Fifteen years after Tupelo Press released his first collection of poetry, Ilya Kaminsky delivers a stunning interplay of poetic structures and voices in Deaf Republic. His latest work is a collective narrative recounting the events that follow the murder by soldiers of a local deaf boy. Told through multiple lenses in fragments, elegies, sign language, and prose and narrative poems, the villagers of Vasenka meet brutality with resistance in the form of deafness. Led by puppeteers Alfonso and his pregnant wife, Sonya, “Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.” After Alfonso and Sonya’s executions, the insurgency is further enacted by puppet theater owner Momma Galya, and deafness, which functioned initially as a weapon, is transmuted into a form of cowardice and passivity when turned upon the very people it was initially barricading. An indictment against inaction, the blind eye—or deaf ear, in this case—leads to the erasure not only of human lives, but of humanity itself. To echo the haunting refrain that abandons any figurative illustration: “The body of a boy lies ... like the body of a boy.” The motifs of deafness and silence are seamlessly paired via their cause-and-effect relationship, as well as the motif of watching—the speakers’ desperate appeal for a witness and judgment. As different speakers issue prayers to God, the ultimate witness and judge, so does Deaf Republic call forth a witness—to listen.
Deafness is introduced after the gunshot, which reduces Petya the deaf boy to a dead boy. The shot is described by the villagers, the collective “we,” as “the sound we do not hear.” It is a sight they do not see as well, as the gaze is directed instead at gulls—and in a later poem, birds—lifted off the water. Already Kaminsky outlines a fatal consequence of deafness: the inhibition of taking up the call to responsive action.
However, deafness is initially a heroic act. In “Deafness, an Insurgency Begins,” the collective speaker is careful to distinguish that it is not an inability to hear, but rather that the act of withholding hearing is a dynamic one: to obliterate that which it refuses to acknowledge. Kaminsky defines silence as nonexistent to the deaf, “an invention of the hearing.” The deaf describe sounds they do not hear, thus acknowledge, as opposed to sounds they reject (Galya’s inscription “NO ONE HEARS YOU” on the barracks), thus annihilate. The lines begin to blur in “Checkpoints,” when one woman cannot hear, while another woman does not hear. Deafness further extends its reach as the speaker in “A Cigarette” states that “deaf have something to tell / that not even they can hear.” This suggests that the power of deafness may have transcended beyond its vehicle. In fact, while deafness equips the villagers with power—they “shake their heads, and point at their ears” to the soldier’s cries for mercy before Alfonso kills him—it takes on a life of its own, personified as a presence that is suspended, feeding on and inhabiting in the people in “Above Blue Tin Roofs, Deafness.” Such a parasitic relationship strips the townspeople of their power, as the speaker ultimately confesses in the final poem, “I do not hear the gunshots.” It is no longer a triumphant cry of defiance, but a self-indictment of complacency towards injustice, as deafness breeds silence and obscures the ability to bear witness.
Silence is a culpable product of deafness, as deafness renders speech irrelevant. Galya distinguishes the two: “I am not deaf / I simply told the world / to shut off its crazy music for a while.” And she does; upon rescuing the orphaned daughter of the martyred puppeteers, Galya no longer needs and thus ignores the world with which she initially instigated war. The danger of such removal is precipitated in the first part, when Alfonso considers “the wicked things silence does to soldiers,” as death always ensues. Before the war, silence is used as a link to draw two people closer, as Alfonso recalls an intimate moment in a bathtub with his wife, “a woman who speaks against silence, knowing / silence moves us to speak.” Like silence, the intimate act of bathing is subverted with the presence of the soldiers, who “wash” Alfonso’s body with firehoses. Silence in its warped form is now more ominous, sniffing windowpanes after Sonya is taken. Her voice is simultaneously described as “the voice we cannot hear” and “the clearest voice.” It is also the voice that breaks the silence, giving the command for her execution. Thus, sound earns her victory in a power exchange. This is echoed in “I, This Body,” as Alfonso recalls the voice he does not hear. Again, Alfonso acknowledges the sound. He simply does not receive it, and later, neither do the townspeople. While her puppeteers are being arrested, Galya fumbles with silence: “silence? / it is a stick I beat you with, I beat you with a stick, voice, beat you.” Like deafness, silence is used as a weapon, but one that ultimately immobilizes its players, and the speaker in the first and last poems about America issues an indictment against silence as “the bullet that misses us.” The townspeople cannot stand up for Alfonso when he is taken. Their ineffectual silence does it for them.
Without a voice, the act of bearing witness is devoid of judgment. One of the signs throughout the book, “The town watches,” turns cynical in its repetition, as in “The town onlywatches.” The first imperative in the entire collection is an issue to “Observe this moment,” and the second imperative given is “Watch.” The unnamed country is described as a stage, calling into question the audience. The reader is the obvious candidate, watching Vasenka’s citizens in their inability to self-intuit; it could also be the citizens themselves, who “do not know they are evidence of happiness,” admonished to observe and be enlightened. It could be America, given the first and last poems. A more direct imperative is later given, “Watch, God,” the first of many appeals to the ultimate witness and judge. In “Soldiers Aim at Us,” Alfonso breaks the narration with “may God have a photograph of this.” Galya balks at God’s omnipresent eye, likening him to a distant peeping Tom as she describes her body as “a binoculars through which you watch” and rejects the comparison to a sparrow, the bird whose fall God’s all-encompassing eye sees. God, the passive witness, is put on trial. “Why did you allow this?” The trial is subverted when God returns the question. This indictment is later echoed in “The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso,” as they collectively state “Now each of us is / a witness stand.” So much have they assumed the role of the witness, it is a part of their identity. Children “watch us watch” in “Search Patrols;” they watch Alfonso execute a soldier, and finally, we Americans also “watch / others watch” a police officer murder a boy. The presence of a witness is ubiquitous; the “I” appears throughout the poems, functioning like a character (“I exists. I has / a body”), with ten enjambments ending on I—three in one poem alone. “I” exists, touches walls, witnesses, and does nothing.
Kaminsky wields an intelligent array of motifs in the body and its exposure, as well as the body’s symbiotic relationship with puppets. The body is active where humans themselves are not: it is a body that runs in Arlemovsk Street, it is a body that wraps around the body of a wife. Apart from brutality and oppression, the body is beautiful. Alfonso and Sonya make love and create a child. Sonya’s breasts offer nourishment to her baby and intimacy with her husband. In the context of violence and injustice, the body is a vessel portending danger, the wind “brittles [Alfonso’s] body.” Wind is bracing, thus bracing him for the catastrophes to follow. The body is shamed in Sonya’s nude, defiled exposure by the soldiers. The body is absent; Sonya is taken and what remains are her clothes, which her husband attempts to fill. The body is weaponized; Momma Galya is having more sex than anyone, but her breasts, unlike Sonya’s, are likened to bullets. There is nothing sensual about her body, provoking soldiers to stand. Sonya’s milk create intimacy with her family. Galya’s milk bottles instigate resistance. Her puppeteers further weaponize their bodies, seducing and executing soldiers like Judith with Holofernes. Galya stands on the stage while the real action—reducing men to puppets, “just souls on crutches of bone”—occurs literally behind the curtain.
Deaf Republic links the deaf with the silent, the living with the dead, the innocent with the culpable. Ilya Kamisky threads these links together with collective voices, with chorus-like italicized refrains, with colors (the violence in red linked with blood, circles around the eyes, and the war-like act of “putting on red / socks”; the memory of good things linked with yellow—raincoats, lemon-egg shampoo; and foreboding things linked with blue—the canary of the country, tin roofs). He ultimately links the ubiquity of ignorance with its destructive outcomes: in boys who desire to kill a man but have no idea how, in two nations for whom the speaker pleads forgiveness for doing nothing as America and the bodies of boys fall.
Shannon Nakai is an MFA graduate of Wichita State University, a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Bacopa Literary Review, The Cincinnati Review, Midwest Review, River City Poetry, Sugared Water, Tupelo Quarterly, and 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems. A Fulbright Scholar and English instructor, she currently lives and teaches in Wichita, KS.