Courting Silence

Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘Deaf Republic’
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937 (Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia © Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2012)

In a 2013 essay, the poet Ilya Kaminsky identifies a literary tradition in which poetry shades into something like apophaticism—a way of doing theology that recognizes the inability of language to fully capture God. In the work of poets such as Paul Celan and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kaminsky argues, words are wrenched and contorted in order to express that which exceeds words. Language begins to break down and, in its breaking, to gesture toward the unsayable.

Kaminsky quotes the twentieth-century American poet John Berryman, who asserted that “nouns, verbs do not exist for what I feel.” And he quotes Walt Whitman, whose “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” contains this harrowing line: “Death, death, death, death, death.” At this moment in Whitman’s poem, Kaminsky writes, “words lose meaning and become just sounds of themselves, opening into a territory of less guided, more given meaning.” In such poems, and for such poets, language undoes language, opening into a dark territory in which meaning is more given than made, profoundly and irrevocably mysterious.

Kaminksy’s own poetry exists within the same tradition. In his work, words break, falter, and fail, and become all the more alive for it. Kaminsky’s poems frequently court silence. As he observes in his debut collection Dancing in Odessa, the truest speech, the speech that would most honor that which we hope to express, would be “lines / sewn entirely of silence.” It’s in silence that poetry, like prayer, arises. And it’s in silence, to quote Kaminsky’s recently published Deaf Republic, that we recognize that “the voice we cannot hear—is the clearest voice.”


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 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.”


Kaminsky speaks of our darkest days, of tyranny and death. Yet he sings of the world—of poetry and dance and sex and love—with the highest praise.

Bookending this long narrative poem are two shorter lyrics, “We Lived Happily during the War” and “In a Time of Peace,” set not in Vasenka but in the United States. Lest American readers feel some comfort at our distance from the violence described in “Deaf Republic,” the book’s opening and closing poems directly (and prophetically) implicate us, calling us to acknowledge the violence that we—through our military, through our economy—sanction every day, without end. Capitalism, that American ideal, is a system whose very health depends upon exploitation; it’s just that we conveniently ignore, or forget, or explain away this fact. As “We Lived Happily during the War” puts it, “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.” We can pretend that we have nothing to do with political repression or extrajudicial violence, that we aren’t like them—those states and citizens we see on the news and so easily ignore. But Deaf Republic wants to shock us into moral responsibility: “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?”

Yet, as much as Deaf Republic attends to the barbarism of war, it also speaks of the love—romantic, familial, and communal—that might resist such violence. Kaminsky’s poems are filled with exquisite renderings of love in its many forms: a husband and wife bathing together; a father hoisting his baby to the sky; a people dying for its freedom. Here is one short poem, “In the Bright Sleeve of the Sky,” quietly describing a father’s tenderness toward his child born during war:

            Is that you, little soul?

Sometimes at night I


light a lamp so as not

to see.


I tiptoe,



drowsing in my palms:


on my balding head, her bonnet.

A later poem describes this same child, Anushka, being cared for by Galya, a puppet-theater owner and leader of the insurgency:

Anushka, your pajamas—

they are the final meanings of my life.


To get you into your pajamas,



So much to live for.

Such loving attention, the poem suggests, doesn’t negate hatred or war: Anushka is eventually ripped from Galya’s arms; Galya is herself killed. But love continues to assert itself nonetheless. It, too, constitutes a large part of the final meanings of any life.

I myself fell in love with Kaminsky’s work when I read the first poem in his first collection, Dancing in Odessa. The poem is called “Author’s Prayer.” Here’s how it ends:

Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,


I will praise your madness, and

in a language not mine, speak


of music that wakes us, music

in which we move. For whatever I say


is a kind of petition, and the darkest

days must I praise.

Kaminsky speaks of our darkest days, of tyranny and death. Yet he sings of the world—of poetry and dance and sex and love—with the highest praise. As he writes in Deaf Republic, “You will find me, God, / like a dumb pigeon’s beak, I am / pecking / every which way at astonishment.”

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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