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Short Conversations With Poets: Valzhyna Mort

Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.

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Valzhyna Mort is a spellbinding poet. She writes about (and out of) a very historical crisis, yes, but with passion, and even humor (“I make the rounds of graves / keeping up / my family’s top-notch properties”). The wide embrace of human senses in her work appeals to any reader, not just those familiar with the terrifying and ongoing historical disaster in her native country of Belarus (“Here, history comes to an end / like a movie / with rolling credits of headstones”). Mort is a poet who is as comfortable in lyric mode as she is in protest poetry, elegiac mode, erotic poems, poems channeling the voices of the dead. Whatever she writes, there is an incredible urgency. In her new book, The Music for the Dead and Resurrected, she creates a world of images and metaphors that reverberate in our minds long after we are finished reading. How so? Perhaps because these poems about Belarus understand something about us, about our own lives in this moment in time, and they respond to the human grief that manifests itself no matter where it is located.

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ILYA KAMINSKY: It has been a time of calamity, both in your home country, Belarus, and here in the States. In one way or another, both places are in some stages of historical change. Your book has a lot to say about history, about trauma. Could you touch a bit about that age-old equation of “poet v. state”?

VALZHYNA MORT: I was born in Belarus: an invisible country with a traumatic past and without historical memory. Now I live in the USA: a highly visible country with a traumatic past and without historical memory. A poet and the state are at war over historical memory, and it has nothing to do with poetry being “political” or not. In cultures without historical memory, it’s memory that’s political.

Before I knew how to add two and two, I could count every fourth person around: every fourth person died in Belarus during World War II. But in my family, nobody died in the war. Everybody who could have died in the war died earlier, during the Stalinist 1930s. Not even a hundred years away, their deaths were viewed not as just prehistoric, but anti-historic. In school, I had to make up imaginary dead veterans while my actual dead didn’t belong in the official narrative.

By the beginning of the war, my grandmother and her siblings were orphans. My grandmother’s older brother, Vaclav, got evacuated to Mordovia, where he, a teenage boy without food or family, survived the war. Then he came to Moscow to study to be a pilot, got pneumonia, and died alone.

During those couple of years in Moscow, my grandmother and Vaclav wrote letters to each other. But, moving from the barracks to her first apartment, my grandmother lost the letters. As a schoolchild, I spent history classes grieving over the loss of these letters. It hurt me that history books weren’t interested in my grandmother, in Vaclav, in their letters, in their parents — even though their father had a beautiful singing voice, even though the photograph of their mother exists proving her existence.

My grandmother’s younger brother, Boleslaw, went missing in Minsk during the first day of the bombings. She looked for him until she died. To be honest, I also look for him, even though all I know about him is his name and the fact that he was four when Minsk was bombed in 1941. I also have a photograph of his mother — a photograph that proves her existence. Somewhere, in Minsk, between the former barracks and our apartment in the southwest of Minsk, the letters between his siblings also exist. I believe that they still exist, in a virtual world, not of the internet, but a virtual world that had existed before the internet: the world of the dead, the world of lost letters and children.

The legacy of my family comes in so few words — a few proper names and superlative adjectives. I cannot write prose. I need a form that allows me to tell a story of what is not there, of lost letters, of missing boys, of diminutive names. Poetry allows silences, screams, distances, leaps.

The state has utilitarian language to celebrate the past and speak to the future. A poet comes from being overwhelmed by and simultaneously lacking language in order to mourn, to cope. Past, present, and future are happening in a poem at once. So, a poet and the state are at war over historical memory, language, and time.

I wonder: what if we could reinvent language by working our way not from things but from music? Isn’t that exactly what a poet does? To reinvent language as you run, like a hurt child, from a moan towards mother-music.

I write in two languages, English and Belarusian. I’ve spoken Russian since my first words. What makes it possible to live with three languages? Music. Music flows across the borders of languages. These borders, to music, are laughable.

Language is a kind of a Cinderella. Forgive me for this metaphor. Language cleans and cooks for us. But there’s this crystal slipper of poetry (poetry is described as a crystal by Osip Mandelshtam and Paul Celan) that can transform language, allow it to dance instead of doing chores. In real life, a poet is a pumpkin — all of us, humans, are such pumpkins — but the crystal slipper of poetry transforms us into a beautiful carriage transporting transformed language.

I listen to polyphonic works when I write. In polyphony, one voice makes space for other voices. The voices meet and part, and return to each other. This is a mechanism of love and friendship. The polyphony of human connections.

Here’s what I want: I want to open my mouth and hear more than one voice. I want to hear my dead. I want to hear Anton and Yusefa, Vaclav and Boleslaw. So, I sing to them, the only way I know how to — with poetry — tuning into different wavelengths, like a human transmitter.

Meanwhile, the state continues its work: in August, many thousands of peaceful people were attacked by police on Nyamiga Street in Minsk and all over Belarus, and beaten with truncheons.

This is what the state offers us in Belarus: arrests.

And what does literature offer? I go to my bookshelf and open Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich, dying, wonders whether it’s life that is vile and meaningless or whether he is guilty, in some imaginary court of life, of living the wrong way. Stewed prunes remind him of the prunes he had in his childhood, the taste that connects him to other memories of childhood happiness. Dying, all he has is the taste of these prunes. The sense of taste here works like a metaphor, connecting seemingly unconnected things through the intimate logic in order to offer a third space where you are at once a dying man and a child.

Sensuality is metaphorical. A metaphor is the device of loss, of trauma, of people who step gently and swiftly.

Sensuality is metaphorical: I love the smell of public transport in Minsk. I know how people’s faces look on a bus the morning after a politician gets shot on the street or a journalist goes missing. In sixth grade, my math teacher started crying in the middle of a class because a journalist got shot. Every time I enter a classroom in a public school, I remember her dashing out of our classroom in tears in her very teacherly ill-fitting red pantsuit. So many things make me think of the Belarusians who went missing during the authoritarian regime. I know their features as if they were family. They are all dead, but not officially so. People say, a trigger. I say, a metaphor.

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