My first encounter with Valzhyna Mort’s work was Collected Body, her second book of poems released in America, which I picked off a shelf in a bookstore in Upstate New York. As its title suggests, the collection explores the body as a conflicted site of desire and repulsion, mythology and remembrance, and many of the poems allude to the difficult histories that have inhered in Mort’s homeland of Belarus. Mort is a fierce critic of the ongoing state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters in Belarus; in one of Collected Body’s poems, she writes, “But often to shed light on darkness, / light isn’t enough. Often what I need is an even darker / darkness.”
After reading Collected Body, I sought out Factory of Tears, Mort’s first collection published in America; Mort originally wrote the book in Belarusian and it was translated into English by Elisabeth Oehlkers Wright, Franz Wright, and Mort herself. One of the many threads Factory of Tears traces is the linguistic precarity of the Belarussian language, which has, at various points in time, been threatened to be displaced by Russian.
Mort’s third and most recent collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, continues to explore questions of cultural trauma, generational memory, matriarchal bonds, and the resonance between classical and personal mythologies, confronting them in musical, even orchestral, terms: as Mort’s speaker notes in one poem about her familial history, “I was drafted into music.” Many of the poems are expressively scored, their lines shifting away from the left margin of the page. In our conversation Mort is careful to clarify that what she’s after isn’t necessarily personal testimonial or documentary; rather, for her,
“History here is not about reasons and consequences, and genealogy is not about a lineage that connects one to the past: the lineage is gone into the dark of burned houses, archives, into loss. It is the music of history and the music genealogy that don’t know what “past” is. They belong to timelessness, like a dream we sink in and out of.”
Accordingly, Mort’s language throughout the book is visceral and sonically intricate: a single line will often manage to sound both cacophonous and sonorous at once. Many of the poems rhythmically repeat phrases and images, creating a centrifugal momentum. In these lyric fugues, hymns, and nocturnes, Mort sings the self against the chords of time-as-feeling and place-as-body.
Music for the Dead and Resurrected was published by FSG in 2020 and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the UK in 2022. Mort is an Associate Professor in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University. Her poetry collections have been published in translation in Germany, Sweden and Ukraine, and she herself translates between English, Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; she received the Gulf Coast Prize in Translation and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in translation for her work on Polina Barskova’s selected poems Air Raid (Ugly Duckling, 2021).
Our conversation was conducted by email and began a few months after Music for the Dead and Resurrected won the 2021 Griffin International Poetry Prize. Since then, the book also received the University of North Texas’s 2022 Rilke Prize, and, just last week, Mort was announced as one of this year’s Guggenheim Fellows. What follows has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Michael Prior: One of the first poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected, “Attempts at Genealogy,” asks, “Where am I from?”—a question which recurs throughout the poem and, implicitly, throughout the book. In an interview with NPR, you said, “when I sing as a poet, I’m able to leave my human body, leave myself and approach that ultimate other, who for me are my dead.” Who are the dead you most want to reach in these lyrics? What are the various genealogies that, for you, underlie this book, these poems? Can poetic language, language at its most awake, clarify or offer answers to the question “Where am I from?”
Valzhyna Mort: First, this question is ironic. I’m from Belarus, a country that doesn’t exist in most people’s picture of the world. I’m from nowhere. Second, this question comes from a colonial consciousness: what exactly is Belarus? What has been done here? How can one live in a country of ash? Third, most importantly, “Where am I from?” is synonymous with “Where are these things inside me from?” and “Where are these things inside people closest to me from?” What is the source of this anger, this loneliness, this anxiety, this sense of loss? Fourth, this is a question of a person who isn’t home, who is misplaced and asks: “Where should I be heading?”
This book is not really a tribute to the ancestors. It is a fairy tale about the spell of history that makes one ask these questions. It’s also the spell of poetry. I like the razor sharp “resurrected” in the title, etymologically it’s connected to “resurge”: the continuous resurge of obsessions. History here is not about reasons and consequences, and genealogy is not about a lineage that connects one to the past: the lineage is gone into the dark of burned houses, archives, into loss. It is the music of history and the music genealogy that don’t know what “past” is. They belong to timelessness, like a dream we sink in and out of. Who do I want to reach? Not as much the abstract or concrete dead, but myself. When I say “my dead,” what do I really mean? I mean myself, nobody else.I think that poetic craft is a matter of patient listening. I listen until there’s no story, no information, only music.
MP: I’m really struck by how you describe these forces, these patterns as not knowing what “past” is: does this timelessness relate to the way time moves in a poem? In the book as a whole? The way you approach the writing of a poem? I’m thinking, too, about how “To Antigone, A Dispatch,” the first poem in the book, begins with an epigraph of musical directives for tempo and tone, but ascribes them to them rituals of resistance and mourning that resonate with the mythic Antigone’s story—“allegro for shooing off the police / adagio for washing the body.”
VM: This is a very packed question. Where do I begin? I don’t approach a poem. A poem approaches me. How does a poem approach me writing it? I wonder about that. I think that poetic craft is a matter of patient listening. I listen until there’s no story, no information, only music.
The reference to a symphony is important in the beginning of my book because I don’t want for the book to be read the way everybody wants to read it: as a testimony. It’s a performance. It’s grotesque like a performing voice: face contorted, strange pitches, difficult breathing techniques. Recently, I recorded an audio book of these poems. It was embarrassing. I was always out of breath; my voice was out of control. The fact that I’m a failed opera singer might be the most important piece of information for my readers.
I find opera so rewarding because it brings onto the stage big emotions that are supposed to be hidden from public view. It’s not just about opera plots with their illogical murders, it’s about the singers and how they project emotion with their voices. People are singing at the full lung capacity about loss, pain, they breathe heavily, their mouths are opened indecently. People who don’t see a lot of opera often react to it with laughter. It’s a very telling reaction: they recognize that it’s people’s privates on display.
Czeslaw Milosz tells us: “In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…” His says “indecent,” in Polish “nieprzystojnego,” obscene. He is not being coquettish. I trust that Milosz is talking about shame. We often repeat that a poem should surprise or awaken the author. I think that it’s not always a pleasant awakening. Sometimes it’s a shame of finding language for things that escape language.
MP: In your poem, “Music Practice,” music as sung and played becomes a marker of absence in the context of generational memory.
“in the intermission between
your father sang a song.
By the time
I heard this song, it had no music.
The sparse lineation, surprising indentation, and white space of the page do as much as the words themselves to acknowledge this loss. While in “Song for a Raised Voice and Screwdriver,” the speaker’s memories of learning to play accordion momentarily “resurrect” Stepanych, her teacher; the speaker observes that the most enduring rhythms in one’s life are those from one’s childhood: “Children, we learned the rhythm / from the piss-stained hiccup of elevators, /from the broken blinking of traffic lights.” Reading these poems, I recalled Denise Levertov’s observation that a poem’s arrangement on the page can serve as a musical score for the reader.
VM: When narratives collapse, there’s still a rhythm. When the Soviet totalitarian empire collapsed, I was in our small apartment on the 6th floor of a Soviet-style apartment block on Pravda Avenue, overlooking rows and rows of the same apartment blocks, and the piss-stained elevator was going up and down, and the buses and trolleybuses rushed left and right on the street, and the rusted swing was screeching in the yard, and my grandmother was telling me her stories of hunger, and music was playing the way it always played in our apartment. For my grandmother, radio was a family member. Wars are announced on the radio. Wars bring death and hunger. People who experience them once are forever changed. My grandmother always kept the radio on, and nobody was allowed to get too merry and start talking over it. The radio often played music: Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Liszt. This music gave the form to everything. It saved me from my reality.
I think of rhythm and melody as architecture made of sound. Music opened for me another dimension to enter and be in. It’s shaped the way a large garden is shaped: full of turns, full of thought-through combinations of color that pop up in different seasons, where open views and tall trees alternate, where on a narrow path walled by silver-firs one suddenly walks into an open space with a fountain in the middle. From music and from walking in the city and in the countryside, I’ve learned how connections between diverse elements intensify into a form. Poetic tension is about when to turn the corner, when to switch on the fountain.
MP: That’s wonderful—music as architecture, as garden! The poems allude often to how spaces, lived and walked through shape the speaker’s subjectivity. As how the young speaker suddenly one day sees Baba Bronya for the first time—even though this woman, her grandmother’s sister, has been living with the family for years, but secluded, hidden in a room the speaker is forbidden from entering. Or how the fact that the speaker grows up on Pravda Avenue is both a stark reminder of Belarus’s history and the way histories are narrated and memorialized. What are some of the other diverse elements that intensified into form for you while writing this book? What are some of the spaces/architectures you wrote it in? Rome is referenced in several poems and the acknowledgements.
VM: The music I need for my writing is inside me. Outside provides images. For instance, “Attempt at Genealogy,” a poem about the dark loss of lineage, both familial and national, both characteristically Belarusian, is infused with the images of Italian art, from the many depictions of “Deposition” in Roman churches to the many depictions of “Annunciation” I saw in Florence.
If you visit Brancacci Chapel in Florence, it might not affect your form, but it will challenge you as an artist, in a “you must change your life” kind of a way. So, in incalculable ways, it will in fact affect your form, your language, your sight, your sense of tension and texture. When I listen to Mozart, I realize that I cannot go on writing the way I do: I need to stir up my sensuality, my inquiry, my search, my tenderness, my language, my imagination back into life from the slumber of everyday noise. I’m saying obvious things here, but they are worth repeating. A poem is an experience of moving through a mental space. So, all forms—architecture, music, visual art, photography, nature—impel me.
MP: Moving between sorts of architectures, how did you decide upon the structure the book? The book has been published in multiple languages, and I remember in an earlier conversation you told me that each version, apart from the obvious differences necessitated by translation, is also structured differently, and that you’ve continued to edit the poems themselves?
VM: Yes, my own work as a translator and my work with my own translators—all of who are brilliant—satisfies my craving for continuing to write what has already been written. Particularly, the texts that have crystal-like structure, texts that are firmly knotted. I throw myself into the breaking of the precious gem, into the untying of the knot. When I first read Polina Barskova’s poetry, I thought “I should never try to translate it” which is exactly the kind of thinking that gets me to write.
As a poet, I’ve been blessed with amazing translators: the two brilliant poets Uljana Wolf and Ida Borjel, and Katharina Narbutovich who is a literary translator of implacable taste. I change the order of the poems, add something new to every new edition. The British edition of Music opens with a prose poem not in the US book, has a different order of the poems, and has some very good new edits. So, it’s a different mental map and experience. The Belarusian version of the book reads as the most Roman: once the historical context stops being the focus, it becomes obvious just how much of Rome is in this Belarusian book.
MP: In an interview with Pen America, you write that in Music for the Dead and Resurrected, you “confront English about my absence in its global idea of itself.” This confrontation seems as much about the forms and histories inherent in music as it is about those embedded in language. Do you feel your way of making or hearing the music in a poem has shifted since your last book, Collected Body? For me, the soundscapes of Music for the Dead and Resurrected are more incantatory, more fugue-like.
VM: Thank you for all your thoughtfulness, Michael. Your questions are so generous in their insight that they contain the answer. I invent my own English and to some extend my own Belarusian. I, a person without an ear for music, follow my ear and I trust nothing but music. “Fugue-like” is a compliment because I see a fugue as a formal perfection. A fugue is the music’s answer to history, to life. Bach’s Fugue in a-minor BWV 958 was a big practice piece and milestone in my music practice. It’s written for organ and my favorite Bach is Glenn Gould on the piano. But I played BWV 958 on accordion. Accordion put me at an angle to the norm. I asked my teacher for proper accordion pieces, “something Parisian,” but I got Bach.
A fugue can have many voices. The first voice sounds the subject, then the second voice repeats the same subject but differently, changing the pitch. Then other voices repeat the subject. The subject resurges, resurrects. The subject is the obsession. Repetition can comfort, it can enchant, remind, and insist, but it could also become claustrophobic, suffocating, the way it happens in Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue.” This is how we think, this is how we write poems and essays. An early type of a fugue is called a ricercar which means “to search out.” A poem is a ricercar, a search expedition into yourself.
MP: A friend of mine is fond of saying we need to follow the language, musically, into discovery, but it sounds like this works very differently for you?
VM: I agree with your friend. Poetry is about listening. A fugue is a method of listening. I’m a child at heart, so I call it “gifting”: if you wait long enough without letting go of listening, the language will reward you with gifts.
MP: Whenever I think about Gould, I think about how he hummed along with the pieces he was playing, to the degree his voice is audible on many recordings. He scores his own interpretation in real time! Singing haunts playing. Hearing you speak about the way a fugue is a way to search or discover through modulation and repetition, I can’t help but recall the way these poems so deftly weave between recurring images and phrases. In fact, the word “braid” appears throughout the book both as noun and verb, image and figure.
VM: I love the scoring! And the braid observation. Repetition is also often about the disbelief. I write something—because I wrote myself into it—and I cannot believe what I’m actually writing. I have to repeat to test that I really mean it, that’s it’s sayable, vocalizable, and not just in my head.
MP: As I progressed through the book, I kept thinking of how simultaneously expansive and intimate its use of apostrophe is. Throughout the collection, to the speaker directly addresses the dead, the disappeared, and the missing, who range from relatives like Baba Bronya, to teachers like Stepanych, to mythological figures like Antigone, and even artistic ancestors like Maxim Bakhdanovich. Apostrophe is closely related to prayer (I think of “Psalm 18,” which begins as a prayer: “I pray to the trees and language migrates down my legs like mute cattle”), and can be a form of consolation, though, I think your use of apostrophe in Music for the Dead and Resurrected moves beyond consolation—it feels active, a visceral way to speak to and of people and places lost.
VM: Let me first appreciate your question and the answers it is already brimming with. You are also a poet who lives away from home, so you know first-hand that there is an intense connection between the experience of dislocation and apostrophe. It’s an address at a safe distance. Unlike other forms of address, apostrophe talks to somebody or something but doesn’t really want to receive an answer, at least not an answer made of words. To say something so complete that the only possible answer is silence.
But it’s true, I’m not interested in hermetism and I’m certainly not interested in political silence. I argue with the world, with myself. I listen, breathe, write—this is one action. It’s not enough to be alive. One must keep waking up. But this awakening is not about one’s morality. What I enjoy are theatrical gestures: grotesque, oxymoronic, farcical. Their intensity is full of humor. Behind this humor, often, are fear and shame. It is this humor that allows me not to take myself too seriously when I address such serious things as the dead, history, and god.
MP: What arguments are you having now with the world, yourself since finishing the book?
VM: It’s always the same argument: to listen to what’s inside me over all the noise, to stay true to it, to be patient, hard-working; to be quick-witted but to “produce” as slowly as possible.