There are many things that set this book apart, but none more so than the way it refuses to hold the pathos of protest at arm’s length, zooming in on every proud and shameful facet of the human conscience that, in a rare moment of courage, becomes the only thing capable of holding the state at bay. As Kaminsky’s townspeople discover, this courage does not easily obtain (‘We tiptoe this city, / Sonya and I […] Be courageous, we say, but no one / is courageous’), and crumbles almost as soon as it reveals itself (‘Vasenka watches us watch four soldiers throw Alfonso Barabinski on the sidewalk. / We let them take him, all of us cowards’). But for as long as that courage is felt, it is truly dazzling; a force which makes each individual so much more than her everyday self. From the men who ‘once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts’, to the girl who ‘nicks a pair of shoes from a sleeping soldier, skewered with light’, Kaminsky’s ordinary protestors – in the words of his winsome protagonist, Alfonso – are ‘really something fucking fine’ (‘Alfonso Stands Answerable’).
Reminiscent of oral tradition, Kaminsky deploys the book’s almost recitative structure to great effect by interrupting the action on the streets of Vasenka with scenes from the lives of Alfonso, Sonya (his wife) and other characters – the puppeteers, soldiers, and the cunning Momma Galya. More than simply taking over a village, we discover that the invading troops have, through the force of language, occupied their memories too: ‘I watched you / […] holding your / breasts in your hand—/ two small explosions’, says Alfonso of his wedding night (‘Of Weddings Before the War’). Indeed, everything is coloured by the occupation, and though the narrative remains nimble, it illustrates deftly how easily how totalitarian rule shades every aspect of life in either defiance or compliance: ‘On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky / because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky’ (‘Soldiers Aim at Us’). One might say that Kaminsky has written a book of political poetry that is political in its truest sense: it is about how form, language, story, and even the silences of the page are organised to reflect the workings of power, in the same way that human lives are so often bent by forces beyond their control.
At the book’s close, Kaminsky lifts the veil of his fable with the poem ‘In