invite you, if you pick up the book, to enjoy the main characters as they are fleshed out poem by poem: the couple in Act One, Alfonso and Sonya and in Act Two, the puppeteer, Mama Galya.

I began this blog post with the first poem in the collection and I want to approach the end of the post with the last one. Because it takes us out of an imagined past to the present. And because it uses irony to make a point about us. The title: In a Time of Peace fails to uphold the truth of the rest of the poem. The violence in Kaminsky’s own adopted country of America. A violence , dare I say, most of us are deaf to. And in this poem, too, a boy lies dead in a pavement, one of the many black American’s killed by cops. A startling echo to the boy who lied dead on the street in Vasenka.

Two excerpts. The first:

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement
for hours.
We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.
We watch. Watch
others watch.

And the second:

This is a time of peace.
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.

Ilya Kaminsky, ibid

I am left at the end of DEAF REPUBLIC deeply challenged. How do I reconcile the need to see and appreciate beauty and the need to also recognize and act against violence where ever it is, on a large or a small scale? How do I reconcile the difference. Perhaps I don’t. Perhaps I hold the opposites in tension like American poet Stephen Dobyns does in his poem Garden Bouquet where the narrator no longer can see his beautiful garden flowers without pictures of violence imposed on them:

from Garden Bouquet

…………Yesterday had its picture;

tomorrow will have another. These scenes
are the tinted glasses that human beings
learn to look through. No wonder the flowers
seem fragile. Most days are neatly divided –
flowers on one side, violence on the other.

Too bad, you say, about the victims of Monday
and you turn away to whatever you call pretty.
But today something has broken in your eyes.
Today across the daffodils and blue violets
sprawls the figure of Tuesday’s corpse. This one

is Moslem, yesterday’s was Texan or German.
Where can one go to get one’s eye’s fixed.

Stephen Dobyns from Common Carnage, Penguin Poets, 1996

Maybe it’s not about getting one’s eyes fixed. Maybe it’s about broken eyes that in their brokenness see much more. Thank you Ilya for helping me, even in a DEAF REPUBLIC, hear more, see more, feel more.


  1. Posted February 11, 2019 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Richard, this is a compelling posting. I hear Ilya so clearly in your words, his singing lines. I’m fascinated by his contra-violence and beauty and his repetitions which increase the volume of the deafness. You must repeat words when you speak with the deaf. Can hardly wait to get his book. Thanks for this.

  2. Allan Briesmaster
    Posted February 13, 2019 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Richard, for your insightful, eloquent write-up and for making me aware of this book and this poet.

  3. Richard Osler
    Posted February 13, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    You are so welcome. I think Ilya will continue to be a potent force in world poetry. He is another example i think of what has made America great. Thse that have left their own countries to find peace and freedom somewhere else. I think of Li-Young Lee in this regard as well! And Maria Popova of Brain Pickings!

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