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Arguing with God

by Rob Lipton

Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2019, 80 pages, $16.00 paperback,

LIKE A SCREENPLAY WRITTEN by Samuel Beckett, there is a cinematic level of description: a town being invaded, a town fighting back, and then a kind of reckoning; this is all graphically/multi-dimensionally set out, but then the deeper spirits of language, imagery and silence are conjured with the precision of psychic geography:


watch children but feel under the bare feet of their thoughts

the cold stone of the city.

(from "Search Patrols," page 63)

Yes, there is joy and discovery here, but I write this review fully implicated in the work already, as the author, Ilya Kaminsky, clearly and magisterially intends. To make this unambiguous he bookends his mid-twentieth century story with very current events happening here in the U.S. Make no mistake, Deaf Republic depicts brutally direct violence in three acts, but this isn't (entirely) true either. There is also love and deep romance, and a rueful Dostoyevskyian arguing with god:

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?

(from "A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck," page 40)

This question lingers and grows as a kind of whispering Greek chorus, building throughout the book. And, of course, clicking wooden puppets as part of this Greek chorus, a percussion section, if you will:

…each man is already

a finger flipped at the sky.

(from "Soldiers Aim at Us," page 20)

Or perhaps God is the echo of a deaf chorus? We start with the opening poem, "We Lived Happily During the War," also a kind of internalized whispered prayer or beseeching for personal/collective forgiveness for essentially "standing by" in today's America, where Kaminsky writes:

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 move quickly from this frontispiece to the tableau of a town somewhere in Russia, caught between nineteenth century village squares, where wooden puppets tussle and twentieth century helicopters circle overhead during an invasion/pogram, but there is nothing to hear for the deaf. The deaf that could never hear, and the deaf that refuse to hear, like the boy in Tin Drum who refuses to grow, and cuts through glass and screams to bring the end of the world. The beginning of the story could be the beginning of yet another invasion that is occurring somewhere else to someone else; there is no end. The principal characters sound like that in a parable or a story about one town's disaster in the Bloodlands of eastern Europe and western Russia (the place of the author's birth, and where he was raised till immigration to the U.S.):

We see in Sonya's open mouth

the nakedness

of a whole nation.

She stretches out

beside the little snowman napping in the middle of the street.

As picking up its belly the country runs.

(from "As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy's Face With a Newpaper," page 12)

The deaf here carry the silence of the just abandoned battleground. We are led by multiple voices throughout the poems; the townspeople, the lovers, their child, the partisan theater owner. This is a war/horror story, told in poems, where lovers part, plans are wrought, unforgivable choices made, and the horrors of mid-twentieth century wars are detailed unflinchingly. The story here, while familiar, is transformed through the poetry that, while spare and light on the page, hits hard like etchings on a Goya created for his Disasters of War series. And too, there is a constant zooming in and out between the very smallest gesture and its larger context. The language is arresting, unexpected, revelatory:

…the flag is the towel the wind dries its hands on.

(from "In Bombardment, Galya," page 57)

There is an inspokenness occurring throughout; no matter who is speaking someone else is "speaking" within, and the town itself narrates:

Sonya watches her puppet, the puppet watches the Sergeant, the Sargent watches Sonya and Alfonso, but the rest of us watch Petya lean back, gather all the spit in his throat, and launch it at the Sergeant.

The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.

(from "Gunshot," page 11)

There are layers here that are set against each other. In the poem "The Townspeople Circle the Boy's Body" the dead boy is spooned by a pregnant (and soon to be dead) Sonya; her growing unborn child is extending his leg as she stands up; the townspeople form circles around the dead boy, and a sign, that is also a title/chapter heading, is raised by Sonya: "THE PEOPLE ARE DEAF."

The layering is asymmetric and works almost as slant rhymes do. You get it, but it's not a direct "sound." And, too, there is a playfulness with form that is hiding in plain sight. The "Dramatis Personae" page is a poem:

GALYA'S PUPPETEERS—teach signs from the theater balcony, as if regulating traffic:

for Soldier—finger like a beak pecks one eye.

for Snitch—fingers peck both eyes.

for Army Jeep—clenched fist moves forward.

(page 7)

The poem titles act as chapter and scene titles, as well as a reminder to the reader that this is a story of war…and love, and a battle with God. Titles alternate, page to page, between beautifully violent images such as "A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck" and the simply beautiful "In the Bright Sleeve of the Sky." The former is about the lynching of a soldier, with the beautiful prayer/lament that bears repeating:

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?

Ilya Kaminsky's poetry demands that you pay attention in ways that go well beyond the standard workshop bromide because actual sign language is employed throughout the book. These signs act as a kind of Greek chorus, repeating/echoing, as well as commenting on/announcing what is occurring through a poignant visual vocabulary and punctuation. It's a beautiful and effective choice that makes the book more textured and dimensional. Thus, we get the commentary of the puppets, the deafness as a weapon, and as a protest, titles as directive plot pointers, sign language as commentary and emphasis. The visual illumination was given further dimensionality in The New Yorker, (February 11, 2019) where the sign language is colored and animated:

And, there is a romantic earthiness that seems impossible in American poetry. In "To Live" we have a baby hoisted above a father, peeing on the father's head and shoulders. There is love and memory all over this short, linking poem. And in the poem in the poem "The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso," there is a kind of breath before the indictment of "standing by":

…each of us is

a witness stand:

Here, we are given a scene, and then the town speaks, and its players are judged. Furthermore, there is a pleading, but it's not clear if anyone can hear. The "deaf republic" takes this part seriously, silence is something not only felt but wielded as a weapon, thrown as an insult or a rebuke. It's also treated as a kind of conscious epidemic, spreading faster than thought, thus a too easy comparison to Saramago's Blindness, which monochromatically (pun intended) describes the "fall of man," is unwarranted. Ilya Kaminsky writes in colors and provides a primer on how barbarity is a language felt in all the senses.

Deafness is never treated as a deficit in this town, save for the way we, in our "today" seem voluntarily deaf (and blind) in our world; worst/best is that we know it and we carry on. The author never lets this end as an ending: there is an Elegy, an Epilogue and a final prayer that brings things full circle, where the quotidian is celebrated (and condemned).

It is a peaceful country.

And it clips our citizens' bodies

effortlessly, the way the President's wife trims her toenails.

All of us

still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments,

of remembering to make

a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add a little salt.

(from "In a Time of Peace," page 76)

The magic of this book is that there are no "final thoughts" or "summing up." There is a constant questioning and refusal to succumb to outrage. Yes, we are all implicated, but in what? Well, life, actually:

You will find me, God,

like a dumb pigeon's beak, I am


every which way at astonishment.

(from "A Cigarette," page 30)

Rob Lipton's poetry book is A Complex Bravery, from Marick Press. He was the most recent poet laureate of Richmond, California, and is developing a literary arts program for the city. He works as a spatial epidemiologist.

— posted JUNE 2021

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