Since I’m so accustomed to reading novels I sometimes find it a challenge to get in the right mindset to read a book of poetry because my instinct is to look for a narrative. In a way, I didn’t have to adjust this instinct to read Ilya Kaminsky “Deaf Republic” because there’s a definite overarching story and the book even begins with a list of “dramatis personae”. It takes place in an unspecified village during an unspecified time period. The village has been occupied by military forces who publicly execute citizens. The focus is not so much on the ethos or machinations of this oppressive regime but the fate of a family of puppeteers, the lives of the local population and their frequent passivity to resist the war on their doorstep. When a boy is shot and killed the sound of the gun causes the villagers to go deaf. Like Jose Saramago’s novel “Blindness” the collective absence of this sensory experience powerfully symbolizes the limitations of people’s empathy and a dangerously wilful ignorance. These poems consider issues to do with individual political responsibility through resonate imagery and flashes of dramatic action/inaction. Though the narrative has the feel of a fable, the first and final poems are unmistakeably contemporary in their American setting with references to greed in “our great country of money” and our silent witnessing of gun violence.
The book’s form is somewhere between a parable and play, but it’s definitely structured as a series of individual poems. Though I followed the arc of the story by reading it through from beginning to end these poems still function as stand-alone pieces. As the theme would suggest, many poems consider sound or the absence of sound. It’s especially poignant how a gunshot is not described as such but as a haunting image: “a sound we do not hear lifts the birds off the water.” Over the course of the book the lack of what’s audible creates a deep sense of interiority “silence which is a soul’s noise” as well as a terrifying reverberation of guilt for people who don’t speak up: “We let them take him, all of us cowards. What we don’t say we carry in our suitcases, coat pockets, our nostrils.” It’s moving how this describes the way remaining silent out of fear can make these unuttered words stick to us. Kaminsky also describes the way inaction can sometimes speak louder than being the one brave enough to raise an objection: “no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.”
Another innovative aspect to this book is the way it incorporates pictorial representations of (an invented) sign language. These hand gestures are initially defined so that by the end of the book when a group of signs are shown together we understand what this private silent language is saying. This is such an inventive way of conveying poetic meaning without words. It shows how we are forced to invent other forms of language to communicate when we can’t speak about what’s socially or politically unacceptable. In this way over the course of the book language begins to feel squashed into different localized and personal arenas: “I teach his children’s hands to make of anguish a language – see how deafness nails us into our bodies”.
“Deaf Republic” contains a powerful message about the real danger of not speaking up when faced with unconscionable policies or oppressive actions. It readjusts the meaning of the ensuing devastation so that it is owned by the viewer rather than something which he passively sees: “There will be evidence, there will be evidence. While helicopters bomb the streets, whatever they will open, will open. What is silence? Something of the sky in us.” When faced with such destructive life-threatening dangers the choice between self-preservation and political action disappears. This collection is saying it’s time to speak up.