forms of hearing
Art as activism in recent work by Ilya Kaminsky, L Kiew and Pratyusha.
Deaf Republic Ilya Kaminsky
The Unquiet L Kiew
Night Waters Pratyusha
Words bring us up against the politics of language, through where they come from, and what they are used to say. They also ask us to consider the multiple exclusions — of subject matters, identities and perspectives — that can result from pressures to standardise and homogenise. At a time when many countries are closing their borders, the latest publications from Ilya Kaminsky, L Kiew and Pratyusha help expand our forms of hearing – and thinking. Through Kiew’s inclusions of Hokkien and Malaysian dialects, Pratyusha’s of Urdu and Tamil, and Kaminsky’s of Sign, within their ‘English/American’ language texts, these works move us towards more possible spaces. They simultaneously expand our engagement with ‘less heard’ voices — in ways that resonate deeply with the mission of harana poetry.
Born hearing in Ukraine, and subsequently a d/Deaf teenage migrant to the US, the work of Ilya Kaminsky speaks of multiple worlds. Deaf Republic, his first collection in 15 years, also interrogates the relationship between state control and individual civil rights — and explores art as a form of hearing and witness. Informed by Kaminsky’s ongoing translating, editing, and activism, Deaf Republic offers a work of deep germination, and miraculously complete, but also fragmented, realisation.
Set in the imagined town of Vaskenka, located somewhere towards the former USSR, and made up from a sequence of poems structured into two acts, Deaf Republic is spoken by a chorus of ‘townspeople’, and two individual narrators. Kaminsky’s own voice adds the opening and closing poems, set in contemporary America. These ask the reader to question the links between what appears to be happening faraway, and their life at home. His virally-acclaimed prologue — ‘We Lived Happily During the War’ — begins ‘And when they bombed other people’s houses, we// protested/ but not enough’. It suggests that this disengagement has pernicious consequences at home, as well as abroad — ‘around my bed America// was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house —’
Kaminsky’s anchored register contrasts with the cinematic, fable-like, but graphically realised poems unfolding thereafter. Abrupt transitions of tone and mood are key to Deaf Republic’s project of witness to a world gone awry. Politicised reportage on state terror alternates with soft-core romantic intimacy and family scenes. Narrated in the first person by Alfonso, one of the town’s two puppeteers, the latter suggest that our civil liberties reside also in freedom to realise our individual lives.
The action begins with ‘Gunshot’, reported by the ‘townspeople’. Vasenka is already occupied, and its citizens are out in the central square watching a puppet show, put on by Alfonso and his wife Sonya, in defiance of a ban on public assembly. A deaf boy fails to hear the arrival of an army jeep, or the order to disperse, and is shot, causing the town to become collectively and electively deaf to the soldiers: ‘The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.’
Deafness also allows the town to become deaf to state propaganda — albeit not its murderous consequences. In his recent interview with the Poetry Book Society, Kaminsky additionally links the absence of sound to making evident the d/Deaf experience globally, based on his own experience of belatedly receiving hearing aids aged 16: ‘As a deaf child, I experienced my country as a nation without sound. Only images. So how did a deaf child experience the USSR falling apart? I heard with my eyes.’
Showing what this form of hearing ‘with my eyes’ can mean in practice, the visual imagery of Deaf Republic expresses the emotional narrative with a choreographed clarity more usually associated with silent film and mime. The widescreen orchestration of the initial ‘Gunshot’ yields to a tight close-up in the second poem, whose title could be a film caption, or stage direction: ‘As Soldiers March, Alfonso Covers the Boy’s Face with a Newspaper.’ We are instructed to ‘Observe this moment/ — how it convulses —’, a refrain which will recur. Sonya, the second puppeteer, then lies beside the shot boy, ‘her shout a hole// torn in the sky.’
Vasenka’s collective deafness rapidly becomes an offence, leading to vividly evoked arrests and roundups: ‘They tear Gora’s wife from her bed like a door off a bus.’ Meanwhile, readers are admitted into the private spaces of Sonya’s and Alfonso’s marriage, which operates within its own separate register. In ‘Still Newlyweds’, Alfonso records ‘You step out of the shower and the entire nation calms’, and how he stands ‘in my pajamas,// penis sticking out’. Unavoidably hetero-normative, their emotional intimacy is nonetheless common to many erotic encounters — with the shared dimension of being safely vulnerable.
The next poem, ‘The Soldiers Aim at Us’, returns to the landscape of terror, and has the graphic impact of Carolyn Forché’s reportage of El Salvador, which Kaminsky has previously cited as both a reference point and inspiration. It opens:
as the crowd of women flees inside the nostrils of search lights
— may God have a photograph of this —
Visually accurate, because allowing us to see the long beams of the searchlights projected across the ground, the metaphor also expresses the inescapability of state power, whether in America, or further afield. Later in Deaf Republic, the mechanisms of surveillance will be embodied in Alfonso’s observation of how ‘a helicopter eyeballs my wife.’ From here on in, the personal and political narratives converge, as the round-ups and bombardments intensify, and Sonya gives birth to their child.
Taken on the street, and pulled into a jeep, in the manner of arrests in El Salvador described by Carolyn Forché and others, Sonya is subsequently raped and shot. In reality, it is unusual for disappearances to be revealed so fully, and readily. The brevity, and content, of Alfonso’s subsequent ‘Elegy’ for his late wife tacitly question the tensions between silence and expression, and between respect for trauma, and the requirements of aesthetic gratification, that are central to Deaf Republic, and to larger questions about how art can give witness. ‘Elegy’ takes up only ten words, six of which are Alfonso’s prayer to be denied the power of speech, as well as hearing:
To remove Deaf Republic’s own song — its cadences, its imagery, its developed dramatic structure — would be to transpose it to the silence, and inarticulacy, of profound trauma, which Celan’s poems (amongst others) work towards. Revered by Kaminsky, who edited the anthology Homage to Paul Celan, this silence make for difficult reading. It also risks rebuffing all but the most dedicated — which is the opposite of Kaminsky’s intention in Deaf Republic. He told the Poetry Book Society it ‘is a story about a crisis’, intended to reach, and touch, readers, and combat America’s own silences around many of the actions of their current President.
In Dancing in Odessa, Kaminsky previously wrote ‘we dance to keep from falling’ — suggesting that one of art’s roles can be to sustain life — a position of particular resonance to anyone who grew up in the former USSR, where many key 20th century poets wrote against their own extinctions. In ‘The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso’, as he is arrested on the street, those watching remain silent both as a form of protest, but also of acquiescence. Tortured with a fire hose, Alfonso is then hung in full view, and left — in the manner of corpses in photographs and videos of war reportage, and extrajudicial killings, around the world.
Following Alfonso’s death, however, the townspeople offer up a ‘Eulogy’ which argues for art being deployed in times of trauma, while also allowing for the difficulties attendant on this project. 13 lines long, including its title, it closes by quoting Alfonso, (in italics), and then appropriating his words by changing ‘You’ to ‘We’:
You must speak not only of great devastation —
when his child cried, he
made her an newspaper hat and squeezed his silence
like two pleats of an accordion:
We must speak not only of great devastation —
and he played that accordion out of tune in a country
where the only musical instrument is the door.
The newspaper hat that becomes an accordion encompasses both journalism, and performed art, as means of expression, but accepts their limitations. The image of squeezing ‘silence’ looks back to ‘Eulogy’s’ prayer for the withholding of ‘song’. The final line ‘where the only musical instrument is the door’ alludes to work made in and from exile, but suggests that the price of being able to make art from our places of extinction, as Deaf Republic does, is also to be closed to them in some way.
What it can cost to resist, and to make art which resists, when no exits are available, is brought to us within the second act of Deaf Republic. This explores the forms of insurgency orchestrated by the owner of the puppet theatre, Momma Galya, and her female troupe. She is finally executed by her own townspeople, in retaliation for the punishments visited upon them by the occupying forces.
The last poems move back into the present time. In ‘And Yet, on Some Nights’, the townspeople reflect ‘Years later, some will say none of this happened; the shops were open, we were/ happy and went to see puppet shows in the park.’ Most immediately gesturing towards the double realities of countries held within the sway of the former Soviet Union, the phrase also accommodates every country within which a ‘double reality’ still persists, and where ‘when patrols march, we sit on our hands’. A single line bridges us back to Kaminsky’s own voice in the epilogue poem, which plays on the complexity of the silences Deaf Republic has investigated:
We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins —
‘In a Time of Peace’ then opens by recalling ‘Gunshot’. Kaminsky records how:
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.
We pocket our phones and go.
To the dentist,
to pick up the kids from school,
to buy shampoo
Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement
Framing how images transmitted via electronic media may allow us to view other lives without connecting to them, ‘In a Time of Peace’ validates the contrary processes enacted within Deaf Republic. However imperfectly, the mechanisms of art generate the possibility of transformative engagement. As with Jay Bernard’s Surge, or Tracy K Smith’s Walk on Water, this allows the aesthetic experience to function as an act of connection, and a new form of hearing, from and with worlds beyond our own.
Full of diverse sounds, but also offering witness to unrecorded, and largely unheard lives, L Kiew’s The Unquiet actively challenges the concept of single language dominance, alongside the primacy of printed over spoken words, thanks to its multi-lingual, multi-location text set between Malaysia and the UK. The result is dynamic — and uncompromising. While there are phonetic or pinyin romanisations of non-English vocabulary, which enable the reader to sound out the inset words, no translations are provided.
Kiew sets up stall in the opening poem, ‘Swallow’, which begins in a mango tree designated by its Latin botanical name. As ‘Verbs twitter in the magnifera’, the poet notes ‘I roost in humid shade,/ overeating from the dictionary —/ nouns sticky as langsat’. Meaning both a migratory bird, and a verb denoting consumption, ‘Swallow’ enacts two key processes within The Unquiet — absorbing, and departing — so that ‘The words I swallow/ become feathers poking through my skin.’
Kiew’s own migrations between Malaysia and England inform the poems that follow, together with those of earlier generations of women in her family, including her English mother, and Chinese great-grandmother. Some of these journeys come to us through ghost stories and hauntings, which link the past into the present day, paying tribute to the Chinese cultural respect for ancestors, and also relish of the supernatural, while also giving lost women back their voices.
‘Haunts’ begins in a time gone by, with a female speaker who states ‘Ląomà belives the dead/ cling to their possessions’ and describes how the ‘last occupant’ of her own ‘red shantung’ dress ‘is/ heartbroken and tugging/ on my hem.’ While she waltzes, ‘a white hand/ strokes my feet, smearing black/ blood over my cracked heels.’ Genuinely spooky, ‘Haunts’ performs language-conjuring tricks to enact Chinese-Malaysian story-telling traditions, and re-imagine the vanished lives of previous generations, whom it bodies back into selfhood.
‘Francesca’, which follows, is grounded in present day reality, honouring the value and dignity of domestic service, and the practical skills through which this is realised — not unlike the recent film Roma, albeit with a less burdened heroine. Set in a part of the world where this form of work remains widespread, ‘Francesca’ salutes the woman ‘who stood/ ready at one o’clock/ with fried rice on a plate/ and Yeo’s tomato ketchup’, then lists her other expert specialisms, before concluding finally with her life outside her work where she:
walks to church
daily, strong as bamboo
as persistent, who lives
on the hill
Brought up partly by her grandmother and aunts, who lived close to the land and sea in Nova Scotia, with little money to spare, Elizabeth Bishop also noticed the lives of people employed to serve others — whether in Florida, or Brazil. Reflecting a different time in history, Bishop’s domestic service workers are often disempowered, or marginalised, unlike Kiew’s sturdily upright and self-determining Francesca, who enacts a self-contained, centred female model of agency.
Within The Unquiet, pain arises when Francesca’s Malaysian world, in which Kiew grew up, is relegated to being of lesser worth. In ‘Learning to be mixi’, Kiew describes boarding school in England and then studying at Cambridge, using non-standard grammatical constructions which deliberately reject the ‘correct’ forms of language of a UK environment which proves to be neither ‘proper’ nor ‘nice.’
It was so panas
but aircon in airport
bite like cat.
Mother wave goodbye at gate
I was buckled in, and taken off
to England, the boarding school
(not like Enid Blyton, not at all) and
Cambridge, the colleges,
the backs and the hate,
suppressing the suffix-lah,
being proper and nice, cutting
my tongue with that ice.
Angrily funny, and invigorated, Kiew’s voice is also unequivocal in its denunciation of the ‘hate’ projected towards her younger self, and the extent to which she was expected to modify her voice to fit in with ‘educated’ British norms. The second stanza again refracts its grammar away from Standard English, deliberately breaking agreements between subject and verb, suppressing prepositions, and reapplying the ‘suffix-lah’ to describe how ‘Ah Kong love learning-lah,/ every day/ reading Sin Chew Jit Poh’. ‘Home’ is where you can fill your ears ‘with warm tones/ jiat hò a bhuę?’ The third stanza concludes with an adult return, which enacts the right to slide instinctively between languages, as is normal in Malaysia:
When I took my Scots partner home
speaking proper English, he asked
‘Honey, di’ye ken ye jest switched
Dialect like a blush licked
my face, campur-campur
speech bursting the ice wall,
jopuēt: puēt uę.
Validating a culture which does not enforce single language dominance, Kiew stops short of romanticising the ways in which men have historically been valued above women in Malaysia and China, as elsewhere. In ‘The boy I wasn’t’, he ‘carries the family name like a Langyao vase.’ To be less tightly held is also to be more easily freed, however, and the poems ends:
this girl becomes a sea swallow
my spit-cup nest high up the cave wall
fledging above the scent of waves
The closing poems of The Unquiet record what has been arrived at through these departures. ‘Afterlife’ looks back to Kiew’s great-grandmother, who came to Malaysia from China, ‘steerage rat on the iron boat’, having refused to have her feet bound. Obliged to marry a much older man, she claimed freedom through this path of difference to become a successful businesswoman, and powerful matriarch — ‘to hold her hand is to hold iron.’ The poem imagines her spectral energy moving still within the family home as an animating presence. Resistant as ever to being caught or controlled, ‘she escapes under the back door/ along the yellow wall, scurrying/ grey and fast into the lalang —’
The final poem, ‘Mediums’ enacts the movement of the The Unquiet into the ‘mixi’ language it has claimed for itself. Seemingly expressing a kinship with some of James Joyce’s experiments, it begins:
in dreams I openmouth
water even more complicating
okay lah, you like that say
tongueburr you blur what!
I sacrifice puggytears
joss the waves
like that, selamat
also, don’t know how to do
sense tidak melekat
‘sensekelp sidelopped’ vests chains of sound into the shifting movement of interleaving bands of seaweed, allowing phrases to slop and lap against each other. Made-up words chink and splash into and out of ‘recognised’ forms of language of multiple national origins. Sound patterning and internal line organisation denote and cohere relationships — ‘like that, selamat’ — the poem ending by claiming the mixed identity’s right to transmit itself through the shapes it makes and assumes:
who say our speak is teruk?
you clear too
some canals not open
sound carrycross water
we unclose, belong
cincai, like that lah
sometimes no need words, listen
While Kiew opens our ears to multi-lingualism, and non-English language patterning, Night Waters, by the ‘Indo-Swiss’ poet Pratyusha, welcomes Urdu and Tamil poetry into its sound palette, along with music, including classical ragas and Beirut, the West Coast indie rock/world music combo. ‘Nightmare’, the first poem, opens:
I lose my face in the dirt
[I lose it to prayer]
a calabash toomba calling at night
[tanpura strung across the black water]
seawater bodies glinting with teeth
altars crowned with marigold and jasmine
[earth-born babies with matted curly hair]
As breath enters and leaves the body, the movement is in and out of a singleness of self, and from the individual to the collective. Boundaries are porous, respecting the multi-way processes of conversation and refraction practiced within South Asian poetics, where sound functions as a medium of transmission and co-joining, whether through performance of the poet’s own, or other poets’ works. The ‘calabash toomba’ is glossed beneath the poem as being ‘a musical resonator made from a calabash that is part of many musical instruments’.
Like a dream horse, ridden out into our places of darkness, ‘nightmare’ interleaves beauty and loss, receiving ‘[bloodnight tenderest kisses from the dead]’. The phrase evokes the genocide arising from Partition, also explored by Fatimah Asghar, Sandeep Parmar and Bhanu Kapil amongst others. Corpses surface again in the poem’s injunction to ‘glaze the bodies/ [cast them into a lake of mirrors]’. The poem closes with a quote from the ‘Emperor Jahangir’, about Kashmir, which is translated as ‘if there is a Paradise on earth… it is here, it is here, it is here.’
Pratyusha’s second poem, ‘conch birth’, is printed following, and facing, two excerpts, in Urdu, then English, from the late Nasir Kazmi’s ghazal ‘Dil Mein Ek Lehar’:
life looks for you
in the lampless lanes of the city
a fresh breeze pervades these lanes;
waves rise and break in my heart
Kazmi left India for Pakistan in 1947 at Partition. Choosing to place lines about absence and grief from another poet immediately after ‘nightmare’, and facing her own next work, Pratyusha makes space for unspoken presences. The layout also reflects the processes of transmission from one language to another, and from one culture to another, which Pratyusha has spoken of in interviews as emerging from her own years of translating other poets. Below her transliterations, and translations of the two Kazmi ghazal fragments, Pratyusha writes footnotes which come close to being prose poems about the movements of music within the ghazal form:
The renditions of the word ‘lehar’ — ‘wave’ are sung differently each time, with
every repetition of it (the long meander of the radif, the second repetition of every
couplet in the ghazal). Each wave breaks differently on the shore.
The intricacies of the ghazal don’t stop at the written form. Every time they are
spoken and sung, different inflections, different vocalisations make the ghazal a
living, growing thing.
What it can mean to allow musical forms to enter, and voice themselves through you as a poet is explored within Pratyusha’s second poem, ‘conch birth’. Its subject is the ‘girl of indigo-stained houses/ and the mats laid on their rooftops’, ‘of the early mornings/ where the koel sings insistently into the/ ear of the small town’, the girl ‘reborn because/ she was married’. Denied any individual, named, identity, unlike Kiew’s ‘Francesca’, this girl nonetheless makes, and claims one for herself through her engagement with traditional music, the exercise of which forms part of her household chores:
girl sounding the conch shell, each call is a new lease
of life; she wills herself born into music: the ragas
flooding her eardrum like the floodwaters of the yamuna,
the ragas floating down her scratchy throat like
ghee and honey; rebirth into: gulab jamuns,
amrapali mangoes succulent on her arch tongue;
rebirth into speech, into silence.
she wills herself death into copper tumblers and
While not a ghazal, the recurrence of ‘girl’ throughout ‘conch birth’ responds to the practice of repetition. The textured, lingering lines hold within themselves what Pratyusha characterises as the ‘long meander’, while also taking inspiration from Kazmi’s process of fully, and sensuously, realising physical landscapes which simultaneously embody their symbolic, metaphorical dimensions. Kazmi describes how the ‘fresh breeze’ afterwards causes waves to ‘rise and break in my heart’. Pratyusha finds that ‘gulab jamuns’ and ‘amrapali mangoes’ lead to ‘rebirth into speech, into silence.’
‘Transcript’, which immediately follows ‘conch birth’, develops this exploration further. It opens: ‘Every time you appear in the door it is as though/ as though my ribs are being unhooked, bone after/ bone laid forward/back shorn of shame and beauty’. Seemingly addressed to a lover, it speaks also to another language, or languages, and other possible selves. Feeling ‘Days leaning their migraine-red foreheads on the windows’, the lines then catch:
light simmering from behind the
radiator, a bird-gurgle in the darkness,
iris purple and powdering by the kitchen.
Forgetting, how loaded. & why do you bloom
so green, your eye skinned-up like a gentle
photograph that we forgot to print? You don’t want
to speak. I understand. We break words halfway,
bend them backwards so we can avoid
saying them and changing their faces.
There is a music to the sound choices — the runs of ‘r’s, followed by the opening of the long vowel sounds, leading into staccato consonants of rupture — which seem to be informed by the ‘intricacies’ and ‘vocalisations’ within Pratyusha’s analysis of the ghazal. The flowing, associative transitions also look back to her characterisation of the form as a ‘living, growing thing’ as ‘Transcript’ closes:
Didn’t mean to play Beirut again. When
you slowly open my mouth
there’s a rush of light that pulls back the curtains on
that night, stars crowding the bulbs
out. Did we matter? My eyelashes pause.
After all, you are
the last colour. I almost want
lemon blossoms glowing in the backyard,
but we don’t live in the right place, for that.
The poem presents itself as a transcription of experience into written language, in the reverse of the performance process of the ghazal, whereby written language is transposed into performed sound. Arranged to perform itself on the page, ‘Transcript’ speaks also to the two further Urdu fragments which face it, by the late Parveen Shakir. Both are about the processes of transmission and transmutation:
I am the glimmering reflection of fragrance; my dispersal is relentless
let no one attempt to gather me back into a single scent
My heart does not relish its violent passions: and to reach you —
it can melt my body into a canoe, my blood into a river
Like a quivering needle, oscillating between two markers, Pratyusha’s imagery shares Shakir’s quality of moving constantly between the real and the metaphysical, so both states are simultaneously present. Setting her work across from her precursor’s, she elects to enact an open conversation of influencing, and transmission, which is integral to the creative process within Urdu poetry, and which she deliberately inscribes into her ‘English’ poetics.
Pratyusha’s poems which follow ‘Transcription’ — ‘Navigation’, ‘adagio’, ‘Raga Megha Malhar’, ‘laguna’, ‘New Moon (Scorpio)’ — rework and refract different combinations of experience and influence. Bodying them forth into song poem after song poem, the resulting work floats the reader’s mind with the vividness of their imageries. ‘Colour’, the final poem, holds itself within a single language, but contains within its patterns the formal influences and linguistic registers of Urdu and Tamil poetry. The speaker is alone, at sunset. The wave-forms of Kazmi’s ghazals cause the day ‘to slide past me like water’. Parveen Shakir’s collection, Perfume, gives rise to Pratyusha’s ‘Words distilled in a vase,/ words scented like rose/ boiling in a saucepan’ which ‘simmer and rush/ everywhere like the full/ green rapids.’
What emerges from this porousness is not a blurring of self — rather a distillation and empowerment of Pratyusha’s deeply original voice. Allowing for the sources which flow into their waters, her words are differentiated by their own vitality. While ‘nightmare’ began in a place shadowed with death, ‘Colour’ ends in life. The sun may be setting, but day will come again — with so much potential for new beauty:
The sunset turns its slow
gold eyes on me. Vines grasp
my legs and coil upward.
Do we always hold
scent under our skin?
Every nerve sings a hot pink song
that blooms upwards into rose-
words. There are no rose-words.
I sit still. The sunset