Inhabitant of earth for fortysomething years
I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors open
their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When a man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.
It is a peaceful country.
– from “In a Time of Peace,” by Ilya Kaminsky
Fifteen years after the release of his award-winning collection, Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky has resolidified himself as one of the most important voices in American poetry. No stranger to political discourse, Kaminsky continues to imbue his poems with equal parts rage and wonder as he tells the story of a town which, in a time of brutal occupation, adopts silence as a form of resistance. Functioning somewhere between drama and poetry, the reader is presented with a dramatis personae who must coexist with soldiers in the fictional town of Vasenka. Framed with the poems “We Lived Happily During the War” and “In a Time of Peace,” the collection at once describes the horrific treatment of townspeople under military rule and the human rights issues occurring in America today.
One thing that distinguishes Kaminsky from many poets writing in English is that his poems are never just rage, never just fear, never just joy or whimsy or lust. Instead, Kaminsky’s lines are fraught with the full, messy truth of humanity. In Deaf Republic, we see lovers creating life and we see children losing theirs; indeed, the speaker in the first and last poems of the collection asks forgiveness of the reader for feeling joy. This nuance speaks to one of the most difficult elements of living in a time of unimaginable injustice, the reality that we can (and must, at times) feel joy despite every reason not to.
Deaf Republic appeals as much to the literary critic as it does to the historian, as much to the political strategist as it does to the refugee, as much to the activist as it does to the casual reader. These poems are haunting and celebratory and difficult and life-giving. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this multimedia excerpt from The New Yorker, featuring illustrations and audio of the author reading selected poems from the collection and see for yourself.