Finalist for the National Book Award • Finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Award • Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award • Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize • Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award • Winner of the National Jewish Book Award • Finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award • Finalist for the T. S. Eliot Prize • Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection
Ilya Kaminsky’s astonishing parable in poems asks us, What is silence?
Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya’s girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky’s long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time’s vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.
Kaminsky's second collection (after 2004's Dancing in Odessa) is bookended by two poems "We Lived Happily during the War" and "In a Time of Peace" ostensibly set in the present and addressing a kind of public blindness to faraway events. What lies between them is a two-part drama composed of short, plainspoken lyrics that envision the military occupation of the fictional town of Vasenka. After the murder of a deaf boy in the public square, the townspeople unite under a strategy of resistance in the form of feigned deafness at any and all of the soldiers' requests. Part one follows the boy's cousin, pregnant puppeteer Sonya, and her husband, Alfonso, as they navigate the dangers of deafness and pregnancy under an increasingly belligerent force. Part two follows the owner of the puppet theater as she does the same, as well as Alfonso and Sonya's infant as she grows into a child. What results is a riveting and emotional story line with parallels to the author's life, which relies on plain spoken diction, repetition, and small moments of romantic desire to anchor its larger political themes. Moments of brilliance shine through ("Body, they blame you for all things and they/ seek in the body what does not live in the body"), though some readers may feel that the story would be better suited to the stage.