Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic seemed to appear on everyone’s “Best of 2019” list. His first book, Dancing in Odessa, created a stir in 2004, and he waited fifteen years before publishing this one. During that time, he traveled widely, giving readings in his unique style. Those who go back a long way in Ann Arbor might remember the way in which future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky read his poems when he first arrived in town: incantatory, projecting a cadence that was personal and quirky, barely reflecting the actual meaning of the words. Kaminsky reads like that.
Deaf Republic was worth the wait. The book is more a particular parable than it is a collection of poems–a story that might be teaching us a moral, or even a political point. Kaminsky divides his parable into two acts. The first starts when invading soldiers shoot a deaf boy, Petya, in the street. He is mourned by his cousin and her husband, who are about to have their own child. As a kind of protest, or maybe in shock, the town is struck deaf: “Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. In the name of Petya, we refuse.”
It is worth noting that Kaminsky himself is hearing impaired. After illness deafened him at four, he heard almost nothing until he immigrated to America at sixteen and received his first hearing aids. The idea of deafness has a weight and a resonance for this poet that most of us can only imagine. In a note at the end of the book, entitled “ON SILENCE,” he writes, “The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.”
The second act of Deaf Republic starts after the parents of the newborn girl have been executed, perhaps for their silent resistance. The rest of the town, performers, puppeteers, and prostitutes, keep the baby alive and hide her from the army. Because the names are mostly Russian, it is easy to turn this into a parable of the Crimea, where Kaminsky is originally from, but this poet doesn’t allow that limitation. In the first poem in the book, “We Lived Happily during the War,” Kaminsky writes “I was/in my bed, around my bed America//was falling.” The poem concludes:
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
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.
So what does Kaminsky’s parable “mean?” Maybe it isn’t the job of a parable to offer something that can be summarized outside of the story. Even Christ himself, after telling one of his memorable parables, was known to say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Ilya Kaminsky reads at UMMA at 5:30 p.m. on February 6.