(Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2019)
We Lived Happily during the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
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.
A poem from Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic that demands our attention. The prelude poem for a book, for a wartime lyric narrative in poems, in two searing acts. A novel in poems. A one-of-a-kind book unlike anything I have read. And while this may only be his second book, Kaminsky, a Ukranian American, is dramatically better known than one book — and soon two — would suggest in the English-speaking poetry-world. Yes, he has edited numerous anthologies of international poetry, but it’s more than that.
Kaminsky has a beguiling presence, a tough sensitivity and openness combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry that makes him stand out as one of the more imposing poets of his generation. Anyone attending one of his readings will attest to the power of that poetic presence, and what he has succeeded in doing with his new book will cement his stature even more. (It is worth noting that the book’s title has its own echo with Kaminsky. He became deaf at age 4. Since then, thanks to technology he has regained most of his hearing.)
I have chosen to feature Kaminsky’s prelude poem precisely because it stands apart from the rest of the collection, except for the last poem in the book. These two poems, set in the present, provide the lyric meta-narrative that brackets the rest of the book’s poems, which are set specifically in the fable-like wartime of another era.
The meta-narrative speaks poignantly to me in 2019 surrounded by stories and images of war and violence from all around the globe. But the blood and guts reality stays far outside my living room. Even if I had a TV in my living room (I don’t), the images would likely die inside the warm comfort of that room. The prelude poem wants to wake me, a reader, as does the last poem, also part of our “now” time, not part of the rest of the poems in Act One and Act Two.
The plangent cry in the collection’s first poem: we lived happily during the war. A war inside and outside America. Or to put it another way, we sort of woke up to all this but not really. Well, this poem is the preparation for a wake up that will happen (did happen to me) if you read this particular narrative of an occupied town that fought back in a war until it couldn’t. That went deaf to their enemies so the rest of us might hear it on highest volume. Here is a poem early on in Act One.
As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face
with a Newspaper
Fourteen people, most of us strangers,
watch Sonya kneel by Petya
shot in the middle of the street.
She picks up his spectacles shining like two coins, balances them on his nose.
Observe this moment
—how it convulses—
Snow falls and the dogs run into the streets like medics.
Fourteen of us watch:
Sonya kisses his forehead—her shout a hole
torn in the sky, it shimmers the park benches, porchlights.
We see in Sonya’s open mouth
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.
I have read poetry books that have a narrative thread, but none as captivating as Kaminsky’s. Narrative is important, yes, but it must elevate, not degrade the poetic, the lyric value of the work. It must not fall into lineated prose. See here how the narrative supports the lyric leaps that blow the focus of the poem wide open. Narrow eye of the narrative (Fourteen of us watch). Huge eye of the lyric (We see in Sonya’s open mouth // the nakedness / of a whole nation).
And now I need to share a great metaphor as way of discussing lyric and narrative! I remember a high-end wine dealer using an automobile metaphor to describe the two key attributes of wine — tannins and fruit. He said, think of the tannins as a car chassis or frame and the fruit, the car’s body.
I thought of this when thinking about the two key attributes of a poem. The lyric, the time out of time moments in a poem created by image; and metaphor; and narrative, the story embedded in the poem. Narrative as chassis and lyric as the body.
While some of the poems of Deaf Republic have been out in the world for almost ten years through literary magazines, the full impact of Kaminsky’s poetic project can only be appreciated when reading his collection together.
Yes, the book tells a story of the violence of war. Its victims. But the deaths in this book, poem by poem, are also triumphs of the human spirit against tyranny. And before they die they experience beauty and bring beauty to the world. And even in the bombed out ruins of the city there is astonishment:
Vasenka citizens do not know they are evidence of happiness.
In a time of war,
each is a ripped-out document of laughter.
deaf have something to tell
that not even they can hear.
Climb a roof in Central Square of this bombarded city, you will see—
one neighbor thieves a cigarette,
another gives a dog
a pint of sunlit beer.
You will find me, God,
like a dumb pigeon’s beak, I am
every which way at astonishment.
Let me be clear, his book is an astonishing imaginative project. Each poem, its own complete vehicle, chassis and body, but each poem part of a larger narrative. Each one connected. Like a cortège, a line of cars heading to the graveside from a funeral. And this metaphor, too, is apt. This book, a travelogue towards the death of some of the characters in the book killed in a city or town called Vasenka. A place occupied by enemy soldiers at a time of war and occupation. But for me, Vasenka, even with its Russian name, seems as if it could be any city, anytime: Warsaw, Aleppo, Kigali, and on and on.
Kaminsky’s poems form their own cortège. Poem after poem driving forward telling a sometimes exuberant story, the finest extraordinary and ordinary aspects of humans in a crisis, and other times a harrowing story of tragic death, betrayal, subjugation and submission.
We get the big moments, a boy shot in a street. Citizens later surrounding the corpse in protest. And the smaller moments. A couple in the intimacy of a shower and bedroom. A couple we get to know in a three-dimensional way. And over-arching all that happens in this book is its title, the central metaphor, Deaf Republic. In protest to their occupation by enemy soldiers the citizens of this city or town stop speaking. Pretend to be deaf, the metaphor for silence that derives from this and threads the collection together.
The narrative is compelling in this book but the lyric moments give it its lasting impact. Lines that I want to hold such as: it / only takes a few minutes to make a man etcetc; or on earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky // each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky; or I am not a poet, Sonya / I want to live in your hair; or What is silence? Something of the sky in us; or speaks to men / as if they are men / and not just souls on crutches of bone.
I have deliberately tried not to be too specific about the narrative arc in Act One and Act Two. That’s to avoid having to use a spoiler alert. And I want to invite you, if you pick up the book, to enjoy the main characters as they are fleshed out poem by poem: the couple in Act One, Alfonso and Sonya and in Act Two, the puppeteer, Mama Galya.
I began this blog post with the first poem in the collection and I want to approach the end with the last one. Because it takes us out of an imagined past to the present. And because it uses irony to make a point about us. The title: In a Time of Peace fails to uphold the truth of the rest of the poem. The violence in Kaminsky’s own adopted country of America. A violence, dare I say, most of us are deaf to. And in this poem, too, a boy lies dead in a pavement, one of the many black American’s killed by cops. A startling echo to the boy who lied dead on the street in Vasenka.
Two excerpts. The first:
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.
We watch. Watch
And the second:
This is a time of peace.
I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.
I am left at the end of Deaf Republic deeply challenged. How do I reconcile the need to see and appreciate beauty and the need to also recognize and act against violence wherever it is, on a large or a small scale? How do I reconcile the difference? Perhaps I don’t. Perhaps I hold the opposites in tension like American poet Stephen Dobyns does in his poem Garden Bouquet where the narrator no longer can see his beautiful garden flowers without pictures of violence imposed on them:
from Garden Bouquet
…………Yesterday had its picture;
tomorrow will have another. These scenes
are the tinted glasses that human beings
learn to look through. No wonder the flowers
seem fragile. Most days are neatly divided –
flowers on one side, violence on the other.
Too bad, you say, about the victims of Monday
and you turn away to whatever you call pretty.
But today something has broken in your eyes.
Today across the daffodils and blue violets
sprawls the figure of Tuesday’s corpse. This one
is Moslem, yesterday’s was Texan or German.
Where can one go to get one’s eye’s fixed.
Maybe it’s not about getting one’s eyes fixed. Maybe it’s about broken eyes that in their brokenness see much more. Thank you, Ilya, for helping me hear more, see more, feel more.
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Richard Osler is a 67 year-old Canadian poet, poetry blogger, retreat leader and poetry therapist living on the southern-end of Vancouver Island. Nothing in his previous life as a national business print journalist and national business columnist on Canada’s CBC radio network would have suggested his current occupations. Richard has been short and long-listed for poetry awards in the U.S. and Canada and in 2016 Quattro Books of Toronto published his first full-length collection Hyaena Season.
You can purchase Deaf Republic here.