Such an influential political poem has not been written for a long time. “We Lived Happily During The War”, the in every respect disturbing opening poem of Ilya Kaminsky’s book of poems “Deaf Republic”, which was published in 2019, has been present on various social media channels for weeks and is valid as the poem of the hour.
It seems as if the key poetic code for dealing with the war in Ukraine had suddenly been found. But is it really a poetic offer of identification for us observers of what is happening who have been spared the reality of the war? The opening lines in this compact verse epic by the American-Ukrainian author seem to mark the situation of impotent protest: “And when they bombed each other’s houses / we protested / but not enough, we were against, but not enough.”
Two perspectives are opened up here: not only the territories of the murderous wars are marked, but also the positions of the spectators of the war events. The America that ‘perishes’ in the opening poem is symbolic of the capitalist societies of the West, where even in times of war happiness dwells comfortably: “In the money street in the money town in the money country / our great money country, we lived (forgive us) / happily during the war”.
With bitter irony, Ilya Kaminsky refers to the privileged position of the spectators of horror. While bombings and murders are going on elsewhere, those not directly affected by the reality of war continue to enjoy their unspoiled environment.
Born in 1977 in Odessa, Ukraine, Kaminsky grew up in a Jewish family and became hard of hearing as a child due to a mumps infection. In 1993 he left Ukraine with his family because anti-Semitic provocations were increasingly affecting the Jewish citizens of Odessa. The family was granted political asylum in California, and for Kaminsky the migration was a new literary beginning.
From 1994 he wrote his poems in English. Already for his volume “Dancing in Odessa” from 2004, Kaminsky was celebrated in the USA as a “frighteningly good poet” and affinity of Joseph Brodsky and Adam Zagajewski. With “Deaf Republic” he climbed even further in the literary ranking: his poem was proclaimed “best book of the year” by the “New York Times”, among others.
It took some time before his masterpiece “Deaf Republic” was able to unfold its electrifying effect in Germany. In 2019, the translator and poet Dagmara Kraus translated some of the poems from the “Deaf Republic” volume for the “Verssmuggel” project of the Berlin House of Poetry.
The pioneering work of Klak Verlag in Neukölln, which in the same year published Kaminsky’s volume “Tanzen in Odessa” in the translation by Alexander Sitzmann, met with little response.
It is thanks to the poet and storyteller Anja Kampmann that “Deaf Republic” is finally available in a careful German translation that does not shorten the cyclically structured poem composed as a sequence of theater scenes to political clarity, but rather the ambivalence and double meaning of the verses preserved.
The “Republic of Deafness” takes us right into a scenario of a permanent state of war. On the market square of the fictional town of Vasenka, which is occupied by a hostile power, two puppeteers stage a small, amusing puppet theater in the middle of a state of emergency.
Immediately, the willing enforcers of power rush in to break up the illegal assembly. A deaf boy is shot dead by the soldiers.
The exemplary setting of an occupation is sketched here with just a few lines. In the “first act” a collective subject speaks, a chorus of great denial. The protesting citizens only communicate in sign language. Meanwhile, the shameful murder of the deaf boy leads to more crimes. The puppeteer Sonya, who gives birth to a girl, also falls victim to the invaders, as does her husband Alfonso, who initially remains alone with the newborn.
What begins as a great refusal to oppose the occupier’s repression turns into drastic partisanism in the “second act” of the poem. Momma Galya, the owner of the puppet theater, leads the uprising against the occupation, luring the soldiers with acts of love only to strangle them. Violence generates counter-violence, there is no room for understanding.
What remains are traumas and wounds that never heal: “Our country is one where a boy who is shot by the police lies for hours / on the sidewalk. / We see in his open mouth/ the nakedness / of a whole nation. / We watch. See / watch others.”
The “time of peace” proclaimed at the end is only preparation for the next fatal blow. Language and speaking themselves function as instruments of domination and are subject to a rigid logic of violence: “Silence? / is a stick I’ll hit you with, I’ll hit you with a stick, / voice, hit you, / until you speak, until you say / the right thing.”
Ilya Kaminsky worked on his “Republic of Deafness” for around ten years. They are poems that are sometimes narrative, then laconic and succinct, poetic parables of violent relationships that are intensifying in the present day of the Ukraine war, but also refer to the imperialist traditions of the West. Between the poems are signs of sign language, like meditative moments of breathing.
The hope of his poems, Kaminsky explained in an interview, is to exorcise the reader’s illusions and help him “to recognize his own complicity”. His aesthetic of resistance features many trapdoors.