O:JA and L’s Poetry Editor, Reviewer, and Editorialist Rachel Custer considers Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

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Rachel Custer
Poetry Editor, Reviewer, Editorialist

Deaf Republic and Twitter Noise:
A Call to Radical Silence

“Deaf Republic” from Graywolf Press

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is a book that will outlive its author, which is perhaps the mark of great art. More learned readers than I am have acknowledged it as a sweeping literary achievement, and I agree with them. Deaf Republic is a work of quiet beauty and is very effective at that most timeless of poetic pursuits: making the reader feel. The book is stunning. Kaminsky’s artistic achievement manages to transcend the hype that increasingly threatens to drown out so many new poetry books, particularly those so thoroughly pre-flogged by the literary “Who’s Who” of the digital “Where’s Where.”

The book’s absolute worth as a work of art underscores more effectively than any recent book the danger of the irrelevant noise of modern poetry’s social media echo chamber. In Ilya Kaminsky, the “poetry will save us” crowd has found its most recent messiah of the week. Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, we read everywhere, has arrived, shining and godlike and loved by all the right people, to lift us from our quotidian existences to everlasting poetic joy. A quick search of twitter, that wasteland where poetry goes to die (to say nothing of human decency) reveals –

Well, it reveals nothing but noise.

There’s a certain irony to the buzz surrounding a book which conceives deafness as a form of resistance to wartime oppression and trades strongly on the increasingly commonly-held philosophy that “silence is violence.” If there was anything I wanted by the time I actually held Kaminsky’s book in my hot little hands, it was a bit of shutting up about it. I was so sick of seeing Deaf Republic proclaimed from the rooftops of the Literary Twitter echo chamber that I almost didn’t expect the book to retain any meaning for me beyond the proclamations. Lesser works would have fallen flat under the weight of so much acclaim.

There is no more cardinal virtue in today’s publishing industry than noise, and certainly none more easily attained. Here in the Age of the Hot Take, being quick is more important than being right, and there is nothing that demonstrates righteousness more quickly and effectively than being loud in service to the Safe Opinion.

Due to the decidedly consistent worldview of publishing’s social media influencers, there is really only one way to be safe – and that’s to say the same thing everybody else is saying, in a way that eschews any risk of being branded “problematic.” The publishing world falls all over itself for works like Deaf Republic precisely because those works, while beautiful, risk nothing ideologically. There is nothing exceedingly risky about writing against war.

There are other ways to risk, of course, and Kaminsky uses form, emotion, and a brilliant central conceit to emotionally place his reader in wartime Vasenka. We experience the loss, the horror, the complicity with violence. Deaf Republic says nothing new, but there’s nothing new to be said about war, really. Kaminsky risks by speaking in a new way.

What he does not risk is a challenge to poetry’s ruling ideology that we are not all complicit in atrocities, all the time. The social media influencers and noisemakers elevated the hype of Deaf Republic to unprecedented levels, mostly because it reassures them that they are the good guys. They are “the resistance,” the brave activists who choose not to listen to anything but their own voices, doing actual good by relentlessly opining. And they lined up to laud the book, always being very sure to do so publicly, and to tag the author. At this point, one might begin to believe talking publicly about reading the book is more important than actually, thoroughly reading the book.

Social media reveals one very simple rule for gaining literary hype: say the right thing about the right person or the right book. Risk nothing, but be heralded as brave. Make noise, but say nothing. Say much, and say it beautifully, but mean little. If you must mean anything, make it clear that the thing you mean is no better than the thing somebody else might mean tomorrow. Tweet, and tweet, and tweet, and collect your clout. It prizes noise over meaning.

Where, then, is silence? It is entirely excluded as “violence,” as “complicity,” as “harmful.” Kaminsky’s speaker preaches at us from Vasenka (the “unidentified republic” in his work, though we’re pretty sure we live there) and Kaminsky himself preaches at us from his personal Twitter account: silence in the face of [insert political issue here] makes us responsible for [insert outcome here].

While it may be true, in some sense, that silence can reinforce harmful systems of power, there is a sneaky rhetorical tactic at work here, and while I make an exemplar of Kaminsky, he is but one of hundreds of “poetry influencers” using the same tactic. It bears closer scrutiny, given that it is quickly becoming the ruling – indeed, the only acceptable –  ideology within the insular world of poetry publishing.

Here’s how it plays out: a social media influencer/poet, believes pretty much the same things politically that every other social media influencer/poet believes. They share a similar worldview that purports to be tolerant, inclusive, and supportive of difference. Who could argue against that, right? Who would?

Grand pronouncements and loud sermons in 280-character chunks are heavy on theoretical considerations of gender, or personal experience or why one particular viewpoint causes harm to people of marginalized populations. If one person, perhaps new to poetry twitter disagrees, or even just seems to question the foundation of the poet’s grand pronouncement, that person is dragged in front of the poet’s 30k followers for a fun round of mob shaming.

One or two of these mob sessions should be sufficient to teach the poet’s followers (and anybody else watching) that: A. disagreement will not be tolerated; and B. only the poet’s worldview, or one very similar, is acceptable.

This is how we end up with an online poetry “community” in which people can count on being called “brave” for voicing opinions nearly everybody holds, and “kind” for embracing (certain) diversity, and “a tireless activist” for risking nothing – all while simultaneously deriding both those who risk something to disagree and those who are brave enough to sometimes stay silent enough to actually listen.

Silence.

In Deaf Republic, the populace “resists” by shutting its ears to reality. Here in reality, Western poets seem to be resisting by shutting their ears to other ideas, other worldviews, other ways of understanding this thing we are doing here on Earth. By shutting their minds to even the possibility of a Truth that does not look like the one their politics forms for them.

I know a Truth like that. Its power comes from humility before omnipotence, from a love beyond mere tolerance, from honesty above false kindness. I know a virtue that is not shouted loudly from a platform for the obligatory snaps of the audience below me.

There is a power in silence before the Truth.

American poets are writing mostly noise into similar noise, from under a fat totalitarian thumb of inoffensive sameness. In this environment, “radical” is not a resistance like Vasenka’s, that shuts its ears, but a silence that opens them to another voice than our own, confident enough in ourselves that we can bear the offense of a few lies if it means we may somehow hear Truth. Let’s stop tweeting so much about art and start letting it speak for itself.

In the case of Deaf Republic, it has much to say.

 

About the writer:
Rachel Custer is the Poetry Editor and a reviewer and editorialist at O:JA&L. Her first full-length poetry collection, The Temple She Became, is available from Five Oaks Press. Other work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Rattle, OSU: The Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, B O D Y, [PANK], and The Antigonish Review. On February 13, 2019, Rachel Custer became a recipient of a 2019 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

About Ilya Kaminsky and Deaf Republic:
Ilya Kaminsky (born April 18, 1977, in Odessa, Soviet Union, now Ukraine) is a hard-of-hearing Ukrainian-born Russian-Jewish-American poet, critic, translator and professor. Deaf Republic, his poetry collection published by Graywolf Presswas released on March 5, 2019.