Martha Sprackland reviews Ilya Kaminsky

Deaf Republic published by Faber & Faber (2019)

Forgive me for what I’m telling you;
Quietly, quietly read it back to me.

(Osip Mandelstam, from ‘380’, 1937)

When a young boy is shot by a soldier, the fictional town of Vasenka embraces deafness as insurgency. In Deaf Republic, the follow-up (after a fifteen-year wait) to Dancing in Odessa, Kaminsky creates a fully realised, absorbing world, distant from our own, in which bombs explode vegetable carts, soldiers are strangled with puppet-strings in the back rooms of brothels, ‘election posters show the various hairstyles / of a famous dictator’. The work is meticulous and convincing, the characters vital even in their many deaths; but Kaminsky is setting us up for a terrible fall – the book entire is a technical feat, a trick, a trap, in which the invisible tension the poet creates is a drawing-back of the bowstring, the book’s closing poem the loosed arrow. I had the discombobulating, alarming sense of scenery falling, of a world dissolving; perhaps more frighteningly, a bad dream I might wake from to find only a badder, realer world waiting when I opened my eyes.

I first heard the opening poem of Deaf Republic, ‘We Lived Happily During the War’, in Koprivshtitsa, a picturesque mountain town in Bulgaria. I was there with other writers from America, the United Kingdom and Bulgaria, including my then-husband, on the invitation of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, to translate each other’s work and foster all the sorts of connections these things are supposed to foster. In the cobbled courtyard of the Lyuben Karavelov house, one of many pastel-hued, perfectly preserved writers’ houses in the town, we twenty or so sat or leaned, our hands in our coat pockets, as Ilya read in his ecstatic style the lines:

        And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

        but not enough, we opposed them but not



                                  we (forgive us)

         lived happily during the war.

Everyone was struck silent. After a moment, the novelist among us stood up and clapped his hand on Ilya’s shoulder, breaking the silence. The thing you’ve got to know about Ilya, he said, That place we go to when we write a poem, that place we sometimes get to visit, get a glimpse of; Ilya lives there full time.

As well as living in that place where we go to write a poem, Kaminsky lives in San Diego with the writer and translator Katie Farris, to whom ‘all love poems’ in Deaf Republic are dedicated. This strand of the collection is euphoric: offbeat, exhilarated acts of adoration between Alfonso Barabinski to Sonya, ‘Vasenka’s best puppeteer, Alfonso’s newlywed wife’:

          I watched you gleam in the shower
          holding your
          breasts in your hand –

          two small explosions.

                                   (‘Of Weddings before the War’)

         She had a mole on her shoulder
         which she displayed
         like a medal for bravery.

                                  (‘Before the War, We Made a Child’)

         You step out of the shower and the entire nation calms –


         I stand on earth in my pajamas,

         penis sticking out––
         for years

         in your direction.

                                   (‘Still Newlyweds’)

Here, the private moment is mapped onto the public world, love is responsible for ‘the entire nation’. The war creeps in – the body beloved is a medal, a missile, a grenade in the hand – but is also resisted, in the walled world of a shared bath in which ‘soaping together / is sacred to us. / Washing each other’s shoulders.’ (‘While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses’). But the love poems are resistance, too – in celebrating the bright and vital Kaminsky enumerates what is joyful in the individual life, in the fact of being alive.


It is fifteen years ago, in Dancing in Odessa, that we first heard of ‘the story about the country where everyone was deaf’. There, too, Kaminsky wrote of the America in which he lives: ‘in 1993 I came to America. […] America! I put the word on a page, it is my keyhole.’ That America appears only once in this book, at the opening, in which the speaker lies ‘in my bed, around my bed America // was falling’. The plea a few lines later, however – ‘(forgive us)’, as if under the breath, as if in prayer – does reoccur, pulling tight the thread between invented Vasenka and too-real America.

This pairing shapes the book; a framing narrative of two poems bookend the boxed narrative, already a world-within-a-world, which is then set at further remove. It is a theatrical play, complete with dramatis personae and the stage directions of an invented sign-language kept hidden from the soldiers (rendered in the book by illustrator Jennifer Whitten), and the painted backdrop of the fictional town in an unnamed region. There is a polyphonic chorus of townspeople. Above, stagehands perch with ready handfuls of snow. The orchestra in the pit tunes up for a silent score.

                                                               Our country is the stage.

Curtain up. And, at first, the band do play; there is uncomplicated evidence of the audible world: piano music plays in the town square, the characters of the puppet show ham it up – ‘shrieking’, snorting, speaking in a mocking falsetto; Petya, ‘the deaf boy in the front row’, sneezes and giggles. When the army jeep approaches and the Sergeant leaps out to clear the gathering, Petya spits defiantly into his face.

After ‘the sound we do not hear’ sends birds skyward, and Petya lies shot and silenced in the snow, the soundscape is altered irrevocably, tuned to the new reality of the deaf republic. From here on, sound, on the few occasions it emerges from a blanketing silence, is mediated. Sonya’s shout is an absence, ‘a hole / torn in the sky’. Other noise is qualified by volume (there are whispers, murmurs), or symbolising threat (dogs bark, alarming at army jeeps; the ‘tap-tap’ of wooden puppet-hands against the walls, ‘a puppet for every shot citizen’), or comes translated:

        Alfonso […] puts one hand to the ground. He hears the cars stop, doors slam, dogs bark.
        When he pulls his hand off the ground he hears nothing.

                                                           (‘The Townspeople Circle the Boy’s Body’)

Normalcy and its sounds are going on as usual, beyond the circle of silence. Within Vasenka, however, the town creates a defence out of deafness: wilfully ignoring soldiers’ commands, mocking them, constructing a different reality on their own terms, as far as it is possible to do so. At certain moments the reader is permitted to resurface, to hear the roar beyond the barricades: the boys want to kill a soldier, so they drag one into the ‘sunlit piazza’ where Alfonso ‘cuts him to the lung’ – into this moment pours sound; ‘the townspeople are cheering … pounding him on the back’, those in the trees ‘applaud from the branches’, ‘Momma Galya shouts about pigs’ (‘A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck’). It’s complicated, this deafness, this silence – inconsistent and allusive (we hear shouts, banging, conversation). As I was writing this review, I happened also to be reviewing Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, These two books share a wall: an oppressive military force, violence, and a world in which objects, concepts, memories – the ability or decision to hear – both ‘disappear’ and yet remain disconcertingly present in the text. In both books, the ability or choice to perceive the departed thing is political.

          The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.

                                                             (Notes, ‘On silence’)

What does speak, and eloquently, is the wind, whipping through the poems; it ‘fondles laundry lines’, the townspeople wash their faces in it. Wind ‘moves the lips of a politician on a poster’; ‘the flag is the towel the wind dries its hands on’, ‘a bit of wind // called for life’. Alfonso steps onto Tedna Street and ‘the wind brittles his body’, he walks ‘on foot, a good mile and a half of wind. Later, his same body ‘still hangs from a rope like a puppet of wind’.

It’s tempting, knowing how meticulous Kaminsky is, that everything signifies, to spend this review trying to crack the motif-codex, those that recur obsessively, inviting scrutiny yet resisting interpretation. I can’t help but want to read them alongside Kaminsky’s lodestars: Celan, Akhmatova, Mandelstam of course, Brodsky. What, for example, do the tomatoes signify? They explode like grenades; they are thrown, as in a Bakhtinian performance of carnivalistic mockery; they are eaten in a sandwich, in a pleasant salad. What is the snow? Is it Mandelstam’s snow which, ‘as of old, smells of apples’, where ‘conscience shows up ahead of me, white’? What is the bath, the door, the clothesline? Who are the dogs ‘like medics’, ‘thin as philosophers’, who ‘understand everything’? It is tantalising that some of these same symbols appear fifteen years earlier, in Dancing in Odessa, that someone’s grandfather ran for a train with tomatoes in his coat, that the grandmother threw tomatoes from her balcony. But not that hurtling wind, which sweeps the silence voices of the town towards us, in our present, contained in the book’s final poem. These symbols enact a resistance of their own just as they insist we look closer.

Perhaps I want, for a moment, to revel instead in Kaminsky’s imagistic language, his originality, that Brodsky-like assonance. And his sense of metaphor is pitch-perfect. It’s hard not to feel a genuine thrill at how right he gets it:

          ‘They tear Gora’s wife from her bed like a door off a bus.’

           ‘The body of the boy lies on the ground like a paperclip.’

                                         (‘That Map of Bone and Opened Valves’)

           Wind sweeps bread from market stalls, shopkeepers spill insults
           and the wind already has a bike between its legs––

                                         (‘Galya Whispers, as Anushka Nuzzles’)

            the flag is the towel the wind dries its hands on.

                                         (‘In Bombardment, Galya’)

And then perhaps we understand a little more of the wind, that ‘Something in the air wants us too much’. It’s easy to get waylaid. Kaminsky is a brilliant lyric poet, whose deft use of repetition and skilful enjambment is reminiscent of Celan: ‘On balconies, sunlight. On poplars, sunlight, on our lips’ (‘Firing Squad’); ‘silence? / it is a stick I beat you with, I beat you with a stick, voice, beat you // until you speak, until you / speak right’ (‘And While Puppeteers Are Arrested’). This is musical work, rich, exclamations of joy and fear as chorus: a beloved name – child or lover – shouted to the sky.

              I have
              no country but a bathtub and an infant and a marriage bed!

             Soaping together
             is sacred to us.
             Washing each other’s shoulders.

                                          (‘While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses’)


Like Mandelstam’s, Kaminsky’s reproach in the face of war is humane, admonishing without turning away; both poets observe the crisis of an ‘age’, the epoch at the poet’s back, and feel the responsibility to document it, to advise it, to accuse it. ‘At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?’ God is shown a photograph, God watches Momma Galya, God peers through the binoculars of the body. Deaf Republic closes back in the America of the poet’s ‘peaceful country’, its inhabitants cutting those symbolic grenades for an innocuous ‘summer salad: basil, tomatoes’:

           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.

                                         (‘In a Time of Peace’)

Is this a reproach to our obliviousness, our failure to act? Yes, in part, but it also confers power. Mandelstam writes

          My country conversed with me,
          Spoiled me, scolded, didn’t listen.
          She only noticed me when,
          Grown-up, I became an eye-witness …

                                        (Mandelstam, from ‘312’, 1935)

The most-repeated sign in the book is ‘the town watches’:

Deafness, murder, secrecy, watchfulness, all acts of insurgency committed by the townspeople in the face of oppression. Again and again there is a gestural rebellion, in the form of defiance – standing up – and resistance – lying down:

          On earth
          a man cannot flip a finger at the sky

          because each man is already
          a finger flipped at the sky.

                           (‘Soldiers Aim at Us’)

          We watch Sonya stand (the child inside her straightens its leg). Someone has
          given her a sign, which she holds high above her head: THE PEOPLE ARE DEAF.

                                          (‘The Townspeople Circle the Boy’s Body’)

          My people, you were really something fucking fine
          on the morning of the first arrests:

           our men, once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts––

                                                       (‘Alfonso Stands Answerable’)

The poet, too, is answerable – only a handful of pages have passed since the frame opened, the poet ‘was / in my bed, around my bed America // was falling’. ‘Forgive me’, ‘(forgive us)’, ‘(‘forgive me’), that refrain tapping on the walls of the book like the wooden hands of puppets on the city walls…

            In so much sunlight––

            each of us
            is a witness stand:

            They take Alfonso
            and no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.

                                        (‘The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso’)

The final phrase of sign-language appears on an otherwise wordless page. By now we have learned to understand a little of it. The town watches the earth’s story.

Curtain down.

Leaving Vasenka, that place we go to when we write a poem, that place we sometimes get to visit, we are delivered back into our own present – our ‘time of peace’ – with the warning held in our hands. We are urged towards an ownership of moral failure, to awake and bear witness to history. That Kaminsky can convey this prophetic message whilst simultaneously delivering lyric poetry of sheerest, most vivid joy, is exactly the point, and stands testament to the powers of this astonishingly good poet.

Martha Sprackland’s Milk Tooth, (Rough Trade Editions) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2019. She is the editor of independent press Offord Road Books and her debut collection, Citadel, will be published by Pavilion Poetry in April 2020.

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