Deaf Republic

reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

Convulsing under the occupation of an unnamed, oppressive military force, the inhabitants of the fictional town of Vasenka have all suddenly lost their hearing after a deaf boy is shot and left to die: “Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement / for hours.” Immediately in dialogue with the frequently invoked passage from Pastor Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the socialists,” Ilya Kaminsky’s breathtaking second collection, a highconcept interrogation of individual and civic response to political upheaval and collective action, opens with these lines: “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we // protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not // enough.” Challenging and deepening the arguably oversimple silence-as-ambivalence paradigm suggested by Niemöller, here deafness and silence are figured not as impotence but as fierce protest, if at times a crushing burden, where “the voice we cannot hear—is the clearest voice.” and “The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.” The townspeople around which this two-act story unfolds enact their grief in ways that will resonate painfully with any tuned-in American: “We see in his open mouth / the nakedness / of a whole nation. // [...] The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy.” Illustrations of words and phrases in sign language punctuate the book’s pages and offer the reader a visual experience of power, insisting on silence as consequence, as action, and as openness: “What is silence? Something of the sky in us.”

This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2019.