Friday, March 13, 2020

Wild Fridays #10: Thought Provokers

In a Time of Peace

Inhabitant of earth for fortysomething years I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors open 
their phones to watch a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When a man reaches for his wallet, the cop shoots. Into the car window. Shoots. 
It is a peaceful country. 
We pocket our phones and go. To the dentist, to pick up the kids from school, to buy shampoo and basil. 
Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement for hours. 
We see in his open mouth the nakedness of the whole nation. 
We watch. Watch others watch. 
The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy—
It is a peaceful country.
And it clips our citizens’ bodies effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails. 
All of us still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments, of remembering to make a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add a little salt. 
This is a time of peace.
I do not hear gunshots, but watch birds splash over the back yards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky as the avenue spins on its axis. How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.

– Ilya Kaminsky 
(from Deaf Republic. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2019.)

During a recent conversation I had with another poet, he mentioned that he was reading Kaminsky's Deaf Republic, published a year ago. That was exciting to hear. I once met Kaminsky, when we were both featured readers at the Austin International Poetry Festival, Texas, in 2006 (but he was a much bigger star than me). I got an autographed copy of his prize-winning first book, Dancing in Odessa. Excuse me for skiting, but look!

So of course I hunted up Deaf Republic, which is only his second book – though he's been busy in the meantime with translations, editing anthologies, and academic life.

'You can find some of the Deaf Republic poems at Poetry Foundation,' said my friend. And so I did, and others too. Here's the link. The poem I've shared with you I found in a New Yorker article published shortly before the release of the book. The book tells a story that the author describes as 'a fable'. The article brilliantly excerpts the book and includes illustrations from it, of hands making signs.

Kaminsky himself (born in 1977) has been deaf from early childhood. Poetry Foundation gives us the following bio:

Poet Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. He lost most of his hearing at the age of four after a doctor misdiagnosed mumps as a cold, and his family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993, settling in Rochester, New York. After his father’s death in 1994, Kaminsky began to write poems in English. He explained in an interview with the Adirondack Review, “I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it—no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

When I met him he seemed a shy, intense young man. I've now found a YouTube reading that includes some of the Deaf Republic poems (apparently in earlier versions). He appears much more relaxed and confident these days, but his unique way of reading hasn't changed: startlingly declamatory and sing-song. He is asked about it at the end of the session and explains that, in order not to be bored by reading the same material over and over, he tries to make it as if he's writing the poem anew. There are other YouTube options for getting better acquainted with his work, and this one is longish (including a substantial – and to me fascinating – intro by someone else); but I like it for that reason, and also because it shows the text of each poem while he reads it.

I recommend that you check out both this YouTube reading and the New Yorker feature.

As for the poem I've shared, which is the final one in the book, I think it speaks for itself. I'll refrain from comment, except to say that it seems to me to refer not only to the Russia he once knew. 

But of course, it doesn't even refer to that place/time literally, does it – let alone any other? Not only is it fictional; he calls it a fable. 


I'm interested to hear what you think!

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  1. This was very interesting to me. I liked your poem choice, I was surprised when I came to the shooting, probably a mimority hate crime. According to the New York times it was the killing of a deaf boy by a soldier. That must have been very frightening to him. I assume this poem was true.
    Rochester, New York, has three schools for the deaf. We have a deaf friend who learned technical art printing their. They didn't cure his deafness but he held his job very well.
    Kaminsky also graduated from Georgetown University Law School which is a prestigious school. We have a granddaughter who has her B.S. from there and expects to finish her Master's there in May. She has a student teacher assignment, starting in her senior year. She writes a little, she's good but her interest is in theater. The degree will be in Math, her teaching classes are in statistics, two or more different advanced stastistic classes.
    I must find Kaminsky's book. I am glad that you got to meet him. Did you like Austin? Parts of it are fun, lots of music. Did you get to see the very, very large bat population leave their nests under the river bridge?
    Oh yes, we spent a day at Odessa in 2013 while on a cruise that went into the Black.
    Thanks for writing this column, you do a "Good Job!!"

    1. Thanks, Jim. The story of the boy is told in other poems in the book, and I think was part of the fictional tale – but surely based on things that did happen.

      I enjoyed Austin very much indeed and met wonderful people there, several of whom are still my friends even though it is unlikely we'll meet in person again. But one couple did come to Australia not so long ago and we did spend a few days together, which was lovely. Yes, I did see the bats. On that trip I also spent time in lovely Kerrville and interesting Lamesa, for poetry events in those places. Altogether a memorable visit.

  2. The poem is definitely a fable of our times. I wish I can say that I never saw that video, or that I didn't see Trayvon Martin's lifeless face in the lines about a boy getting shot, or that I didn't see most of the world making a video of someone else's despair. The world has grown terrible. And, I think, that Ilya Kaminsky's speaker is not alone in wanting to apologize every now and again for not being miserable all the time.

    Thought provoking and then some, Rosemary.

    1. The most confronting lines of all, to me, are:
      All of us still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments, of remembering to make a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add a little salt.
      Too true, how we all do go back to the ordinary business of living, and do feel we have to.
      And then the bit about the President's wife trimming her toenails. So many dictators around the world have these decorative wives who appear to be acquiescent and to live only for shallow values. (Or are they cowed?)

  3. Thank you, Rosemary, for sharing this poem by Kaminsky. Coming at the end of the book, it sort of sums up the book, isn't it? Is he talking about his adopted country, or the country he was born in? in a way, it could be both, because the lines are so blurred.
    yes, "all of us still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments,"...etc etc, these words really make is it so numbing, and sad.
    really envy you for that autographed copy of his book. :)

    1. It's nice to know you share my appreciation of Kaminsky's work! I am very glad to have got hold of his second book now, having been alerted to its existence. :)

  4. This is such a heart-wrenching poem, Rosemary. A stark portrayal of our current times. I love the sensitivity with which Kaminsky has written it. I was just discussing with my mother a few days ago about how much times have changed. There was a time when people didn't lock doors! Not because it wasn't necessary but simply because there was peace. People felt secure in their homes.

    What has the world come to?

    1. Yes, I too recall when we left doors to our homes and cars unlocked, because it was safe to do so; when kids could walk down the street unsupervised to play with their friends, etc. etc. Seems a long time ago now!

  5. This poem is powerful and heart-wrenching. It sums up my 40-plus years of the "American experience".

    1. Maybe we're not so gun-happy here, but I expect many indigenous Australians could relate to it too.

  6. The contrasts of this poem is what spellbinds me. Not sure I agree with the details of the event - I think hindsight and further information that has come out has made this a bit hard for me to take... BUT I find it highly effective and it sent chills through me. Thank you for the video link - an amazing man.

  7. With the above said, I do not disagree that things like this occur and that being a minority is often dangerous at times - Just wanted to clarify.

    1. It seems that American readers are relating this poem to a particular incident, of which it is apparently reminiscent – but I'm not sure that was the poet's intention. I think it is meant to be suggestive of various events of that kind. I read this poem to some Australian friends and their first thought was of the Australian woman inexplicably shot dead (in the U.S.) after calling police to help someone else. Abuses of power happen in many countries; our next thought was of incidents that have happened here (in Australia). Other poems in 'Deaf Republic' seem to be setting the scene in Russia.


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