Essays

Something Silent in Us Strengthens

by Kristen Millares Young | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. Ilya Kaminsky reads at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 1 at Broadway Performance Hall—Seattle Central College. 

I read Deaf Republic in one swoop, felled.

Ilya Kaminsky’s poems quickened me in a way I returned to, waking, in the middle of the night. “I, this body into which the hand of God plunged, / empty-chested, / stand.” Sleepless, grappling with God—that lucid cruelty, if present; our condemnation, if absent—dilemmas I discarded when I was young. In the morning, still it was there, that double echo, the grief of a faith I lost long ago. “Lord, such fire / from a match you never lit.”

Set in a snowbound town called Vasenka, Deaf Republic is a polyphonic parable of militaristic aggressions and civic resistance, catalyzed by the shooting of a deaf boy, Petya—“The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.”—and the grievous plight of a couple who loved him.

At the moment of Petya’s murder by an unstable leader so insecure he considers mockery a threat to the state, the people of Vasenka practice deafness as a form of insurgency, their ears made impermeable to the orders and interrogations of soldiers.

Deafness is suspended above the blue tin roofs
and copper eaves; deafness
feeds on birches, light posts, hospital roofs, bells;
deafness rests in our men’s chests.
Our girls sign, Start.

The trouble, once begun, is unalloyed. Townspeople unite and divide, finding meaning only to lose their lives, each small rebellion compounded by vengeful acts from a state so like our own, yet easier to see on the scale of a small town. Kaminsky renders a fractured theater of fraught scenes in verse interspersed with metacommentary illustrated in sign language, a pair of hands repeating phrases drawn from the poems.

And who is this poet sent to trouble my conscience, to subtle my consciousness, this book sent to me with stories of a dead boy, red spray on snow, the recurrent appearance of puppets, of Sonya and her soaped shoulders, spit on a woman’s face, of soldiers, spent and garroted, in a town soon shamed by its silence?

An American, born Russian in Odessa (a Ukrainian city formerly of the Soviet Union), hard of hearing and master of multiple languages, Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa, co-editor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, and the winner of a 2018 Guggenheim.

I met him once, at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference hosted by the Centrum Foundation, where he taught during the day and at night forsook his own writing time to attend literary performances by fellow faculty. After, Kaminsky approached the authors to ask for copies of their poems and prose, twice attentive to their art, first in community—watching their faces, their lips—then alone.

Before his own reading, mindful of attention to his voice, he passed out copies of his poems. Wanting to follow along, I was instead riveted by his performance, his pacing, the emotion there for the taking. “We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins—”

It is easy to get lost in the halls of power. Ambition, vanity, mortal terror. Such is the confusion of humanity’s clamor for grandeur. Steeped in the ardor of resilience and the burdensome necessity of freed speech, Deaf Republic opens and closes with poems that make explicit the connection between Vasenka and the United States, revealing the parable between as a manifestation of how deeply we are lodged inside fractals of oppression.

Still, Kaminsky sights a horizon beyond the despair of living in an America “falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.” With Deaf Republic, he calls upon your divine self—yes, you—to answer for our collective failures. “At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?”

In the time we have remaining, Kaminsky asks that we commit to exaltation as an honest response to our beleaguered world. “You will find me, God, / like a dumb pigeon’s beak / I am pecking / every which way at astonishment.”

Agnostic as I am, I find in Deaf Republic’s heartcry a rigor that corresponds to my own hope to better our nation. “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.” For now it is enough to know I do not ache alone. “You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens.

Forgive me this happiness, my paean to a poet who writes without fear in our era of undeclared war.

Serving as the current prose writer in residence at Hugo House, Kristen Millares Young is the author of Subduction, a novel forthcoming from Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020.