Kaminsky was born in 1977 in Odessa, then part of the Soviet Union. At age four, a case of the mumps was misdiagnosed as a cold; as a result, he lost almost all of his hearing. In 1993, he and his family, fleeing anti-Semitism, were granted asylum in the United States. Kaminsky barely knew the English alphabet upon his arrival in Rochester, New York, but he quickly learned the language and, incredibly, began writing poetry in English soon thereafter. (Kaminsky has described writing these first poems in English as a response to his father’s death: “I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it…. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom.”) In 2004, he published his first, remarkable book of poetry, Dancing in Odessa. This past March, fifteen years later, he published his second, equally remarkable collection, Deaf Republic.
All of Kaminsky’s work does what Wallace Stevens said modern poetry must do: “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time. It has to think about war / And it has to find what will suffice.” Kaminsky’s latest book, Deaf Republic, thinks deeply about war, opening with one kind of state violence (“And when they bombed other people’s houses, we // protested / but not enough”) and closing with another: “Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement / for hours.” It finds, painfully and tenderly, what will suffice: the love between a husband and wife (“I am not a poet, Sonya, / I want to live in your hair”); the wonder of sensory experience (“How bright is the sky / as the avenue spins on its axis”). And through its sense-soaked imagery and bold experimentation, it is, to quote Stevens’s last requirement, living.
The book’s central, long poem, “Deaf Republic,” begins with an act of political violence. A young deaf boy named Petya, laughing at a puppet show, is shot dead by soldiers in the imaginary republic of Vasenka. The citizens of this Ukraine-inspired republic rebel, and their rebellion takes the form of deafness: “Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.” Kaminsky describes this refusal to hear not as a lessening of power but as an amplification: “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.”
The state reacts to such defiance as you might expect—setting up “hearing checkpoints,” publicly hanging leaders of the resistance as a warning. The citizens, despite such threats, continue their defiance, inventing a new sign language to facilitate clandestine communication. (The book contains regular illustrations of this imagined sign language, which mixes American Sign Language with Russian, Ukrainian, and other languages.)
Over its roughly seventy pages, “Deaf Republic” shifts temporality, moving between the wartime present, in which “each person does something for our country,” and the prewar past, in which a speaker named Alfonso lovingly remembers his early days of marital bliss: “I kissed a woman / whose freckles / arouse the neighbors”; “The landlady might’ve noticed / a drizzle of stains on the sheets— / angels could do it more neatly // but they don’t.” The poem also shifts between poetry and prose, offering longer stretches of narrative description interspersed with moments of condensed lyricism: “On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky // because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky.”
By the poem’s end, bright hope has given way to crushing failure. Citizen turns against citizen. As one leader of the rebellion walks through the streets, she is accosted by her neighbors: “My sister was arrested because of your revolution, one spits in her face. Another takes her by the hair, I will open your skull and scramble your eggs!” Rebellious silence, so exhilarating at the book’s beginning, transforms into cowered silence: “They take Alfonso / and no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.”