Ilya Kaminsky Has Much To Say, For Those Who Stop To Listen

5 min readApr 10, 2020

On February 2 this year, the poet Ilya Kaminsky posted the following to his Twitter account: ‘My grandmother, who was sent to Siberia for 10 years, said that in February, birds would freeze to the ground. So, prisoners, who were sent to work, would grab small birds, put them under their armpits. By the time prisoners got back to barracks, the birds would thaw out & fly away [sic].’

For those who follow the Ukrainian-American, it was an arresting anecdote of the kind they had long grown accustomed to, a few sparse sentences conjuring not just vivid images, but a world of emotion. For me, it simply served as a reminder that Kaminsky is the kind of writer whose work will outlive him, not because he is skilled at his craft, but because he has a rare kind of empathy that allows his voice to resonate across cultures. It also prompted me to discuss him almost a year after his latest collection of poems was published. My reason is that poets often take on the role of prophets, their work rising like lighthouses in times of darkness. Much of what he had to say a year ago has only proved to be more compelling today.

It is never easy to bestow words like ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ upon anything that hasn’t been exposed to millions of people for prolonged periods of time. This didn’t stop a large number of people from using them to describe Kaminsky when, as a 27-year old in 2004, he published his first collection, Dancing in Odessa.

Kaminsky reading in Washington, D.C., 2018: Wiki Commons

It took a decade and a half for his second, Deaf Republic, to appear. By the time I turned its last page, I knew, like everyone who had read it, that this was no ordinary collection by a young man trying to make sense of his world. It was fully realized, born as if from one who had lived several lifetimes, and sure-footed in the way only the very old and very wise can be. On the one hand, it felt contemporary because it spoke of things that reflected our immediate collective experience. On the other, it spoke of the human condition, and he pulled this off with less than 60 poems and a few sign language illustrations.

To approach Kaminsky’s writing, one must first recognise the importance of sound or, to be more specific, the absence of it. It plays a profound role not just in what or how he writes, but in how he interacts with the world away from pen and paper. The obvious reason lies in his loss of hearing at age four, and subsequent descent into a silence that lasted until he turned 16. That is when his family left Ukraine to escape anti-Semitism and was granted asylum in America. He finally had hearing aids, but they came after his father passed away, prompting him to poignantly tell an interviewer that he had never heard his father’s voice.

This backstory helps explain why one who obviously values language would choose to deploy it as economically as Kaminsky did when he started writing in English in 1994. It’s as if he struggles with two new senses at the same time, trying to adapt to his ears as well as his tongue. It also has the effect of masking his learning, which he wears lightly. In his early poems, for instance, when he writes of August “filling hands with language that tastes like smoke,” he joins a long line of symbolist poets from Russia — Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941) and Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) come immediately to mind — who reacted to a crumbling social order by replacing the quotidian with something strange, rendering it unique and shocking.

A cemetery in Vasylivka, Odessa: Wiki Commons

Like most writers working in languages they were not born into, Kaminsky has expanded the possibilities of where it can go, mixing fact with surrealism to create something magical. His work is also a study of darkness and the propensity for evil that exists in us all. In Dancing in Odessa, he writes of how his grandfather ‘was shot, and my grandmother raped / by the public prosecutor, who stuck his pen in her vagina.’

That cloud doesn’t go away in Deaf Republic, set in the fictional town of Vasenka at a time of martial law. It begins with a deaf child named Petya who is murdered for spitting at a soldier, an act that prompts the inhabitants to react by shutting their ears. Kaminsky has described the collection as an investigation of how we try to remain human in a time of crisis. It is particularly relevant when consumerism, economic uncertainty, climate change, and the rise of far-right sentiment have created a perfect cocktail that threatens to destroy everything we have long taken for granted.

The book opens with a poem titled ‘We Lived Happily During the War’: “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.” Those lines set the stage not just for an examination of how silence can be a weapon or consequence, but an indictment of how it can make us complicit in a criminal act. Every character triggers an action or emotion that affects the larger world of Vasenka.

Courtyard of the Odessa National University: Wiki Commons

These are poems of love and despair, brimming with acts of kindness as well as horror. They also shine a light on the ease with which human beings can be stripped of their humanity, but just as easily regain it. The illustrations make for powerful footnotes, reminders that being deaf isn’t the same as being silent. After all, the deaf have always had access to a language of their own.

I cannot foresee a time when a collection like Deaf Republic will not be relevant. In examining what makes a large group of people submit to what is morally questionable, it holds a mirror to our history and what we are condemned to repeat by virtue of choosing to forget. The republic that Kaminsky describes could well be our own, given how we seem to have willfully shut our ears too.

— First published in GQ