“Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue”

A Poem by Valzhyna Mort

November 3, 2020  By Valzhyna Mort

Whose mouth did you take me right out from?

The mouth of the street
named after the mouthpiece
of propaganda.

Of the empire’s fall
I heard on the radio
while waiting for a weather forecast.
Swings became guillotines.
In the fluorescent classroom
pubescent critics
presided over

a teacher,

who wrote on the blackboard with a tiny piece
of a human bone.
In that starched light,
she blinded our acned faces
with Raphael’s Madonna.

We knew her bleached skin
by the smell. Corridors, disinfected with chlorine daily
to cover the reek of urine and sweat.

Chlorine, opium of the pupils,
granted us purity, absolution of sins
for our grandfathers
whose heroic deeds

festered under torn book covers.

Public buses dug through the dark like hormonal moles.
Her docile features didn’t seem beautiful.
Like hush money,
she was handing the child a breast.

The breast formed a kind of courtyard between their bodies.

What was his suffering to us?
The child held on to the breast so as not to humptydumpty
into the classroom where chlorine
long ago replaced speech.

In tiny offices reeking of glue,
bureaucrats picked their teeth in search
of a proper certificate
to record this strange birth.

A shot of snow into the blood-thick dark,
swings become guillotines,
the city of iron and irony.

The empire fell, then the snow fell, then the mother
ripped her dress and produced a breast ripe with thirty
silver droplets of milk.

In this starched light, on Madonna’s chest
the child already looked crucified,
the nailhead of the nipple next to his little fist.

The art teacher looked starved. She despised us,
as did the star as it stared down in judgment.

She said, “Go.” Like a worm,
her thin mouth tried to bury itself under her skin as she spoke.

A city of iron and irony,
a nest of snow larvae, my city.
Each snow maggot I kiss.

The mouth of Pravda Avenue I kiss.
I kiss each radio announcer on the mouth,
I kiss each radio announcer on her iron mouth,

history waits as we kiss.


Valzhyna Mort, Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Poems

Excerpted from Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Poems by Valzhyna Mort. Excerpted with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Valzhyna Mort. All rights reserved.

Valzhyna Mort
Valzhyna Mort
Valzhyna Mort is the author of Factory of Tears and Collected Body. She has received the Lannan Foundation Fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, the Amy Clampitt Residency, the Gulf Coast Prize in Translation, and the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. Born in Minsk, Belarus, she writes in English and Belarusian. Her new collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected will be published in November. 

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