There is currently a poem going viral on Twitter. “We Lived Happily During the War” is by the Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, and it is the first poem of his prize-winning collection Deaf Republic (2019). It is easy to see why it feels particularly relevant: Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet city of Odessa, which is now under attack from Russia.

The poem opens:
“We Lived Happily During the War”
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
protested
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough.
It is a heart-breaking meditation on the way normal life continues despite crises....

There is currently a poem going viral on Twitter. “We Lived Happily During the War” is by the Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, and it is the first poem of his prize-winning collection Deaf Republic (2019). It is easy to see why it feels particularly relevant: Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet city of Odessa, which is now under attack from Russia.

The poem opens:

“We Lived Happily During the War”

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

protested

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough.

It is a heart-breaking meditation on the way normal life continues despite crises. The speaker describes how “I took a chair outside and watched the sun.” But he ends with a plea: “we (forgive us) / lived happily during the war.” The potential need for forgiveness, the near-futility of protest, and a vignette of peace in a time of such turmoil: reading it now is enough to give even the most hardened poetry cynic goosebumps.

There is more than a slight echo of Martin Niemöller’s famous quotation about (not) speaking out for socialists, trade unionists, and Jews — until there is nobody left to protest.

But because Twitter never passes up an argument, some are now attacking the poem for being a cavalier, mocking approach to war. To do so not only misreads the poem but the collection as a whole.

Deaf Republic is a somber play-poem which takes as its setting the fictional town of Vasenka. The town is under hostile occupation from an unknown army, and at the opening of the collection the soldiers shoot a deaf boy, Petya, who dared to spit at a sergeant. In response to the violence, the inhabitants of Vasenka choose deafness: they communicate in sign-language, which Kaminsky includes on the page and through puppets. This resistance is met with further hostility, and over the two acts of the play-poem, others are killed and humiliated.

Kaminsky is deaf himself. His poetry is an exploration of language, sounds, and silence. Deaf Republic ends with the declaration that “Silence is the invention of hearing,” while quietness takes on a near-mythic power:

What is a child?

A quiet between two bombardments.

In the second act, “What is a woman?” receives the same answer.

There is an unmistakably Eastern European or Soviet setting for the collection. In 1941, the Russian attack on Ukraine was announced with the phrase “4am Kyiv is bombed.” Kaminsky’s poem “4 a.m. Bombardment” untethers this moment in history and makes the attack continual, unending: “I, a body, adult male, await to / explode like a handgrenade.” Kaminsky’s speaker continues: “It has begun: I see the blue canary of my country / pick breadcrumbs from each citizen’s eyes.”

In a moving testimony published recently, Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk noted the similarities between the 1941 bombardment and the 2022 crisis: “And here we are, 24th February, 5 am Kyiv is bombed by Russia.” Kaminsky’s description of the chaos — “I can’t find my wife, where is my pregnant wife?” — is as terrifyingly prescient as it is historically precise.

In this context, the happiness of wartime — the chair catching a moment’s sun — is not care-free or cavalier, but resistance itself. Later on in the collection, the poem “A Cigarette” reads:

Vasenka citizens do not know they are evidence of happiness.

In a time of war,

each is a ripped-out document of laughter.

The whole collection is a rumination on defiance: the words on the page, the transcribed silence of the sign language, the description of the puppets — all are aspects of a language that the oppressors cannot communicate in. In an interview about his choice to write in English, Kaminsky said, “No one I spoke to could read what I read… It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom.” In Deaf Republic, the language of signs and symbols provides a similar freedom when it is so needed.

It is all too easy to sentimentalize poetry as a form of resistance or overstate the power of literature in a time of tanks — but that should not become an excuse for intentionally misreading or ignoring works. Kaminsky himself has tweeted that he wrote to a friend in Odessa offering help and received the message back, “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.”

The Russian literature of war and violence is well-known: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev form the triad of nineteenth-century titans, while Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Pasternak are their own twentieth-century trinity. From time-traveling devils to the Napoleonic wars, there is no shortage of books about life under the Soviet regime or in the pre-revolution ballrooms of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But Kaminsky’s writing is not tied to a particular moment in time, nor is it simply a continuation of a tradition. In his 2004 collection Dancing in Odessa, Kaminsky takes Russian literary figures and makes them his own. In his “Elegy for Joseph Brodsky,” the Soviet poet and Nobel Prize winner who had to leave the USSR after political difficulties in 1972, Kaminsky’s speaker laments Brodsky’s move to America: “What you call immigration I call suicide.” He declares:

I am sending, behind the punctuation,

unfurling nights of New York, avenues

slipping into Cyrillic

It is unclear who is speaking: a version of Kaminsky himself or Brodsky? Both left the Soviet Union — “exile[d] to a place further than silence.”

With bombings, advancements, and mentions of de-escalation talks, now is not the time to stress poetry as a means of practical resistance. But its importance is heightened, not dimmed, by the current situation.

Deaf Republic ends with a poem that is a sort of companion to its viral cousin. Entitled “In a Time of Peace,” it mocks the “peace” of a country that could shoot a man who “reaches for his wallet” when asked for his driving license by a policeman. The repeated refrain that this is a “peaceful country” does little to tone down the violence. In times of war and peace — and in Ukraine, Russia, the US, and elsewhere — Kaminsky deserves as wide a reading as possible.