Deafness & Insurgency: On Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

By: Emma Miao (Grade 10)

“We Lived Happily during the war.”

“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” 

So begins Kaminsky’s thrilling two-part anti-play collection of poems, telling the story of an invaded town and its willingly deaf inhabitants. Deaf, as in resistance. Deaf, as in complacence. Reminiscent of Homer’s “Odyssey, Deaf Republic tells a story of violation and fortress, of the quiet strength of resistance. 

After Petrya, a deaf boy, is killed (the sound [of the gunshot] we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water), an insurgency starts. There are steps here: first, the mourning, then, the hardening. “Observe this moment, how it convulses,” writes Kaminsky, as Petrya’s cousin Sonya kisses Petrya’s forehead in the middle of the street. The people of Vasenka (this fictional town) are pulled—rather, forced together by hardened forces of invasion and nature. They feign deafness as a resistance to the soldiers. “When soldiers compliment girls in the alleyway, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears.” Silence gives the townspeople strength, an avenue to express (by un-expressing), to ignore: such power in ignorance. Kaminsky boldly claims: The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is an invention of the hearing. 

But Kaminsky also frames this silence as a sign of complacency. The people are quiet when given the chance to protect their own people. “Four soldiers throw Alfonso on the sidewalk [for killing a soldier on the street]. We let them take him, us cowards.” With more deaths, “No one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.” In this, Kaminsky creates a vivid irony and displays the futility of silence, and the disenfranchisement it creates for its inhabitants. 

Silence shows a fascinating dichotomy between the two inner voices of the townspeople: one angry at the soldiers, and one angry at the revolution. In Act II, Galya, the owner of the puppet-theatre and the instigator of the revolution, is hounded by the people of Vasenka. As corpses of townspeople hang from doorsteps, the remaining women yell “My sister was arrested because of your revolution!” In using “your,” we see a descent into inevitable defeat: the revolution in its dying breaths, its leader denounced by the same people who existed on it months before. 

“Galya shouts. They point to their ears. Gracefully, our people shut their windows.”

Steinbeck’s “The Moon is Down” sings a similar tune to Deaf Republic. At the end of the Moon is Down, Orden and Doctor Winter, leaders of the town and insurgency, die gracefully and with honor, knowing they have fought as hard as they could. But does this really change anything? Did the townspeople still remember the revolution in its ashes, years later? Kaminsky asks this in the poem: 

“And Yet, on some nights, the country has surrendered. Years later, some will say none of this happened; the shops were open, we were happy, and went to see puppet shows in the dark.” History is painful; shouldn’t we forget? The answer, obviously, is no. But as Kaminsky illuminates the town of Vasenka and its people, so surrounded by loss and grieving and anger, it makes sense to want to forget. Should this be surrender? Or is this just the path to greater peace and happiness? What are revolts, but the convulsion of two souls?

deaf republic photoFinally, Kaminsky describes a haunting portrait of time: “Like middle aged men, the days of May walk to prisons. Like young men they walk to prisons, overcoats thrown over their pajamas.” History, like time, “walk[s] to prisons;” stories and experiences of the defeated forever lost in the blemished cells of memory. Like what happened in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and to an extent, the Holocaust, Vasenka’s people start to forget. Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, in this regard, prompts us to remember.

Deaf Republic’s last two pages offer bright glimpses of hope, laced with the brittleness of a country weighed down by history. “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 is the sky.”

In the last lines, the “forgive me” alludes to a loss still hanging over Vasenka, staying with them years after the invasion. But, more than anything, it is a fierce reclamation of the earth (third symbol sign language) and the beauty that surrounds them.

These signs are in the second last page, roughly translating to “this town watches the Earth’s story.” With them, Kaminsky masterfully returns to the theme of watching versus acting, silence vs sound, and whether fate lingers in the backdrop of every insurrection. And by including Earth, it quietly (or rather, loudly) asks: is America (and the world), too, under siege by invisible forces?

 

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