vAlzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus, moved to the US in 2005 and now teaches at Cornell University. She speaks three languages: English, Belarusian and Russian and wrote Music for the Dead and Resurrected in Belarusian and English versions. She recently claimed in an interview not to be at home in any of her languages of her, but reading the English poems of her, I find this hard to believe. I read her exceptional collection of her with the excitement you feel on encountering a possessed new voice. The opening pieces each contain the words “Self-Portrait” in their titles but this collection is more about what happens when the self goes missing, buried beneath the Minsk snow that falls in poem after poem, muffled by a regime in which it is not safe to speak.
The opening prose poem begins: “I grew up in a microregion of apartment blocks on the south-western edge of the capital city in a provincial Soviet republic…” The sentence continues at length, enjoying its own bulk, and the second begins: “ A long sentence, yes, but so was my apartment building, stretching for two bus stops, twelve entrances long and eleven floors high.” Her humor de ella provides a wild and winning card in the pack. She goes on to describe, deadpan, the grim view from the family apartment on to the state dental clinic below and blood on the snow (an image that takes in more than dental trauma).
She declares: “Minsk has four distinct seasons; each is its own country.” But in her poetry, it seems that winter never ends. She describes streets “with the names of national murderers”. She alludes to the mass executions in Belarus, in the 1930s, under Stalin. The word “history” is unstable whenever it appears. How to situate herself against a past that never officially happened? An Attempt at Genealogy opens: “Where am I from?” The question is repeated (repetition is her strength). But writing about self-erasure is not the same as being erased – it is a form of resistance. Many words and images come back to haunt her from her – and us. Blood on snow, speechlessly open mouths, bones… this sometimes seems an ossuary of a collection.
In another splendid prose poem, Baba Bronya, we are introduced to an aunt who turns out, entertainingly, to have been living, without Mort’s knowledge, in their second bedroom. She is, understandably, freaked out to find this “total stranger inside our apartment”. Meanwhile, her grandmother de ella appears in a starring role, never afraid of narrating her past de ella. Whenever Mort complains of her lot, her grandmother trumps her: “When I beg for privacy, you ask: ‘Did I tell you about the day the Bolsheviks came to take the roof off our farmhouse?’” It was her grandmother who visited music upon her – she was “drafted” into playing the accordion. Like humour, music – or the idea of music – is important in the poems because it rises above restrictions, has a diplomatic immunity. She had no talent for it, she maintains.
Mort’s tendency towards charming self-disparagement is ever-present – it is in the breezily sad Poet’s Biography, the superb To Antigone, a Dispatch and Genesis. She sympathizes with Antigone’s sister, Ismene, and, in Genesis, with Cain – the compromised ones. She shows how compromise operates within a despotic regime: art, literature and biblical texts are repurposed in the Belarusian context. In Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenueshe has an acute take on Raphael’s painting: “In this starched light, on Madonna’s chest / the child already looked crucified, / the nailhead of the nipple next to his little fist” – a contaminated nativity in a collection of brilliance.
I picked your book from Sandeep’s shelf;
the poet’s biography read: “lives and teaches.”
Though the book was fairly recent, it was no longer true.
I almost met you once – an almost meeting I remember clearly
because of my embarrassment:
I was having loud sex in a hotel room
while you stood knocking at the door wanting to give me your book.
Now the trains stand frozen in a winter storm,
and I pity the trains
as if they were shivering butterflies,
a whole herd of them, the last of their kind,
stuck in the snow England has never seen.
Sandeep is cooking dinner, you are dead, the lover’s gone,
your book in my frostbitten hands.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism