Pornography Disclaimer

This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered  all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.



On of the books I slept with last month is Factory of Tears by Valzhyna Mort, a bilingual text translated from the Belarusian by the Wrights (Franz and Elizabeth). 

Belarus, if you don't know, was part of the Russian block, and it has a volatile political history. It has been a "part" of Russia ("White Russia") Lithuania in the 13th century, and Poland. It's been split between Poland and Russia, and in WWII the Nazis occupied it. Most of the fallout of the  Chernobyl explosion of the 80's blew into it and since its independence in 1991, it's had a terrible time with the corrupt authoritarian leader, Lukashenka, who has cancelled elections, run a police "death squad", and been criticized by the EU and US for human rights violations.

That's a little history. 

The author has published a single volume of poetry in Belarus in 2005, I'm as Thin As Your Eyelashes, a title that I find curiously confusing. Is it a problem of the translation or an abyss between us culturally? The poem itself is without title, a mere four lines, just the phrase. I'm not sure what it means, and though it feels provocative, it also feels melodramatic. Delicate, but dangerous. Vision, but with the silken threat of pain. Is it related somehow to the political history of the place? Despite my difficulty with her original title, and in contrast to my small frustration, here's the opening poem to this English translation, both morbid and archetypal:

Belarusian I

even our mothers have no idea how we were born
how we parted their legs and crawled out into the world
the way you crawl from the ruins after a bombing
we couldn't tell which of us was a girl or a boy
we gorged on dirt thinking it was bread
and our future
a gymnast on a thin thread of the horizon
was performing there 
at the highest pitch

we grew up in a country where
first your door is stroked with chalk
then at dark a chariot arrives
and no one sees you anymore
but riding in those dark cars were neither
armed men nor
a wanderer with a scythe
this is how love loved to visit us
and snatch us veiled

completely free only in public toilets
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
and shook our heads for no and when they ate our heads alive
we crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers
as if into bomb shelters 
to be born again

and there on the horizon the  gymnast of our future
was leaping through the fiery hoop
of the sun

. . . . . . .
I don't know much about V., whose name is vampiric and lovely, except that her bio says she lives in the states and a few of these poems reference U.S. cities: "Fall In Tampa" "Florida Beaches" and "New York". She's won a number of awards overseas and this collection is published by Copper Canyon.  Thankfully this bilingual collection fares with a better title, one that reflects her work, or at least this collection of translations, to a much more satisfying degree. A work in which human suffering is partially the work of governments, human bureaucracies. I wonder, incidentally, what an "American" poem would look like, a brother to this poem, in which an American author attempted to mythologize the American experience. (In the peripheries I'm thinking of a line or two by Ai. . . ) 

What I love about this book: it thinks politically without serving up a "political" poem. I'm thinking of those poems with cities, or countries, or types of people as titles: those mentioned above and "White Trash" "Berlin-Minsk" "Polish Immigrants" and "Belarusian II". These are poetic portraits in which we get a sense of both being part of these places/people as well as the mythos of our experience there.  Take these stanzas from "New York":

a gigantic pike
whose scales 
bristled up stunned

and what used to be just smoke
found the fire that gave it birth

champagne foam
melted into metal 
glass rivers 
flowing upward,
things you won't tell to a priest
you reveal to a cabdriver

What we find in this stanza is true of most of her poetry--her sense of metaphor is energetic, a motivating force of the language. In fact, her best poems are lyric and satisfyingly difficult in their use of abstraction. We might call this surrealist technique, though it seems to me a way to pursue an archetypal truth about places and people. If poetry is a way to express the hidden experience, the experience hidden beneath the dull journalism of even our most difficult experiences, our politicized lives, then here is V. Mort pillaging the depths: 


when someone spends a lot of time running
and bashing his head
against a cement wall
the cement grows warm
and he curls up with it
against his cheek
like a starfish medusa
and senses
how the body uses memory
to bind it to the earth
and he waits there for the moment
when his eyes turn
into wobbling tops
and the whole colorful universe
appears like the deep
hole in the sink

. . . . . . .

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

1 comment:

theuglyearring said...

a beautiful find.
a perfect time for a new poetess to stroke my gray hair.

thank you.

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I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.