The Aesthetics of Silence: New Books by Ilya Kaminsky & Donna Stonecipher
(Graywolf Press, 2019)
In a 2007 essay, Chris P. Miller asserts that “silence is a chronology, a beginning collapsed into the end.” For Miller, silence manifests as the first—and truest—form of compression, a charged and dense rhetorical space in which even time folds in on itself. Susan Sontag describes this remarkable compression not as a destructive force, but rather, as transcendence, a sure sign of language sublimating into dream, insight, and artistic vision. Approached with these ideas in mind, the gaps between words, lines, stanzas, and prose paragraphs becomes charged with possibility, a liminal space in which the rules governing speech no longer hold.
Two recent collections of poetry frame silence not as failure, but as potentiality, transformation, and resistance. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and Donna Stoncipher’s Transaction Histories invite a startling absence to inhabit their music, manifesting at turns as fragmentation, omission, wild and unexplained juxtapositions of images, and a careful withholding of narrative context. Yet in both of these finely crafted volumes, the reader witnesses silence transforming from elegy to paean to metaphor and back again, as the space between words is made to hold entire worlds.
(University of Iowa Press, 2018)
Though vastly different in style and scope, these innovative collections, through their innumerable ruptures and elisions, frame listening, especially in a rhetorical space characterized by absence, as a radical and visionary practice. What’s more, through an undoubtedly performative approach to language, Kaminsky and Stonecipher involve the reader in a deft performance of this soothsaying, this gradual process of divination and revelation. Each collection, then, reads as a ledger of a consciousness transformed by deep listening. As Stonecipher herself writes, “Aftermath after aftermath after aftermath. Each word was a vault containing the pale blue glass of its history.”
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Donna Stonecipher’s Transaction Histories appear as a series of thematically linked prose vignettes. Yet in the early pages of this collection, the dense, ornately worded paragraphs are perhaps most startling in their fragmentation, as a visible rupture tears at the very center of each piece, its music interrupted, literally halved, by this destructive gesture. Yet this negative space at the very heart of each poem functions much like the “skeleton key” that appears throughout the work, offering a point of entry into the work’s potentialities if the reader is attentive enough to unlock them.
“[T]here were locks upon locks in rows,” Stonecipher writes, “as in a locksmith’s dream, and one key so slippery it kept falling out of her hand into the sky, floating up into the deeps.” In much the same way, the intent behind Stonecipher’s dense and baroquely lyrical prose constructions seems at first to be elusive. Yet this same certainty often eludes the speaker of the poems herself, as her mind orbits from “the past with its black perfect perfections, its ashtrays and princess telephones” back to the imperfect present as the “glass” falls from her hand and shatters “on the balcony.” We realize that we are searching along with the speaker, for patterns, convergences, and confluences in the vast sprawling texts of time, history, and culture. The elisions in the very center of each poem, then, offer a space for meaning to accumulate, to take hold in the seemingly random fabric of a shared consciousness.
We come to realize, along with the speaker, that “What’s past is never past, but moves from room to room in the blue honeycomb of the brain, or
blooms in domes that crown the fretted space of her thinking.” Fittingly, as the sequence unfolds across time and history, these gaps disappear from the book’s pages, as a gorgeously fractured narrative arc begins to emerge. In such way, a transient unity of time, voice, and self is visibly performed in the visual presentation of the work on the page. Yet it is the space between each prose vignette, each intricately imagined possible world, that allows us to see the work’s myriad potentialities, selves, and fictive topographies in sharper relief. As Stonecipher herself observes, “as soon as the man came around the café in the evening shilling newspapers, then we remembered that our little world was only one of a profusion of worlds—a single bubble clinging to the great foam.”
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Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, like Stonecipher’s Transaction Histories, engages white space, silence, and rupture as stylistic devices and extended metaphor. Presented as a dramatic play-in-verse, the stunning poems in this volume frequently end not with a final line, but instead with dictionary entries, translating spoken words into American Sign Language. In such a way, the poems transcend speech, just as Stonecipher’s prose paragraphs embrace elision and rupture if only for possibility to accumulate within their luminous architectures. Similarly, throughout Deaf Republic, silence comes to signify not only secrecy, but agency, hope, and resistance.
“You are alive,” Kaminsky writes, “therefore something in you listens.” As the book unfolds, this rapt attentiveness is revealed as the most easily forgotten lesson of poetry in a postmodern political landscape. Fittingly, the dramatic verse of Deaf Republic actively involves the reader in this reframing of listening as prayer, as invocation, revolution, and inevitable transformation. He writes, for example, in “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins:”
Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.
After curfew, families of the arrested hang homemade puppets out of their windows. The streets empty but for the squeaks of strings and the tap, tap, against the buildines, of wooden fists and feet.
In the ears of the town, snow falls.
Here Kaminsky uses caesura and careful pacing to evoke the concept described by Miller, of time as chronology, a beginning collapsed into an end. As this piece unfolds, the end-stopped stanzas become charged with tension, as though each rupture signified both the accumulation of history and its eventual undoing. Within the world of these poems, silence becomes both a foreshadowing and an appeal, as these gaps leave room for the reader to participate in the poems’ revolutionary politics.
Like Stonecipher’s Transaction Histories, Deaf Republic reframes silence as possibility, as loss, and its inevitable transformation. As Kaminsky himself observes, “silence moves us to speak.”