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Meditations in an Emergency: Ilya Kaminsky, Mad Men, and the Backdrop of War

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

So ends “We Lived Happily During the War,” the first poem in Ilya Kaminsky’s new collection Deaf Republic (Graywolf 2019). Years after I first encountered the poem online, the truth of it still slaps me in the face, as is its intent. Kaminsky wants readers to recognize themselves in the poem—to feel accused, ashamed, judged, just as the speaker feels. That request (“forgive us”) tries to hide at the end of the penultimate line, the parentheses around it like a pair of hands covering the speaker’s face, but the line break and white space after confirm for the reader what a terrible thing it is, living happily during the war. It’s embarrassing to say. It’s embarrassing to live—and to live well—while others suffer. And yet it happens every day.

The United States has been at war for almost the entirety of the Twenty-First Century thus far. In my lifetime, there have been a few brief windows in which the United States did not intervene in or lead efforts in some war or military campaign. In my youth, this simply became the norm: we are at war. When we ride our bikes after school, men are dying. When we make oatmeal cookies with our mothers, bombs are dropping in the Middle East. This is the backdrop of our day-to-day lives. Even now I go to bed knowing that something terrible will happen while I sleep. And yet it does not disrupt my routine. I brush my teeth. I lay out my clothes for tomorrow. In the morning, I scroll through Twitter and ask, “What’s Trump up to now?” Invariably: something horrifying.

While Trump was goading Kim Jong-un on Twitter by saying his “Nuclear Button” was “much bigger & more powerful” than the North Korean dictator’s, I was re-watching Mad Men for the first time since the series ended. It happened that, on the same day of the goading, I re-watched the season two finale, which is framed by the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was struck then, as now, by the fact that life goes on: that, in the midst of this huge international crisis, the characters in the show continue to conduct business as usual. Don catches up on his correspondence after his long sojourn in California; Roger informs Don that they sold the agency in his absence; and the partners discuss the delicate mechanics of the merger with their new owners, Putnam, Powell & Lowe. Only those low on the pecking order consider the merger a threat. Within the walls of the recently bought Sterling Cooper, at least, the state of emergency is relegated to discrete pockets, where employees huddle around boxy television sets and radios to listen for news. Today, those old TVs and radios have all but been replaced with smartphones and Twitter feeds, but the situation remains the same: as the world goes mad, we are expected to sit at our desks and keep doing our jobs. As Notre Dame burns, we are Joan Harris bringing Don up to speed. As schoolchildren are shot, we are Peggy Olson showing off our new office.

Perhaps the lesson here is this: that, for most of us, the emergency is not the primary narrative. War can be a very distant thing to someone who is not a soldier or the victim of a soldier. In Mad Men, the Cuban Missile Crisis is little more than a clever historic backdrop meant to enhance the dramatic tension of the characters’ many personal crises. It isn’t the central drama of the episode; it isn’t even the central emergency referred to in the title, “Meditations in an Emergency,” which is taken from the poetry collection of the same name by poet Frank O’Hara. Don first encounters the book in a dimly lit bar, where a young man looks at Don—his clean-shaven face and tailored suit—and determines he wouldn’t like the book. Wounded by the young man’s assessment, Don later picks up the book and reads from the final poem, “Mayakovsky”:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

This seems like a singularly fitting description of Don, who is a mess of a man from beginning to end. He goes AWOL. He steals another man’s identity. He cheats on his wife. He hears the news about the Cuban Missile Crisis and then goes about his work. For him, the war is a tool, a key he uses to unlock a better (meaning: richer, easier, and more affluent) life. For most of us, it is even less than that, and that is what Kaminsky contends with in his new poetry collection.

Deaf Republic takes place in a country occupied by soldiers. After the murder of a deaf boy shot during a political protest, the people of his town use deafness as a weapon. Their names (Sonya, Alfonso, Momma Galya) suggest Eastern Europe, recalling the political unrest of the region and orienting the reader to the text. This is not “the street of money…the city of money…the country of money.” The deaf republic does not and could not exist in the United States, except as a work of art, and in pointing this out Kaminsky further implicates the reader (and himself) for going on with life. For having the luxury of reading this. For living happily through the ongoing horror.

We should be ashamed.