Ilya Kaminsky’s poetry collection “Deaf Republic,” recently released by indie publishing superstar Graywolf Press, takes place in an unnamed village. But it could be anywhere. It could be Odessa, Kaminsky’s birthplace in the former Soviet Union. It could be any American city. Though occupied by military force, it bears similarities to a place that could exist “in a time of peace.”
In the opening poem, “We Lived Happily during the War,” the narrator describes America falling “invisible house by invisible house by invisible house … 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.”
This powerful opening sets the stage for a politically charged collection that is part poetry, part play and part parable, in which a deaf boy is killed during a protest and his community collectively loses its hearing.
In “Deaf Republic,” silence is a form of both weakness and dissent. It is a way to be avoidant, but also subversive; it is power. The poem “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins” describes a collective choice not to hear the soldiers occupying the village. “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens … In the ears of the town, snow falls,” writes Kaminsky, building an association between deafness and autonomy.
“Deaf Republic” is divided into two acts. The first follows newlyweds expecting their first child, the second a brash older madam on a green bicycle. Called Momma Gayla, she becomes the child’s unofficial adoptive parent when the couple from the first act is killed.
The acts are narrated by the chorus of townspeople, who tell the story of the boy who is killed at a protest that takes the form of a puppet show, which immediately establishes theater as a space for dissent. (The book itself is structured as a play.) But Kaminsky also mines puppetry’s negative connotations too; when villagers are kidnapped and killed, puppets are hung on their doors.
Kaminsky grounds the collection with layered images and concrete details that serve as shifting metaphors. Birds appear throughout. We see them lifting off water at an unheard sound, a blue canary that symbolizes a country, a pigeon that makes a stop sign sway. Snow and earth and oranges recur in a rhythmic cadence that at once lulls and unsettles.
“Deaf Republic” is a one-sitting read, a book of poetry both complex and accessible. The concepts of collective silence in response to war and the many applications of deafness are artfully traversed. The poems set during peacetime show that even when a society thinks it is at peace, it may not be.
With lyrical and fearless language, Ilya Kaminsky has written an engrossing page-turner that challenges society’s silence, and celebrates the power of community in the face of violent atrocities.
“Deaf Republic” by Ilya Kaminsky, Graywolf Press, 96 pp., $16
Ilya Kaminsky will read as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Poetry series on Monday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Broadway Performance Hall, 625 Broadway, Seattle; $10-$80. Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae will be in conversation with Hugo House director Tree Swenson on Tuesday, April 2, at 7 p.m. at Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; free.