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How many of us are brave enough for art?
At the bakery down the block, polling shows Trump surging ahead. Each purchase of an election-themed cookie—Biden or Trump, with red, white, and blue sprinkles—is tallied by the bakers as a vote in favor for the relevant candidate. “Our forecast is never wrong,” the manager assured my partner’s mother, who quickly purchased several Bidens. Another employee whispered that a local businessman had just bought 25 Trumps, skewing the count in the incumbent’s favor.
In a presidential race in which the very counting of ballots is in jeopardy and even the most mundane forms of electoral participation are soured with mistrust, it has been difficult to maintain focus—which is, as we know, a Trump administration strategy. After the recent barrage of a SCOTUS bull-rush, super-spreader garden parties, and shout-outs to white supremacists, the cookies suddenly seemed that they could be important, too.
Jittery people looking for meaning in chaos may want to turn to poetry—the place where big truth is teased out from the frivolous. Discombobulated by the coexistence of blatant voter suppression with electioneering confectionery, I headed to the bookshelf, sensing that the remedy rested in the pages of Deaf Republic (Graywolf, 2019), the latest collection by poet Ilya Kaminsky.
Kaminsky was born in Odessa, then part of the Soviet Union; he immigrated to the United States with his family as a teenager and currently teaches at Georgia Tech. His new book is not set explicitly any of these places. The book is styled in a two-act structure and begins with a list of dramatis personae: the scene is laid in a fictional town named Vasenka, in an unspecified country, in an unmentioned era. What is certain—and grimly familiar—is that Vasenka faces a crisis of democracy. An army marches into the town, ostensibly to “protect our freedom.” Its soldiers speak a language the townspeople don’t understand.
In Vasenka, the citizens respond to martial law by embarking on a collective exercise where they radically reorder how they perceive and respond to information. After the invading soldiers shoot a young deaf boy, the local populace literally stops listening to the army’s orders: overnight, the townsfolk lose their hearing en masse. This elective deafness allows the citizens to slip free of the tightening noose of the military control over their minds and bodies as they make the discovery that silence is, as Kaminsky explained in an interview at Poets & Writers, “the last neighborhood untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.”
Civil disobedience in the form of deafness offers the townspeople a respite from the surveillance and danger of a hostile occupation. The staging of their rebellion moves between focused determination and mischievous pessimism that characterizes the theater of the absurd. But the town’s new-found quiet shouldn’t be mistaken for escapism—or for an absence of engagement. Kaminsky, who has been substantially deaf since the age of 4, issues a swift rebuke to an ableist conception of deafness as a state of ignorance: “The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.” In Deaf Republic, deafness not only helps the villagers stay vigilant to the weaponization of language and sound, but also serves as a buttress against threats and propaganda, protecting the sanctuary of one’s own mind. As the character Momma Galya puts it,
I am not deaf
I simply told the world
to shut off its crazy music for a while.
The town’s refusal to recognize the language of its oppressors creates a back channel for defiance. By day, puppeteers develop a secret communication system by teaching the villagers to sign; by night, they assassinate soldiers. In the privacy of their action-based language, imagination flourishes.
It’s no coincidence that Kaminsky has situated the puppet theater at the center of the town’s rebellion. The puppeteers’ creative work not only indicates their own ability to think independently of the regime but also shows other citizens how to do the same. While discussing her own journey into playwriting, the poet Claudia Rankine explained that the appeal of the theater is the opportunity to perform what was previously only an “imagined possibility.” A play can “act out” an alternative reality that investigates or challenges the world as we experience it, sometimes offering relief from that world.
Kaminsky stresses the significance of the play-space of Deaf Republic as a testing ground for knowledge. “Our country is the stage” declares Alfonso Barabinski, the narrator of Act I. In telling their stories, villagers employ the emphatic leitmotifs of the stage: a match, a bathtub, or a gunshot. One can be inventive with very little, and Kaminsky can squeeze multiple meanings out of a stone—or a tomato. Tomatoes make several appearances in the collection. The poet has explained how a crate of tomatoes and learning to tango both played a part in preserving the life of his father, a Jewish child in occupied Odessa, during World War II. “All my friends tell me there are too many tomatoes in my poems,” says Kaminsky. “They say there is too much dancing. Is there enough?”
Deaf Republic’s imagery is judiciously chosen, and its language is lean. One poem reads in its entirety:
We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins—
Sometimes, a little is enough. Deaf Republic only mentions ten hand-signs from the Vasenka school: town, the town watches, army convoy, hide, match, curtain, story, kiss, be good, and earth. Perhaps this is just a snippet of the language, perhaps the townspeople found they didn’t need more than that to start a resistance.
The two poems that bookend the collection stress how the fictional parable of Deaf Republic applies to the present. “Around my bed America / was falling,” states the narrator of “We Lived Happily during the War,” while the collection closes with “In a Time of Peace”:
Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement
We see in his open mouth
of the whole nation.
In Deaf Republic, those who don’t risk their lives sacrifice their moral integrity as well as their freedom of expression:
but not enough.
Even as Kaminsky subverts preconceived notions of what free speech might look or sound like, he never downplays its importance. Without their deafness—their political activism—the residents of Vasenka have no voice.
Despite the gravity of its concerns, Deaf Republic quivers with the delights of sex, comradeship, parenthood, domesticity, tomatoes, and bright sky wonder. Deaf Republic’s love poems are written in language of such exuberance where one word alone can fill up a line. Like balloons blown close to bursting, Alfonso’s odes to his wife, Sonya, buoy the book against its heartaches. Kaminsky, via his protagonist, adores Sonya, and these poems inscribe her with some of the finest detail in the collection. Sonya plays an unheard piano, gets out of the shower, and announces her own execution with equal conviction; she speaks with “the clearest voice” of all the villagers.
By contrast, Momma Galya, the theater manager and rebellion leader who narrates the second half of Deaf Republic, is drawn in the broader strokes of the best political cartoons. At 53, she wheels through town bare breasted on her bicycle, cursing soldiers with an expertise that suggests she has met Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage and isn’t going to make the same mistakes.
How many of us are as bold as the caricatures that make us laugh? In the dark booth of the theater, Momma Galya is a Judy, puppetry’s tragicomic exemplar of how to keep getting up, punch after punch. It takes a degree of stylization to stay with a story like this one, and the explicitly theatrical architecture of Deaf Republic imbues Kaminsky’s emotional verse with temporal urgency: the show must go on. The deaf republic can’t hold forever, and Kaminsky’s narrative structure encourages us not to dip in and out of the book, but to grapple with the details, and follow the story through to its painful end.
These past weeks in the United States have been littered with events that are rapid, strange, and disparate in their divergences of scale, events that might easily cross over into Kaminsky’s poems. During the vice-presidential debate, a fly traversed the over-groomed slope of Mike Pence’s skull with the painstaking tenacity of a first-time skier: long minutes of live television passed without the vice president giving a twitch of acknowledgement. And Pence did not bat an eyelid in describing the Trump administration’s attempts to block mail-in voting either, concluding with the sinister pledge, “I believe in all my heart that President Donald Trump’s gonna be reelected for four more years.”
The president was hospitalized with Covid-19 but still ducked out for a quick auto-parade with two secret service agents in the car; at that moment, nearly 250,000 Americans had died from that disease.
Yes, it all happened, and at the same time. And the Trump and Biden cookies? The cookies are important only because they are part of the collective and often bizarre engagement by which we participate in, and pay close attention to, this election.
And as Kaminsky reminds us, the sensual stuff of life continues. Like millions of other Americans, I voted early—at a community center that borders a metal scrap yard boiling over with rusted radiators. (And “Stan the Junkman” is still taking more!) Those of us queuing outside stood on the white lines of car parks to mark social distance; the leaves of the cork elms were as yellow as the mustard on the Dallas Hot Wieners signboard over the road.
Inside the center, I sanitized my hands, put on plastic gloves, and admired a very dusty straw hat with artificial flowers hanging high on the back wall. There were a few stray volleyballs lurking in the corner of the room. Filling out my ballot, I felt close to tears, and tried my best to color the ovals unimpeachably within the lines. Then I hid my hopes and opinions in the discrete folder provided and walked it to the ballot box.
The poll worker spoke to me, but I couldn’t quite hear her. She raised her mask—a small, hand-crocheted one—to repeat herself: “Put it in blank side up.” I was shocked to see her lips.
Deaf Republic is another set of papers with which to approach this election: a blueprint for rebelling with imagination and love, and a catalog of shades of defiance not contained by citizenship or ballot lines. After casting my vote, I went home and picked up the collection once more. The flattened plane of the stage, and of the page, allows Kaminsky to address both cookies and candidates in the same breath. How is it that the same life offers us both senators and caterpillars, gunshots and tomatoes? What does it mean to still thrill to a summer salad, even as our country “clips our citizens’ bodies / effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails”?
The book levels its questions at the individual reader—and towards the village as a group. Like a playwright, Kaminsky has composed these poems, and the challenges they present, as a communal experience. (“He had them crying in the aisles,” Grant Cogswell noted after a reading for Kaminsky’s first collection, Dancing in Odessa.) Just as the deaf rebellion requires the cooperation of the whole village of Vasenka, readers of Deaf Republic may find that the enterprise of questioning government and thinking for oneself is more powerful when done in concert.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham is the managing editor of Conjunctions