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Poems that are filled with the sounds of silence

The theme of deafness creates a powerful tie between the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky and Raymond Antrobus

Ilya Kaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky (Photo: Getty Images)

When three deaf women / were found murdered, / their tongues cut out / for speaking sign language, / the papers called it / a savage ritualistic act — / but I think the world / should have gone silent….

Thus opens a poem in Jamaican-British writer Raymond Antrobus’ first full-length collection, The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins). This thought is actualized and realized in another work: The fictional world of Vasenka, in Ukrainian-American Ilya Kaminsky’s book of play-poems Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press), does go silent.

Raymond Antrobus
Raymond Antrobus (Photo: Getty Images)

Tragedy strikes in Vasenka, an occupied territory: The morning after soldiers kill a young deaf boy, Petya, its citizens collectively resort to silence. The gunshot becomes the final sound they choose to hear—and as the title of a poem puts it, “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins". This segueing of ideas of silence and sound between Antrobus’ first collection and Kaminsky’s second is but one of several affinities between the two poets.

Although structurally dissimilar, the sums of both books are as great as their parts. The reader may choose to snack on or swallow these works whole. The Perseverance is a carefully curated collection of 29 poems, wide-ranging in theme, from the poet’s mixed heritage to memory, history, family. Deaf Republic builds in dramatic episodes across two acts, wherein the central epic is enveloped by a pair of poems (We Lived Happily During The War and In A Time Of Peace), which function like para-texts, on the peripheries of the play proper.

Yet both books are malleable and lend themselves to—not translations, not quite adaptations, but transformations into other multimedia formats. Excerpts from Deaf Republic appeared on The New Yorker’s website with audio clips of Kaminsky and sign language illustrations based on original drawings by Jennifer Whitten. Dear Hearing World by Antrobus, who has been a spoken-word poet for a decade, was made into a short film (starring deaf actor Vilma Jackson).

Structure aside, settings-wise the poems in The Perseverance swim in the seas and land on the shores of the two islands that make up its writer’s identity—Jamaica and Britain. In Deaf Republic, the pair of poems mentioned earlier are set in “our great country of money", in “a peaceful country" where “around my bed America is falling". The place depicted in these two poems (America) serves as a foil to the conflict and tyranny in the town of Vasenka, but ultimately functions to conflate this contrast.

Stylistically, particularly through storytelling within and without “silence"—and by way of the two poets’ deafness—their works meet. When read as a pair, their voices against violence and their visions of deaf experiences in our world echo each other, are amplified, create ripples and resonances. Both poets write rage and race with beauty; both books demand dignity—for the deaf, for the dead.

Antrobus’ poems are autobiographical: from security checks at “Miami Airport" to the pub his lost father frequented. Brutality against black bodies, deaf bodies and young boys’ bodies is the pivot around which Antrobus’ gut-wrenching poem Two Guns In The Sky For Daniel Harris pirouettes. Meanwhile, Kaminsky’s poem In a Time of Peace mirrors the young boy Petya’s death at the hands of soldiers in the beginning of the collection.

The poems in The Perseverance and Deaf Republic are pleas, prayers, and, at times, protests: “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens," writes Kaminsky. “In these avenues, deafness is our only barricade." Antrobus closes Dear Hearing World (After Danez Smith) with these lines: Deaf voices go missing like sound in space / and I have left earth to find them. He also strikes through sentences in stanzas of the same poem. The poem on the following page, Deaf School By Ted Hughes, is entirely redacted. Here, Antrobus challenges Hughes’ original description of deaf children as “alert and simple" and corrects the narrative. He won the Ted Hughes prize for this.

The poems in these books are also (love) letters, laments, elegies: As Antrobus says, We are centuries away from people / believing our stories without / perversion, without pity…. In a selection of “before the War" poems, Kaminsky speaks tenderly about a married couple, Alfonso and Sonya Barabinski. In the first, he writes: I am not a poet, Sonya, / I want to live in your hair. Some of the softest, quietest moments in his writing speak the loudest.

Poetry and deafness act as defiance, resistance, revolution; as communication, confrontation, celebration. In The Perseverance, British Sign Language iconography—without annotations or word aids—is interspersed through the text and lies adjacent to the Roman script of the poems. In Kaminsky’s book, we are told that the townspeople invented their own sign language, which is subtitled with English words throughout—save the penultimate poem, which is told only through signs. By this time, the reader knows the signs for “town", “story" and “earth". Writing in the languages they speak, including English and sign languages, both poets lend voice to deaf experiences on the page.

What language/ would we speak/ without ears? asks Antrobus in his opening poem, Echo. What else will help us/ hear each other, really hear each other? he writes in the final poem, Happy Birthday Moon. “The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing," clarifies Kaminsky in his closing remarks to the collection. Kaminsky has interviewed Antrobus for his interview series “Deaf Poetics". Antrobus has blurbed and reviewed Kaminsky. These two poets are speaking to each other, and to you, “dear hearing world". Are you listening?

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.

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