At the Borders of Life and Death

Phoebe Clarke on two morally searching, oracular books

Ilya Kaminsky
Deaf Republic
Faber £10.99
Ariana Reines
A Sand Book
Tin House $24.95

‘There are exercises in the spiritual sense,’ wrote Paul Celan. ‘And then there are, at every lyrical street corner, experiments that muck around with the so-called word-material. Poems are also gifts, gifts to the attentive.’ For both Ariana Reines and Ilya Kaminsky, poets heralded early in their careers as among the most significant of their generation, poems are spiritual exercises. Both of these new collections are – albeit in very different ways – gifts.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky is a slight collection of tragic proportions. Structured like a play, this sequence of lyric poems tells the story of Vasenka, an imaginary civilian territory occupied by soldiers. Through Kaminsky’s vividly animated characters – a newly-married couple, a madam, a chorus of townspeople – we discover its citizens have become mysteriously deaf after the slaying of a young deaf boy.

Deafness in these poems is made beautifully palpable. ‘The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water,’ is the way the chorus describes the gunshot which kills the boy. It is unclear if the citizens perform their deafness as an act of civil disobedience, or if their sudden disability is a symptom of evil. Poems are accompanied by diagrams of hands signing: ‘The town watches’, ‘Story’, ‘Kiss’, the graphics signify, among other messages.

‘You must speak not only of great devastation,’ writes Kaminsky, via his chorus. Act One concerns the execution of newlywed Sonya and Alfonso, two dissident puppeteers who have just given birth to a baby girl. The couple witness the slaying: ‘I watched the Sergeant aim, the deaf boy take iron and fire in his mouth – / his face on the asphalt, / that map of bone and open valves’. Kaminsky’s great achievement in Deaf Republic is to show how war devastatingly ruptures intimacies and sacred privacies.

The domestic life of Sonya and Alfonso is portrayed with deep tenderness, and eroticism:

Soaping together
is sacred to us.
Washing each other’s shoulders.

You can fuck
anyone – but with whom can you sit
in water?
                       (‘While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses’)

Their marital bliss is shockingly opposed to scenes of the occupation, where bombings, abductions and firing squads are a daily occurrence.

Kaminsky’s characterisation of the two puppeteers is superb – it is impossible not to invest in them – but his plot is fundamentally tragic: Sonya is abducted and executed, Alfonso hanged shortly thereafter, leaving the orphaned baby in soldiers’ hands.

Act Two is told from the perspective of a powerful local woman named Momma Galya Armolinskaya, who resembles someone halfway between a guerrilla and a brothel madam. One night she stages a decoy and steals the orphaned baby Anushka from a checkpoint where

‘Alfonso’s body still hangs from a / rope like a puppet of wind.’ Caring for Anushka, the hardened heart of Momma Galya breaks with new, revelatory wisdom: ‘I sit down to write and tell you what I know: / a child learns the world by putting it in her mouth, / a girl becomes a woman and a woman, earth.’

Kaminsky returns to certain words repeatedly in Deaf Republic, fashioning them into totems: flagpole, sand, wind, sunlight, snow, tomato, belly, match, whistle, earth. His characters, too, have an archetypal quality: husband, wife, child, soldier, whore. And Vasenka, despite being clearly Slavic in derivation, imaginatively stands for all war-torn states. Because of this, Deaf Republic is infused with a timelessness; its poetry is remarkably untouched by irony and has a beautiful, orphic quality:

To your voice, a mysterious virtue,
to the twenty-six bones of one foot, the four dimensions of
breathing,

to pine, redwood, sword fern, peppermint, 
to hyacinth and bluebell lily,

to the train conductor’s donkey on a rope,
to the smell of lemons, a boy pissing splendidly against the trees.

Bless each thing on earth until it sickens,
until each ungovernable heart admits: I confused myself

and yet I loved – and what I loved
I forgot, what I forgot brought glory to my travels,

to you I traveled as close as I dared, Lord.
                                                (‘Galya’s Toast’)

The dramatic sequence entitled Deaf Republic is bookended by two poems, ‘We Lived Happily During the War’ and ‘In a Time of Peace’, which are clearly set in, and about, America. The book’s terminal poem might be written in Kaminsky’s voice:

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 the man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.

It is a peaceful country.
                                   (‘In a Time of Peace’)

With the construct of Vasenka, Kaminsky asymptotically approaches the violence of contemporary America. ‘The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy’, Kaminsky later writes in ‘In a Time of Peace’, and one can visualise, triggered by the line’s implied simulacra, images from the Black Lives Matter movement, high school shootings, the Iraq War, Afghanistan. Horror lies not in the visualisation of this violence, but in our moral silence surrounding it.

In an explanatory note accompanying the hand signs at the end of Deaf Republic, Kaminsky writes: ‘The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.’ Beyond both language and silence, Deaf Republic gestures to an awareness which exists in the human soul: ‘You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens’ (‘Alfonso, in Snow’). These poems unfold a timeless tragedy of traditional measure, but they point to a political and moral evil that is ineluctably of our moment.

‘NO MORE SAND ART, no sand book, no masters’, opens Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book, on an epigraph from Paul Celan. Beyond audacious, A Sand Book is an act of defiance, a whopping 400-plus pages of first-person lyric poetry that mines the entire Western imaginary, from Thor to Uma Thurman, in a quest to transcend ‘the desolation of secular life’.

Polyvocal, oracular, chatty – the collection sees Reines quarrelling with, and ventriloquising, a predominately male modernism: ‘Poets and painters, the joys of men, midcentury modernism. Whatever. My mean way of reducing to furniture all the old avant-gardes’ (‘Open Fifths’). This seems to me an accurate account of both her attitude and her methodology in A Sand Book.

Poems echo, reference and rip without citation lines from Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry, Dickinson, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Ginsberg, but the ‘I’ of these poems is approximate to Ariana Reines, and speaks continually to her life: lovers, friendships, a teaching career, her mentally ill mother, the vicissitudes of her female body.

It is clear that Reines is as much an acolyte of modernism as she is its antagonist. While she has no truck with mastery, she has internalised many of modernism’s best lessons. Her commentary on Mallarmé is especially memorable:

Why don’t people remember that when they come 
All day over what he left behind, taking him

So Oedipally seriously, “me already 
On the poop,” he writes I swear to God 
Badly on purpose. White shit.
                                       (‘Open Fifths’)

Reines shows us repeatedly in A Sand Book her ‘knowing how to hit / The glancing edge of badness’. ‘Open Fifths’ is a rambling, but otherwise coherent poem about a night out with Richard Hell and Pussy Riot, amongst other titillating curiosities, containing multiple stanzas that are intentionally god-awful. It also helps that she is frequently very, very funny:

I am ready, frog titty, to receive the key 
I am wearing my organdy windbreaker 
I am shining like alabaster
And painted pig
& I have hands and opposable thumbs.

Remarkably, she pulls it off. Reines’s poetry has a strong charisma, the source of which is hard to identify. Probably it has something to do with her intelligence (forceful, analytic, libidinal) coupled with the insouciance of her erudition.

Depending on your disposition, A Sand Book will either feel magnetic or cumbersomely zeitgeisty – Reines dabbles heavily in new-age spiritualism and the occult. Sometimes she speaks in tones which sounds like high modernist lyric, biblical scripture and sibyllic utterance all at once. The oracular mode is kept in check by a continual parataxis of register, which rescues the poems from becoming cloying or overbearing. ‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking / The moon rose laughing and ochre / I gave the boy at the Duane Reade register my number’, she reports in ‘Something Inside Me’, mashing Yeats with the American vernacular.

As a reader, I felt frequently on the back foot with Reines – her modernist affectation; her hijacking of mythologies and jamming them with critical theory; her plumbing of the ancient, modern and postmodern; her cruising interest in world spiritualities: it’s never clear whether, or to what extent, this syncretic crusade is parodic or sincere.

‘What we till’, writes Reines, ‘Now is spiritual, is cultural, immaterial / Partaking nevertheless of pain’ (‘Tenth Body’). At the core of A Sand Book is a very genuine concern with universal suffering, which she describes in several poems as having channelled:

     More grief was pouring 
From me than I could comprehend

& I was one
Not unaccustomed to grief

This was the sorrow of a whole people 
It feels strange to declare

It was yet stranger to behold passing 
Through me. “I” was not the one

In tears. “It” was.
                            (‘Legend’)

Our resurgent cultural interest in spirituality, ritual and the occult is linked, I believe, to a generational desire to heal traumas – psychological, emotional, ancestral, ecological. ‘It seems to me every person / Wants a heart beating / At the root of the rightness / Of things’ (‘Tenth Body’). The ‘new New Age’, at bottom, serves a therapeutic function – one that can be useful, even for those who believe its metaphysics to be bogus.

It can be hard to get on board with the hermetic philosophy Reines pushes, sometimes loudly, encapsulated by the maxim ‘ANALOGY IS THE STRUCTURING / PRINCIPLE OF THE UNIVERSE’ (‘Mosaic’). Certainly this is a dominant paradigm underpinning this poetry. ‘Mosaic’, the final text in the book, functions neither as poetry nor philosophy – it reminded me of notes written by a nearly deranged Nietzsche. In any case, Reines abnegates artistic responsibility for these words, since, as she explains in an accompanying essay, they were dictated to her by the sun.

In spite of her returning us, again and again, to modernism’s shortcomings – its failed utopian promise, its whiteness, its maleness, and its legacy of formal exhaustion – Reines has a full-blown, high-modernist conviction in the role of the poet as a medium, as an ‘antennae of the race’. In her best moments, A Sand Book shows us how she is one for whom:

[...] the bardic gift
descends the spinal column 
reaching down into time 
past & time
future, digging
                         (‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’)

Like Kaminsky, she is convinced of poetry’s power to rid us of evil, and assist in our moral purification. Both poets restore an ancient, apocryphal faith in the poem’s capacity to function as a totenpass – an inscription which may guide us well at the borders of life and death, and into the afterlife.

Phoebe Clarke is a writer, critic, and founding editor of Metaxu Books.