Deaf Republic (Ilya Kaminsky)

Every once in a while, a book comes along that absolutely defies any attempts to classify it. Since it needs to go somewhere in libraries and bookstores, a label is slapped on it. And maybe because it does not fit into a pre-conceived slot, it does not become as widely read as it deserves.

Every once in a while, a book comes along and I love it in large part because I can say to myself, “I’ve never read anything like this before anywhere.”

Rarely, if ever, are those descriptions applicable to the same book. Maybe Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Is it a poem? Are they poems? Prose poems? Is it an essay? Who cares? Read it. Look at the pictures.

And now it’s happened again. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic.

I must admit that when I saw it had won the Anisfield-Wolf prize for poetry, I was wary. I was not knocked out by his previous book, Danicing in Odessa. But if it’s an Anisfield-Wolf winner, I’m going to read it, so at the end of a long day, I said to myself (based on this review, I talk to myself frequently), “Okay, I’ll read 3 poems.”

I read 30 pages. I’m not sure I took a breath.

Since it’s genre-defying, I’m not sure how to describe it, but after the first poem, there’s a “Dramatis Personae” like you are about to read the play. Then the poems form a narrative. We are being told a story of a country being controlled by a tyrannical regime, so there’s a story, it must be a novel. Then the first line of the first poem is “Our country is a stage,” and there’s a puppet show going on, so we’re watching a play within a play. And there are pictures! Drawings of the sign language for key elements in the book. So what does that make it?

I don’t care. It’s really, really good. Really.

Kaminsky’s ability to move from the specific to the abstract, from the particular to the universal, from one perspective to another, makes this both a work for the ages and a work for right now.

And if all of that isn’t enough, there is a kind of Epilogue poem that will send you down from any high horse you may have found and crashing back to your senses. You should even read the Notes that follow the Epilogue poem.

And then, a quick Google search will allow you to hear him read his work. . .
A sublime experience.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.