Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky
A coherent selection of the poems from this collection has been published in The New Yorker. I’m going to talk about the first 3 poems, which you can read in less than 10 minutes.
In relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 2022 Winter Olympics, and everything else happening in the world today that shouldn’t be, thinking about how we can use literature to protest…
This poetry collection is incredible. Look at the use of form – it’s divided into acts (in the book version); it has a list of dramatis personae; it features images of certain words in sign language (which are multimedia in The New Yorker, and illustrations in the book)… Look at the use of structure – this is surely a novella in flash-poem, with a story built up between the poems. Look at the use of symbolism – Kaminsky, who was born in what is now and always will be Ukraine, takes his own deafness, and turns it into a metaphor for a fictional city’s resistance to an invasion by an allegorical foreign military.
The opening line – ‘Our country is a stage.’ – links to the play’s aforementioned form, but it’s also a metaphor, suggestive of the violent action happening there being performative – of making a statement (this is what we do to our enemies; challenge us, and you’re next), of being watched by an audience (the rest of the city, the county, the world) – and it suggests that behind war we find the stories of the people who have been invaded.
First-person plural is used (‘Our’, ‘us’, ‘we’) – after all, this act is about the townspeople (the ‘chorus’) telling their story.
Ellipsis is used within (and between) each poem – ‘The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.’ – the reader can infer from context, and from the poem’s title, what has happened. Not showing the action, but instead suggesting it, is powerful.
As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face with a Newspaper:
‘Observe this moment—how it convulses—Snow falls and the dogs run into the streets like medics.’ – the moment is surreal; time stands still for the townspeople; then, around them, the world continues to turn, but everyday things take on new meaning (the medic dogs).
‘We see in Sonya’s open mouth / the nakedness / of a whole nation.’ – such raw imagery of grief.
Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins
‘Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. / In the name of Petya, we refuse.’ – deafness becomes a choice; a rejection of hearing the guns, and propaganda, and orders of the invaders; a way of rebelling.
‘By eleven a.m., arrests begin.’ – the invaders cannot cope with any kind of opposition, so respond with typical aggression.
‘Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.’ – the killing of the deaf boy becomes a catalyst that galvanises the town into resistance.
By the end of the collection, the metaphor of deafness is extended to warn readers about the dangers of not listening to what’s happening in their own countries, far removed from foreign invaders.
Deaf Republic was first published in 2019, but takes on new meaning with the current invasion of Ukraine by Putin.