MARCH 8, 2019
IN AN OFT-CITED ESSAY on James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot lauds Joyce for his use of “the mythical method.” Eliot coins this term in reference to how the structure of Joyce’s novel parallels that of Homer’s epic poem. But what Eliot appreciates about Ulysses is not simply its engagement with the past. Instead, he praises its ability to grapple with the present. About this “mythical method,” Eliot writes, “It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
This notion — that a “mythical method” might serve as a means of ordering contemporary chaos — occurred to me over and over again as I read Ilya Kaminsky’s new collection of poetry, Deaf Republic. This book — Kaminsky’s first in 15 years, and only his second full-length collection — has brought to the poetry world a kind of trembling, manic anticipation we might associate more readily with fans of Vampire Weekend than those who linger over well-placed enjambment. (Though perhaps I’m not giving Vampire Weekend fans enough credit.)
For those less familiar with the world of contemporary poetry, a brief word on the poet’s biography is in order. Ilya Kaminsky was born in then-Soviet-controlled Odessa (now Ukraine) in 1977, and a doctor’s misdiagnosis left him deaf at a young age — and without hearing aids until his family’s immigration to the United States in 1993.
This biography serves as a helpful backdrop for Deaf Republic — though not, perhaps, for the usual reasons. The book avoids pure autobiography and instead offers a long, narrative sequence about the fictional town of Vasenka, where, after a young deaf boy has been killed by occupying soldiers, the entire town chooses silence over speaking — and deafness over hearing.
Though Kaminsky does not follow Joyce back to the classics for his narrative mode, his method does seem a descendant of Joyce’s. Deaf Republic shares with Joyce’s works, too, a certain difficulty that rewards close (and multiple) readings. But this difficulty is the book’s strength — on levels both poetic and political. The poet Geoffrey Hill once claimed that “genuinely difficult art is truly democratic” and that “tyranny requires simplification.” Deaf Republic affirms this claim — as if it needed affirming in the age of Twitter.
The book’s opening poem makes the political message too clear to avoid. The title — “We Lived Happily During The War” — is also its first line, and so the poem begins: “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we // protested / but not enough…” This poem precedes “Deaf Republic” — the long, sectioned, narrative poem that occupies all but a few pages of the book — and functions, too, as a lyrical prelude.
But “We Lived Happily During The War” is more than an introductory lyric — it is also a warning of the contemporary relevance of the “parable” that will follow. “I was / in my bed, around my bed America // was falling,” the speaker tells us. Because these lines occur before “Deaf Republic” — before we are introduced to Vasenka or any of the “Dramatis Personae” who will populate its occupied city square — it serves as a kind of skeleton key, providing us with a way of reading the rest of the book. Though fictional Vasenka may exist in an unknown, Soviet-esque country, we would be wise to map our own “falling” America onto the story.
In the same way, we must map ourselves onto the story. Kaminsky ends the poem:
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.
As the scope widens from “house” to “street” and all the way out to “our great country,” the net of complicity widens, too, to include every reader and — importantly — the speaker himself. It’s a chilling admission, but one that earns our trust. From the beginning, Kaminsky makes his intent clear: he will hold up a mirror to himself, and, if we happen to catch our own reflection, we would be wise to join him in owning our failures — political, personal, or otherwise.
So, with the sound of our own country “falling” around us, “Deaf Republic” begins. The two-act narrative follows first a married couple named Sonya and Alfonso Barabinski. Sonya’s cousin, the “Dramatis Personae” page tells us, is Petya — the boy whose murder instigates the town’s chosen deafness.
But even this basic narrative proposition — that the town chooses deafness — needs closer examination. “The Townspeople of Vasenka” (who function as a chorus) address this plot point explicitly, saying, “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.” Yet other moments suggest that something — almost mythical — has, as the editor’s prefatory note phrases it, “render[ed] the entire town deaf.”
Before we know of any public choice, we see, in the opening scene, young Petya shot and killed in the public square. We are told by the townspeople, “The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.” Though they’ve not yet “refused to hear,” they “do not hear” the gunshot. Kneeling by his dead nephew, Alfonso, too, hears only through touch: “He puts one hand to the ground,” the chorus tells us in a prose passage. “He hears the cars stop, doors slam, dogs bark. When he pulls his hand off the ground, he hears nothing.”
And yet, throughout the book, the townspeople speak (and listen) to each other. While we might take this, at first, as a narrative inconsistency, I think it’s best understood through a Keatsian “negative capability.” Kaminsky asks us to accept both propositions at once: that the town has chosen deafness as a form of resistance — and also that the opening scene’s tragedy has somehow rendered the town deaf. Though difficult to digest, this paradox gives the town — and deafness — a sense of agency. For if an entire town can (and would) choose deafness, then perhaps we’ve misunderstood the nature of deafness. This paradox aligns with a note at the end of the book. “The deaf don’t believe in silence,” Kaminsky writes. “Silence is the invention of the hearing.”
This complicated relationship with silence allows Kaminsky to define deafness not in relation to hearing but rather on its own terms. In a book about power and its abuse, this point is worth taking seriously. Kaminsky demands that we reevaluate our own language — about deaf culture, about silence itself — in a time when language in the larger, cultural public square has never been more vitriolic.
Just as the origin of this deafness is unclear, so, too, is the effect of silence as a political tool. Certainly, Kaminsky recognizes its power — it unsettles the soldiers and allows the town to create its own sign language (represented ingeniously as such in the text) — but he recognizes its dangers, as well.
When, eventually, Alfonso is taken by the soldiers, the chorus admits their own complicity: “We let them take him, all of us cowards […] They take Alfonso / and no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.” Though we might read this last sentence as resistance, it rings hollow when, on the next page, “Alfonso hangs from a rope.”
Kaminsky addresses the problem of silence directly in a poem entitled “A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck.” Before he’s taken, Alfonso murders a soldier. The town applauds, but, in the poem’s final couplet, they reconsider: “At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?”
This moment represents well both Kaminsky’s poetics and his theology. We may read this couplet one (or both) of two ways: God exists, and, if he were on trial, he’d speak our condemnation back to us, holding us accountable for our approval of violence. Or (we cannot help but wonder), perhaps the answer is only an echo — and it’s not God’s voice we hear, but our own, bouncing back from an abyss that holds no God.
The second act only furthers this tragic uncertainty. At first, Momma Galya’s sly revolutionary tactics seem successful. But moments of local hope kneel in the shadow of a larger, inevitable tragedy. In a brilliant short lyric entitled “What Are Days,” Kaminsky writes:
Like middle-aged men,
the days of May
walk to prisons.
Like young men they walk to prisons,
thrown over their pajamas.
In “Deaf Republic,” not even time is safe from Vasenka’s occupation. These “young men” have, it seems, been taken from their beds in the middle of night — and have had time only to throw on “overcoats.”
Still, all is not hopeless:
Bless each thing on earth until it sickens,
until each ungovernable heart admits: I confused myself
and yet I loved — and what I loved
I forgot, what I forgot brought glory to my travels,
to you I traveled as close as I dared, Lord.
In “Galya’s Toast,” though “each thing on earth” will sicken, Momma Galya still sings her benediction. This joyful song — which springs directly from the well of suffering — finds her addressing God in a different tone than we saw in the trial. Despite confusion, each heart will say: “and yet I loved.” And despite the fact that each will forget their loved ones, still the love will have “brought glory” to the traveling.
But the poem ends in murky ambivalence: “[T]o you I traveled as close as I dared, Lord.” This poem offers hope — but an authentic hope, more akin to that of the suffering psalmist than to the televangelist. And, like the psalmist — who writes in Psalm 111 that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” — Kaminsky refuses to explain why one might not “dare” travel too close to the divine — though the echo of Icarus’ myth suggests at least one possibility.
If the story of “Deaf Republic” begins with the report of a single gunshot, then it ends in a silence that is not silence at all. The last page of the long poem contains no “text” in the sense of words and lines — instead Kaminsky gives us four signs. Many readers will encounter these signs as silence. But, as Kaminsky reminds us, silence “is the invention of the hearing.” Though Vasenka has surrendered, still, the signs tell us (loosely), “The town watches earth’s story.” It’s a small consolation — that, despite the human tragedy, earth tells a story — but, in this instance, the hope offered by the poem’s form exceeds that given by its content.
I’m tempted to say I wish the book had ended here — instead of continuing past the story’s end. But a final poem — “In a Time Of Peace” — serves as a kind of bookend-sequel to “We Lived Happily During The War.” Unfortunately, without the lens of fictional narrative, much of this last poem feels like being tapped repeatedly on the shoulder and asked whether we’ve “gotten” the book’s analogy between Vasenka and contemporary America.
Nevertheless, the final stanza of “In a Time of Peace” — for all of the poem’s heavy-handedness — delivers one of the finest moments in recent contemporary American poetry:
I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.
These lines need little by way of parsing. Deaf Republic is a masterfully wrought collection, and this last stanza does justice to every line that precedes it. Here, the speaker finds beauty all about him — and, in response, cannot help but offer up a song of praise.
And yet, like so much of Deaf Republic, this final joy holds profound sorrow — indeed, it’s woven into the very syntax of the final line. Kaminsky knows the bright sky will solve nothing. But despite — or even because of — this awareness of suffering, he does not simply offer us joy. He demands it from us.