By Eleanor Cousins Brown
Ilya Kaminsky's poetic & political calls for action in Ukraine.
Following the atrocities of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, I, like others, have been returning to the work of Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky. Social media has been flooded with the words of one of his most-celebrated lyrics, ‘We Lived Happily During the War’:
And when they bombed other people’s
but not enough, we opposed them but
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible
house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the
Kaminsky’s is a poetry that shatters our peace. In the face of violence, Kaminsky is a tireless activist; his perennial poetic theme has been community under oppression; his recent mode of living has been one of hurried translation, platforming writers and aid-givers in Ukraine, and posting details of refugees looking for residence elsewhere in Europe. Pulled further into the public eye, this poet and translator has become – in the words of his wife Katie Farris – a ‘point of contact for others who need help, and readers and programs who want to give it’.
His work is a vital touchstone for the problem of the bystander in poetry and in politics. In ‘We Lived Happily During the War’, Kaminsky opens Deaf Republic (2019) by positioning its speaker as a distant bystander. He connects inaction to permission, slowness to complicity. The following narrative poems in Deaf Republic weave a fable of a fictive occupied territory called ‘Vasenka’, as its citizens battle an oppressive state, and turn deaf in resistance. The collection reworks the problematic idiom of ‘falling on deaf ears’, using deafness as a rapidly shifting signifier for resistance, for the townspeople’s refusal to hear the commands of their oppressors. This collection’s appeal is even more ferocious in 2022 than it was in 2019.
Before we enter Vasenka, however, Kaminsky unsettles our position as readers of his parable with his arresting first-person plural ‘we’. He engages our culpability in a collection that will be as much about spectatorship as it is about conflict. Engaging with his work in a time of urgency, we must address the issue of slowness – a vital theme in his work, as it is in any poetics engaged in activism. Poetry works with lag, digesting events post facto, demanding careful time in interpretation. The reader, pausing the pace of their day to read this poem (on a chair outside, even, perhaps), must wonder if they are the subject the poem ends with: ‘we (forgive us)/ lived happily during the war’. This is bearing witness at a troublingly languorous remove. Poetry, after all, is bad at journalism: it cannot provide news of the most recent bombing or distribute links to donation appeals. Kaminsky himself is a slow publisher and ardent reviser, reworking Deaf Republic for over a decade before its book release. When does poetry operate, when its reading seems associated with the distance and slowness that an activist poetics might wish to collapse, quicken?
Though Kaminsky’s work seems ever-accompanied by his biography, it bears repeating here. Born in Soviet Odessa in 1977, Kaminsky fled antisemitism with his family in 1993. His grandparents were killed or disappeared as ‘enemies of the people’ under Stalin’s regime. After seeking asylum in America, Kaminsky began writing in English, with an investment in how personal and political timelines, familial and national histories, are interconnected. In his collections Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic, he negotiates a heritage of escape and erasure. The former is an assemblage of odes to Kaminsky’s birth city and tributes to literary figures Celan, Brodsky, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva; the latter is a narrative collection that opens with the killing of a deaf boy, Petya, by soldiers at a puppet show and follows a young couple, their baby, and its later carer, Momma Galya.
As I take a chair outside and read Kaminsky’s work, am I, as Louise Glück writes ‘Riding | the subway with my small book / as though to defend myself against // this same world’? We can hide in the privacy and persistently atemporal position of reading, as the book here deflects the world it springs from. Yet surely we must move beyond the long-rehearsed and often uninteresting argument that posits the lyric as fundamentally apolitical, solipsistic. Poems as varied as Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ and Emma Lazarus’ ‘The New Colossus’ prove the political investments and repercussions of verse. To respond to urgent political contexts, the rise of the poetic ‘project-book’ has attempted to draw in multi-media sources of information and documentation. Claudia Rankine’s often essayistic Citizen is a particularly prominent example of this attempt to adapt the lyric to a world of instant media.
Kaminsky, too, believes utterly in political poetics. The privacy of poetics is not antithetical to community activism: Kaminsky has argued that ‘a great poet is a very private person. […] This poet creates a language in which he or she is able to speak, privately, to many people at the same time’. In ‘Author’s Prayer’, the opening ars poetica from in Dancing in Odessa, he describes his act of ventriloquy:
If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
Giving voice to the voiceless is at the heart of Kaminsky’s poetic activism. Once a community’s stories are forgotten, their lives are lost. Judith Butler explains how lives relegated to an ‘ungrievable’ population mass only become ‘grievable’ when they are published and storied. Refusing the ‘white flag’ of the empty page, Kaminsky fills his Twitter with stories of Ukrainian refugees – some fellow poets, some friends and family, all seeking shelter. His recent fundraiser supported Odessa’s first free newspaper, Vechernyaya Odesa, in its efforts to continue reporting from Ukraine. A vital part of Kaminsky’s message has been to publicise the work of Ukrainian poets, sharing near-daily poetic fragments that speak to the devastation of their nation.
It follows, then, that Kaminsky’s poetry is obsessed with acts of seeing, critiquing how we watch such devastation occur. Kaminsky’s poetry is panoptic. The word ‘watch’ appears 35 times in Deaf Republic, as we see watchers watching the watching. As the townspeople observe the search patrols, ‘silence’s gross belly flaps. The crowd watches. / The children watch us watch’. Spectatorship is a learned stance. Kaminsky teaches us the discipline of attention; we, like the children, have learned to watch the watchers, and hold ourselves at a safe distance from mediated violence. The final, and most damning, poem of the collection, ‘In a Time of Peace’, speaks to an American audience, telling an all-too-familiar story of police violence.
I watch neighbors open
their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license.
When the man reaches for
his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.
It is a peaceful country.
We pocket our phones and go.
In these stark lines, Kaminsky drags us slowly through layers of mediation: the narrator watches their neighbour, who watches their phone, viewing a video filmed by another spectator who watches a cop, who watches a man and murders him, as we finally arrive at the victim of the violence itself. Why paint us not only the picture, but the frame? This labour is how Kaminsky shifts our focus from what we are witnessing to how we are witnessing it. Indirection is the characteristic of modern media. Where I receive news of Kharkiv, I witness from the witnesses. Kaminsky’s task is to transform the gap between witness and closure, where phones are pocketed and days continued. To me, this is where slowness is essential, this is where poetry’s suspended moments succeed. If Kaminsky makes his reader linger a little longer over this image, the moment becomes less disposable. Writing these lines, reading these lines, creates a productive delay: we remain with a crisis that insists.
In a poem describing Petya’s corpse, shot by soldiers, Kaminsky urges us to ‘Observe this moment —how it convulses—’. He repeats this interruption across poems in the collection, continually forcing us to pay attention. Through his curiously eternal, affective present tense, Kaminsky’s poetry breaks the habit of assimilating individual instances of violence into an expected, foreclosed script. His description of Petya’s body ‘convulses’ with astonishing force:
The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like
The body of the boy lies on the asphalt
like the body of a boy.
Repetition denies closure by inducing delay, as Kaminsky insists we look three times upon ‘the body of a boy’. The simile recurs in reference to the American boy shot by police in ‘In a Time of Peace’: ‘The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy—’. In this echo, Kaminsky collapses the difference between the fictional death of Petya in the imaginary ‘Deaf Republic’ and violence in our own lives. We can contain this body neither in the fictive-nation of Vasenka, nor in the safety of simile. Kaminsky’s lines edit themselves; no, the boy’s body is not like a paperclip but is irreconcilable to any image beyond itself. But Kaminsky is not, I think, interested in a debate about the exhaustibility of figurative language (though approximation is clearly inadequate here), but in how we look without seeing. Kaminsky here attends to reality. We have watched thousands of such figures, he seems to say, without really seeing them. Here, the reader sees the corpse not clothed in metaphor, but nakedly, as it is. ‘We see in his open mouth / the nakedness / of the whole nation’.
The success of Deaf Republic and Dancing in Odessa lies in Kaminsky’s focus on life in the gaps – on where, amid war, we dwell in private nations still. In the love poems between Alfonso and Sonya, the couple whose story makes up the first half of the collection, we sense Kaminsky’s sympathy for the lives that want to retreat into one another. ‘You step out of the shower and the entire nation calms—’, writes Alfonso; ‘You are two fingers more beautiful than any other woman— / I am not a poet, Sonya, / I want to live in your hair’. These slow, private seconds offer brief safety. War creates its own poetics: sharing the story of a grandmother who fled Mariupol with a rooster, having survived bombings together, Kaminsky tweeted ‘The bird wakes everyone at 3am... what they call magical realism, and other lit devices, is just plain old life’. This is a collection filled with lullabies, love songs, toasts to splendorous life among people oppressed by war.
Yet, Kaminsky also shows us this same habit of insulation in the lives of peacetime onlookers:
All of us
still have to do the hard work of dentist
of remembering to make
a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy,
tomatoes, add a little salt.
Never the moralist, Kaminsky sinks into the beauty of these everyday, absorbing intimacies that occupy our attention, but shows us too a crucial difference: these intimacies are not threatened. Where the people of Vasenka retreat for survival, our retreat into the everyday allows others to die. What Kaminsky does, which seems to me so valuable, is explore how the lyric moment – its effect of frozen time – can both be emotionally activating and used as a metaphor for our slowness and inaction as observers. This is the crux of Kaminsky’s work, which seems to be no better distilled than in ‘A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on its Way to the Neck’, in an echo of his own:
At the trial of God, we will ask: why did
you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did
you allow all this?
ELEANOR COUSINS BROWN is a postgraduate at Brasenose. She is studying for a Masters in English which now seems more panicked than she had thought.
Art by Ben Beechener