Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber)
by Ilya Kaminsky
It almost seems from the plethora of online and mainstream media reviews, and the extensive Big Gun quotations on the front and back dustcovers of Deaf Republic, that there are very few people left who have not heaped praise on Ilya Kaminsky’s second full collection. So, is another review really necessary? A book can be over-reviewed after all. A great deal has been written, much of it is very insightful, and Kaminsky’s book is as good as his yay-sayers claim; but even after all the clamour and commentary, I feel there are a few things which have, surprisingly, been left out of the conversation so far.
The first is that for all its originality and power, Deaf Republic is not the only recent book to have looked through the prism of poetry at the cruelty and oppression that comes with the arrival of an authoritarian, militaristic regime. The rather under-reviewed The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey provides a different, less narrative-driven, and in some ways more devastatingly intimate evocation, which puts totalitarianism itself under the microscope, breaking down the lyric almost entirely, rather than commandeering it as Kaminsky does. Both approaches work, and together they could be seen as key political/poetical texts of our time; but they should be read in tandem, and why Hinsey’s work has not attracted more attention mystifies me (although her social media invisibility as compared to Kaminsky’s enthusiastic embrace of Twitter could be one explanation, and his startlingly charismatic public readings could be another).
Secondly, the name that leapt into my mind as I read Deaf Republic, but which appeared in none of the reviews I have read is that of Bertolt Brecht, whose non-Aristotelian drama surely provides the framework within which Deaf Republic’s aesthetic develops. The work fits a Brechtian reading in several ways. The action pushes forward in ‘scenes’ with the narrative drive of theatre and it includes two acts and a dramatis personae, and yet each scene is a discrete poem which also stands effectively on its own, resisting the flow of traditional drama as Brecht’s drama does. The opening line of Act One, “Our country is the stage”, is both Shakespearean and Brechtian, as is the play-within-a-play technique hinted at by the puppet theatre and the frequent puppet-related references to characters – in both cases the reality of history and society subordinate any ideas of ‘entertainment’. Both the use of a fake Ukrainian town and the bookending of the narrative with a prologue and epilogue are strategies that work to alienate the reader, distancing them from the emotion inevitable in the contemporary America of the final poem, which juxtaposes a cop shooting a man through his open car window with the President’s wife clipping her toenails. Is this not something close to the Verfremdungseffekt? The lack of back story (who actually are Alfonso and Sonya?) and resolution (what becomes of Anushka?) also serve to create a distant and universal “folk-drama that feels archetypal” as Andrew Motion’s front-of-book blurb has it. And, without wishing to (further) labour the point, the lyricism of the poetry, or certain heightened moments of it, could also be seen as analogous to Brechtian songs, not used so much to entertain as to underline, to jolt and to ‘teach’. It would only take a small leap to imagine these lines from the end of Act One being sung to the music of Kurt Weil:
“Such is the story made of stubbornness and a little air –
a story signed by those who danced wordless before God.
Who whirled and leapt. Giving voice to consonants that rise
with no protection but each other’s ears.
We are on our bellies in this quiet, Lord.”
But these lines invoke and address God, which Kaminsky does frequently, and which suggests, along with some wonderfully light-touch eroticism, a passion at work here which goes beyond the Brechtian/Marxist passion for social change. The tragic lovers and even Alfonso’s incongruously Hispanic name suggest that perhaps someone like Federico Garcia Lorca may be another influential poet-dramatist. And there will be others as well, unknown to me, but to be clear: none of this detracts from the originality of a tone which is, in the end, Kaminskian.
Third, there has been a lot written about the what of Deaf Republic and a fair amount about the why, but relatively little about the how, not on the level of how specific language attains its effect, anyway. Raymond Antrobus has written rightly in The Telegraph about how the varyingly-lengthed lines buzz along the white of the page like the course of a bullet or a piece of spit, but most commentators have focused on his overall lyricism, the breadth of his imagination and his metaphors rather than the technical effects of Kaminsky’s language choices. Reviews are generally not long enough to have space for such specifics, but this is my blog, I have as long as I want, and I feel compelled to make an observation:
The short, simple (i.e. single-clause) sentences linked with punctuation rather than conjunctions (which are rare so that when they do occur the reader sits up – “On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky / because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky” – combine with generally uncontracted verbs and negatives (see above ‘cannot’ rather than ‘can’t’, for example) to maintain a rhythm and register that can be read, certainly by western European and American readers, as Slavic, peasant-like (perhaps the simple structures encourage us to feel it has been translated from a more vernacular original?) and therefore redolent of Peter-and-the-Wolf-style folk tales (as per Motion’s comment). This in turn combines with frequent moments which utilize a dated register to punctuate particular, vivid imagery:
“Observe this moment
– how it convulses –
The body of a boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip.
The body of a boy lies on the asphalt
like the body of a boy.”
The words “observe” and “how” (these lines can be read simultaneously as “look at the way this moment convulses” and “look at this moment, oh how it convulses!”) prepare the ground for this remarkable simile and its subsequent negation by raising the lines to a tone which gestures towards heightened nineteenth-century styles of literary expression (“Such is the story…” is another example). This style is consistent with the ‘universal parable’ nature of the story’s landscape, but one of Kaminsky’s great skills is to combine this use of language with references and word-choices that jolt us back out of the folk-world-feel into something that appears much closer and more real (“My people, you were really something fucking fine / on the morning of the first arrests”; “a helicopter eyeballs my wife”; “So much sunlight – / a t-shirt falls off a clothesline…”). In this way, Vasenka and its inhabitants become real/unreal, modern/historic, distant/up-close, and achieve an unusually plain and affecting power.
Finally, reviews have noted glowingly Kaminsky’s extraordinary use of deafness/Deafness and silence as a means of evoking resistance and, as Dzifa Benson puts it in Poetry Review as “a will to power”. Benson’s use of the Nietzschean term is particularly interesting and although I’m not sure it’s quite right (even if power is taken to mean growth and self-overcoming), some further thought about what Kaminsky does with deafness/Deafness in Deaf Republic might be worthwhile because it is so central to the cumulative effect and originality of the book, and perhaps even to this poet’s particular claim to genius. Actually, Kaminsky does not ‘use’ deafness at all, he transforms it. And I think there are three levels to this transformation: 1) into a metaphor (deafness to authority as a form of resistance); 2) into an ability (to see past the ‘invention’ of silence); and 3) ultimately into a productive rather than receptive phenomenon. The first is complex and fascinating but already dealt with in existing reviews. The second is revelatory for hearing people as it turns a previously fixed notion into a relative one: just as those bodies with built-in air-vibration-reading machines create the idea of sound, so they must invent its opposite, or inversion, i.e. silence. To bodies which do not possess air-vibration-reading-machines there is no such thing as sound and therefore no such thing as silence. They are, then, able to perceive a world without the sound/silence duality, one where sight-signal and touch-signal are unfettered by such distractions and distortions as this duality can conjure. In Kaminsky, then, sound becomes silence before they both evaporate, leaving an altogether new landscape, a landscape represented at the end of the book where the final poem before the epilogue, unlisted in the contents page, consists entirely of sign-illustrations. The third level of transformation is part of the first two and yet more radical than both, the sum being greater than the parts as it were: by exploiting its metaphorical potential and energizing it positively as an ability as opposed to a disability, Kaminsky proposes deafness as a mechanism for output rather than a barrier to input. This, ultimately, is the central proposition from which much of the book’s power flows. The creative force of deafness issues forth from the story, its characters, and its aesthetic just as the globule of phlegm issues forth from Petya the deaf boy towards the sergeant in ‘Gunshot’. This is, as far as I know, a genuine departure from the way that deafness has been represented before, it is both empowering for the Deaf and awareness-altering for the Hearing. I might, therefore, tweak Benson’s “will to power” and suggest “will to empowerment”.
There is no doubt that Deaf Republic, along with The illegal Age, are the two recent collections which most effectively and intelligently provide the kind of insights into our increasingly charged political age that poetry is uniquely suited to offer.
You can buy Deaf Republic from Faber and Faber here.
You can buy The Illegal Age from Arc here.