The opening poem of Ilya Kaminsky’s second collection, Deaf Republic, is titled “We Lived Happily During the War.” That title also serves as the opening line of the poem, and this the opening line of the book, and because the first word is “we,” Kaminsky is making the reader a part of the experience of the book and its narrative. The poem makes that clear in the early lines, which read “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we // protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not // enough.” The speaker of the poem switches to “I” for the next four lines, but comes back to the collective speaker at the end, with a long sentence that ends “we (forgive us) // lived happily during the war.” It’s a powerful rhetorical strategy for a poet to use, that first person plural that does more than invite the reader to engage with the work, but rather incorporates them into it, to be a part of the narrative rather than an observer of it, especially when there’s a taste of moral judgment included in that “(forgive us).”
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Deaf Republic, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Ilya Kaminsky, you’ll need to subscribe by January 20!
It’s of course an understatement to say there’s a lot going on in Deaf Republic. There’s a dramatis personae page, which introduces us to the various people who inhabit Vasenka, the town where the action of the poems takes place, and the book itself is divided into two acts, reinforcing the dramatic and narrative structure. Included on some of the pages are drawings of hands illustrating sign language—the inhabitants of Vasenka are deaf, which happens after a soldier shoots and kills a young deaf boy during a political protest—and this adds to the reading of the individual poems as well as the book as a whole. The sign language, Kaminsky says in the endnotes was invented by the townspeople “as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.”
What I found most interesting about this book, though, is the way Kaminsky blurs the lines of place. The setting is Vasenka, but we’re never told where in the world that is. The last names of the characters suggest Russia or one of the Baltic states, and the actions of the soldiers in the story, as well as those of the townspeople who resist them, fit the mold of the Cold War era stories and movies I grew up around. But then maybe you start to think about the ways in which police forces in US cities degrade and abuse members of their communities, or the treatment of asylum seekers by the US Border Patrol and the military, and you wonder if Kaminsky is talking about a town in Eastern Europe after all, especially in the closing poem, “In a Time of Peace,” which includes the lines:
Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement for hours.
We see in his open mouth
of the whole nation.
We watch. Watch
The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy.
It is a peaceful country.
Kaminsky refuses to allow the reader to think they’re separate from the violence the state visits upon some of its citizens. Deaf Republic does more than engage us as readers—it pulls us into the narrative and demands we see ourselves in Vasenka, as a member of the town with choices to make about how to respond to the power that surrounds us.
Please join me in February as we read and discuss Deaf Republic, first together and then with Ilya Kaminsky in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by January 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!