Something Silent in Us Strengthens
March 18, 2019
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from our 2018/19 Poetry Series. Ilya Kaminsky reads at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 1, at Broadway Performance Hall. Tickets are still available here!
By Kristen Millares Young
I read Deaf Republic in one swoop, felled.
Ilya Kaminsky’s poems quickened me in a way I returned to, waking, in the middle of the night. “I, this body into which the hand of God plunged, / empty-chested, / stand.” Sleepless, grappling with God—that lucid cruelty, if present; our condemnation, if absent—dilemmas I discarded when I was young. In the morning, still it was there, that double echo, the grief of a faith I lost long ago. “Lord, such fire / from a match you never lit.”
Set in a snowbound town called Vasenka, Deaf Republic is a polyphonic parable of militaristic aggressions and civic resistance, catalyzed by the shooting of a deaf boy, Petya—“The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.”—and the grievous plight of a couple who loved him.
At the moment of Petya’s murder by an unstable leader so insecure he considers mockery a threat to the state, the people of Vasenka practice deafness as a form of insurgency, their ears made impermeable to the orders and interrogations of soldiers.
Deafness is suspended above the blue tin roofsand copper eaves; deafnessfeeds on birches, light posts, hospital roofs, bells;deafness rests in our men’s chests.Our girls sign, Start.
The trouble, once begun, is unalloyed. Townspeople unite and divide, finding meaning only to lose their lives, each small rebellion compounded by vengeful acts from a state so like our own, yet easier to see on the scale of a small town. Kaminsky renders a fractured theater of fraught scenes in verse interspersed with metacommentary illustrated in sign language, a pair of hands repeating phrases drawn from the poems.
And who is this poet sent to trouble my conscience, to subtle my consciousness, this book sent to me with stories of a dead boy, red spray on snow, the recurrent appearance of puppets, of Sonya and her soaped shoulders, spit on a woman’s face, of soldiers, spent and garroted, in a town soon shamed by its silence?
An American, born Russian in Odessa (a Ukrainian city formerly of the Soviet Union), hard of hearing and master of multiple languages, Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa, co-editor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, and the winner of a 2018 Guggenheim.
I met him once, at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference hosted by the Centrum Foundation, where he taught during the day and at night forsook his own writing time to attend literary performances by fellow faculty. After, Kaminsky approached the authors to ask for copies of their poems and prose, twice attentive to their art, first in community—watching their faces, their lips—then alone.