Some facts about Valzhyna Mort: 1) Her real name is Valzhyna Martynava. 2) Belarus is a country with a GDP of something over $83 billion, a population just under ten million. 3) Mort—or, more probably, Martynava—studied at the State University of Linguistics in Minsk. 4) When she moved to the US in 2005, she was twenty-four and had already published her first book, I'm as Thin as Your Eyelashes.
I first came across Mort in Slovenia in 2004. She seemed all energy, a striking performer with whip-crack language and the distinctive bounce of an absolutely individual poetics. The panel I was chairing (better to declare this) awarded her the Crystal Vilenica Prize. We did so for what we could glimpse, through a handful of translations, of a vivid, stripped-down, and buoyant verse, unlike anything else that was coming out of Belarus, or indeed elsewhere in the Slav world. Now that skinny kid, all nervous energy and focus, is twenty-eight, and in these fine translations by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright the Anglophone reader has for the first time an even chance at a body of her work: the thematic and structural hinterland to a rare kind of sonic brilliance.
Still, brilliance is not, perhaps, the right word. Mort is neither arbitrary nor ostentatious. She eschews the straggling surrealism, and crescendo rhetoric, still fashionable in Belarus, Ukraine, or Moldova. Instead, there's something about her writing that seems intensely personal. Perhaps that's why one is tempted to start with the biographical. But—what is this personal element? Certainly not the usual drear confession, though she can write about experiences which are typical enough for a young woman:
men arrive like a date on a calendarOr:
they keep visiting once a month
into the mouth
it's so hard to believeThere's a compaction of energy in Mort's line. This isn't solely a question of register, though that is never cozy. More germane, perhaps, is her habit of accelerating metaphor. Often this means a points-switch between narrative realities. "Password," by and large a bedroom poem—
that once we were even younger
that our skin was so thin
that veins blued through it
like lines in school notebooks
that the world was a homeless dog
that played with us after class
—From for A.B.
there are apples parsley and my—ends with: "where do you say you were when i / was killing you in the city square at night?" That closing couplet travels so quickly over the points it almost naturalizes its own absurdity. Meanwhile, "Men" segues into English for the last dozen lines, which use 9/11—"mama their lips fall on me / like burning planes"—in just the way Plath used the Holocaust, whatever we make of either gesture. This zigzag reality continues even within a single idea: when "Polish Immigrants" asks "is it true that their pillows / are stuffed with soil / softer than any feather," the image folds over onto, and compounds, itself.
round bare nipples
like two grains of red caviar
they will make a good dessert
Such density seems—I was going to write "foreign"—an inheritor of the lapidary versification of the Russian Silver Age. Yet Mort's title poem, which opens, "And once again according to the annual report / the highest productivity results were achieved / by the Factory of Tears," more suggests the mannered grotesqueries of those great Central European inventors from her grandparents' generation: Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert. But Belarus is neither Mitteleuropa nor Russia, but a somewhere-in-between (south of Lithuania, west of St. Petersburg) with an arguably more chaotic history and present. And Mort, though young, is a personal poet not least in the sense that her poetics are clearly her own. She gives the impression (always the mark of accomplishment) of having emerged entire, her writing and its strategies coterminous: certainly, there's no particular stylistic development between pieces written in Belarus and later, American work.
Another strategy common to these unrhymed poems is brilliant, glancing observation. One might be tempted to call their author a Neo-Martian, after Craig Raine's British school, if she weren't already Mort-ist. Despite that choice of pen name, though, there's nothing cloying or morbid here, even if the material such observation cuts through is often dark. (In this she resembles the Estonian Emil Tode, real name Tõnu Õïnnepalu. An earlier chronicler of the sexual mores of transitional times, who also achieved critical success deservedly young, Tode claimed to have chosen his resonant pen name for its sound alone.) While miniatures like "Marriage" and "Alcohol" are narrative slices of incidental life, nothing in them is incidental. Every phrase is part of a masonry of both sense and rhythm, for it's Mort's diction—economic, bouncing from short line to short line, with the obvious exception of the long prose poem "White Trash"—which acts as form.
Alert to pulse, the poems in Factory of Tears use lineation, stepped lines, and stanza breaks—the air-sprung soles of tiny pauses—for emphasis. Sense proceeds by lines which are also phrasal units, sometimes enjambed but never uncertain or astray. To have kept the best of the Russian, this bounce and rebound, is a subtle, ballsy feat in English: our language has a lamentable tendency to explain the noble if savage original, rather than echo (i.e. sound like) it. It takes a poet to know a poet, arguably, and the Wrights have captured both diction and character with generosity, making edgy, living poems in the English. (Of course, one could argue the odd corner: those "that's" lining the left-hand margin of "for A.B.," for example, simply seem unfinished. But translation, after all, can never be the final word.)
Thus disciplined, Mort seems to eschew High Style, except for the rhetorical flights of two "Belarusian" poems:
completely free only in public toiletsWhen she lets herself go like this, language, body, and self turn out to be indistinguishable. After all, what's personal in Mort's poetry is the matter of voice. Her percussive, rhythmic diction, in both Belarusian and English, is impossible to read without having it fill the mouth. Beyond that, though, voice implies speaker: it's where words get embodied. In this work, we hear a persona—something like "a ball / in a lottery bubble / [who can] do somersaults / and dance / a fast fox-trot," to quote from the early poem "Lottery Wheel." It's with the concrete life of language itself—its sound—that she has constructed her textual self. When she performs in public, Mort's poems famously seem to "fit her like a skin"; she "inhabits them." On the page, too, her unique diction speaks, as if in character. Like an aural puppet, this fictional persona performs, and is performed by, her distinctive verse.
where for a little change nobody cared what we were doing
we fought the summer heat the winter snow
when we discovered we ourselves were the language
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
when our eyes were poked out we talked with our hands
when our hands were cut off we conversed with our toes
when we were shot in the legs we nodded our heads for yes
—From Belarusian i