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Review: ‘Deaf Republic’ by Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic — framed as a two-act play — takes the reader into a country whose characters move constantly from one stage to another: from the public stage of an occupied town in a time of political unrest, via a local puppet theatre, to that of one’s own home.

The first poem of Act One opens with ‘Our Country is the stage’. This is the stage in the sense of a public, political space, but also, perhaps, the stage as phase— a point in time that keeps changing and never grants stability or safety. Indeed, right from the start, events accelerate from one stage to the next. Even the description of the characters in the list of dramatis personae evokes a change-in-the-making, as portrayed in the description of the Child:


CHILD—inside Sonya, seahorse-sized, sleeping, and later, Anushka.


Act One begins with an end. The first poem, ‘Gunshot’, takes place on a stage within a stage — a puppet theatre show in the central square of an occupied town — and depicts the event that leads to the country’s rejection of sound. The poem is entitled ‘Gunshot’, yet as we reach its end we don’t hear the gunshot, only trace its visual impact:


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


The citizens of the republic respond to the horror by rejecting sound as a way of communication (‘Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers’) and yet, sound manifests itself throughout the collection in other forms. It is found in the visual description of its very absence, as when Sonya the puppeteer reacts to the gunshot (‘…her shout a hole’), in the description of deafness by means of unbearable, intrusive sounds (‘deafness passes through us like a police whistle’), as well as in moments of poignant-dramatic tenderness, as when playing the piano to a new-born baby in the poem ‘Arrival’:


Sonya sets you atop the piano and plays a lullaby no one hears.


The image of a mother playing to her baby transforms into a scene reminiscent of a silent film — we cannot hear the music and yet, somehow, we trust it is there. We can imagine the piano keys moving, as well as the instrument’s vibrations that reach the baby on top of it.

Like the snow that keeps falling from one page to another, the sound the citizens can’t hear echoes loudly from poem to poem. In the poem ‘That Map of Bone’ and ‘Opened Valves’, the gunshot from the first poem returns, this time as an echo, both of the sound itself and of the visualisation of it:


Be courageous, we say, but no one

is courageous, as the sound we do not hear

lifts the birds off the water.


Towards the end of Act One, in ‘A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck’, the motif of echo returns, this time in the form of revenge, followed by a question-and-answer mirror, itself an echo that could potentially keep resonating endlessly:


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?


The two stages— the public stage which manifests itself in terror and fear, where the citizens are the central characters, the audience, or both, and the stage of the puppet theatre, the one that brings joy and relief as well as resistance— often merge in dark, unsettling images. Throughout the collection, citizens and soldiers transform into puppets themselves. Even posters function like characters on a stage, speaking without sound:


In a bombed-out street, wind moves the lips of a politician on a poster.


When Sonya the puppeteer is taken by the soldiers, she transforms into a puppet, playing ‘hundreds of old pianos forming a bridge’ in ‘What We Cannot Hear’:


and what remains of her is



a puppet

that speaks with fingers


The political and theatrical stages become even harder to untangle in Act Two, which follows the story of Moma Galya, the theatre owner who rescues baby Anushka and who instigates insurgency from within the theatre itself. The poem Galya’s Puppeteers provides a detailed description of the ways the puppeteers tempt and strangle the soldiers, all behind the theatre curtains.

During Act Two, the town’s streets are filled with more and more puppets— a puppet for every shot citizen— which are dangled on the door handles. In the poem ‘The Trial’, Moma Galya and Anushka seem to transform into one puppet as they walk:


Wearing a child like a broken arm, Galya sidles through Central Square


This description echoes the description of a puppet in the dramatis personae:


PUPPETS— hang on doors and porches…except for one puppet lying on the cement: a middle-aged woman wearing a child like a broken arm, her mouth filling with snow.


Amidst the horror, fear and grief, the need to play, create, laugh and improvise is beautifully evoked throughout the collection, as in the poem ‘To Live’, in which the states of grief and playfulness are deeply interlinked:


But love is not enough—



the heart needs a little foolishness!

For our child I fold the newspaper, make a hat



and pretend to Sonya that I am the greatest poet

and she pretends to be alive—


All through the collection, deafness is portrayed as a complex form of defiance. The language that is not spoken nevertheless retains its physical form and seeks space, as depicted in ‘The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso’: ‘What we don’t say / we carry in our suitcases, coat pockets, our nostrils’. In addition, the new language that resists sound can lead— like any other language— in opposite directions: it can act as a protective, essential form of communication and resistance, but it can also be used, or indeed abused, for other purposes. While temporary deafness is the result of the inability to cope with the horror, it can also be exploited by parts of society as a means of ignoring each other’s pleas in moments of utmost need. When Alfonso is tormented by four soldiers on the sidewalk, the chorus realises that the price it has paid for turning into a chorus of silence is that of complicity.


They take Alfonso

and no one stands up. Our silence stands for us.


Similarly, in the second act, when baby Anushka is taken from Moma Galya, deafness is turned into a weapon used to ignore her:


She shouts.

They point to their ears.


And yet, at the same time sign language in Deaf Republic functions as a solution — both political and deeply personal, resisting and creative, one that can grant protection, as well as strength and hope, as expressed towards the end of the collection:


Don’t be afraid, a child signs to a tree, a door


Throughout the collection, poems are accompanied by Makaton signs of a newly-invented sign-language. Each picture is accompanied by a translation, and so the readers are invited to pause and learn the signs. The last poem of the two-act narrative is comprised solely of signs, with no translation. By that point, the reader is capable of reading them without help. It provides a moment of silence that is nevertheless packed with action and drama. Perhaps this is what the author asks us to consider in the last note of the book— ‘On Silence’:


The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.


While Deaf Republic is set in the fictional town of Vasenka, the two-act narrative is preceded and followed by poems that make it clear that the setting is always near and urgent. Vasenka may be a fictional town, but the author is asking us to look around and see that the events are closer than we may realise. In the poem that follows Deaf Republic and concludes the book, ‘In a Time of Peace’, we are urgently reminded that the idea of peace is always relative, fragile and applies only to a few.

Deaf Republic deals with the ways we use language as form of communication, creativity and resistance; it concerns with the lines between private and public spaces, art and politics— and asks us to consider whether such lines exist at all. Reading the book, I could find sound everywhere: in the citizens’ refusal to bear it, in the changing rhythm of snow— falling and accumulating from one poem to another, in the protagonists’ poignant, whimsical ways of playing, loving, teasing each other. Deaf Republic offers a reading that is at once deeply unsettling and heart-breaking, theatrical and urgent.

You can buy Deaf Republic from Faber & Faber

If you’d like to review for the Poetry School, or submit a publication for review, please contact Will Barrett on [email protected] or Ali Lewis on [email protected]

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