Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus, moved to the United States in 2005 and now teaches at Cornell University. She speaks three languages: English, Belarusian and Russian and has written Music for the Dead and the Risen in Belarusian and English versions. She recently claimed in an interview that she is not fluent in any of her languages, but reading the poems in English, I find that hard to believe. I read his exceptional collection with the excitement one feels when encountering a new calm voice. The opening pieces each contain the words “Self-Portrait” in their titles, but this collection is more about what happens when the self disappears, buried under the Minsk snow that falls poem after poem, smothered by a regime in which it does not is not sure to speak.
The opening prose poem begins: “I grew up in a microregion of apartment buildings at the southwestern end of the capital in a provincial Soviet republic…” The sentence continues at length, appreciating its own mass, and the second begins: “A long sentence, yes, but so does my building, which spans two bus stops, is twelve entrances long and eleven stories high. His humor proves to be a wild and winning card in the peloton. She goes on to describe, deadpan, the eerie view from the family apartment of the public dental clinic below and the blood on the snow (an image that encompasses more than dental trauma).
She says: “Minsk has four distinct seasons; everyone is their own country. But in his poetry, it seems like winter never ends. She describes streets “with the names of national assassins”. It alludes to the mass executions in Belarus in the 1930s under Stalin. The word “history” is unstable every time it appears. How to situate oneself in the face of a past that never officially took place? An attempt at genealogy opens: “Where do I come from?” The question is repeated (repetition is its forte). But writing about self-erasing isn’t the same as being erased – it’s a form of resistance. Many words and images come back to haunt her – and us. Blood on the snow, speechless open mouths, bones…sometimes it looks like the ossuary of a collection.
In another beautiful prose poem, Baba Bronya, we are introduced to an aunt who amusingly turns out to have lived, unbeknownst to Mort, in their second bedroom. She is, understandably, frightened to find this “total stranger inside our apartment”. Meanwhile, her grandmother appears in a starring role, never afraid to tell her story. Whenever Mort complains about his fate, his grandmother wins out: “When I beg for privacy, you ask, ‘Did I tell you about the day the Bolsheviks came to take the roof off from our farm?'” It was her grandmother who visited the music on her – she was ‘trained’ to play the accordion. Like humor, music – or the idea of music – is important in poems because it rises above restrictions, has diplomatic immunity. She had no talent for that, she argues.
Mort’s tendency to charming self-bashing is ubiquitous – it is in the sadly 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 compromises. It shows how compromise operates within a despotic regime: art, literature and biblical texts are reoriented in the Belarusian context. In Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenueshe looks sharply at 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 nativity scene contaminated in a collection of brio.
Biography of the poet
I picked your book off Sandeep’s shelf;
the poet’s biography said: “lives and teaches”.
Although the book was fairly recent, that was no longer true.
I almost met you once – an almost encounter that I remember clearly
because of my embarrassment:
I had loud sex in a hotel room
while you were knocking on the door wanting to give me your book.
Now the trains are frozen in a winter storm,
and I pity the trains
as if they were quivering butterflies,
a whole herd of them, the last of their kind,
stuck in snow England has never seen.
Sandeep cooks dinner, you’re dead, the lover is gone,
your book in my frozen hands.