Monday 16 May 2011

Factory of Tears

That is the title of a collection by Valzhyna Mort.  What a wonderful title.  A poet’s work, poems’ work, life, one’s homeland…  The last poem in the book has the same title, and starts –

And once again according to the annual report
the highest productivity results were achieved
by the Factory of Tears. 

It ends –

I’m a recipient of workers’ comp[ensation] from the heroic
                                        Factory of Tears.
I have calluses on my eyes. 
I have compound fractures on my cheeks.
I receive my wages with the product I manufacture.
And I’m happy with what I have.

The whole poem can be read here.  Great to see the language of Soviet era central planning put to such absurd use.  And to be made to wonder about the Factory of Tears that is poetry. 

The last line takes us back to the smiling workers of socialist realism.  If the poem had been written by someone from any other former Iron Curtain country, we might suspect ironic Ostalgie.  But Valzhyna Mort is from Belarus which is a dictatorship, very repressive; see the BBC, today.  See also the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, if you want to enter the strange land the Factory came from – note that in the menu of news topics, President comes first, before Politics, Economy etc.  It’s hard to imagine that Mort is popular with the Belarusian authorities, though her first poems were published there.

Valzhyna Mort now lives in the US.  Factory of Tears has Belarusian and English in parallel text, the translation done by the author and Elizabeth and Franz Wright.  An excellent idea – if only there were more such poetry books.  Someone who has a Slav language and Cyrillic script can follow the original, which makes a huge difference to the reading experience.  (I was reading it yesterday sitting on the train, and became aware that a young man with a check shirt was standing there, staring intently at my book.. he then turned abruptly and walked off.  Had he thought it was Russian and then realised it wasn’t?)

However, this may also be a disadvantage.  Mort said in an interview:  “For me this is something that I would like to escape, this label of being a Belarusian poet because I truly don’t know what is Belarusian about my poetry and when I come to a reading, I feel people have some kind of expectation that I will not be able to fulfil unless I wear a national costume!”

Socialist realism (across the
border in long-ago Poland)

I confess I find it hard to get away from the Belarusianness: the  Belarusian text, the book’s title; even the novelty value, the costume.  In the poem quoted above, the Factory of Tears has ‘adopted a new economically advantageous / technology of recycling the wastes of the past - / memories mostly’, and the theme of memory, some of it very Belarusian, runs through the book.  It is a first full collection, published in 2008; her next book will be written in English.  Maybe the interview comment, from 2010, is more about her recent work.   

Anyway, one of the book’s strengths is the poet’s ability to draw on the unusual material provided by her country of birth.  The opening poem, ‘Belarusian I’, begins

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…

and later

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
                        …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

That’s the end of the poem (read it here, plus a video interview), which she says is a response to criticism she and her contemporaries received for writing in Belarusian rather than their first language, Russian.  It shows another of the book’s strengths, the vigorous imagery which drives so many of the poems.  She often starts with something simple – a tiger, a train, snow – but the way she uses the images is very striking.  The short poem ‘Fall in Tampa’ ends

..summer is standing stock-still
like a white heron in green water
‘for Rafal Wojaczek’ has death as a fly:

getting into your eyes
like a filthy fly
death is circling
with seeing

A grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated and whom I understand as symbolic / folkloric as well as very real and loved, appears in the poems; this one’s called ‘Grandmother’.

she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to america

her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest

By now it will be clear that she writes in free verse, without much punctuation, and that the line breaks mostly go with the sense.  The translators have done a good job of being faithful to this without losing the energy. 

The poems that don’t work so well lack the thematic force that otherwise welds different metaphors together within one poem.  A long prose poem, ‘White Trash’, in the middle of the book has some great bits which could be more effective on their own, each as a short prose poem. 

Minsk: socialist realist sculpture
I suppose it’s a cliché that the first post-war generation of East European poets wrote politically, and the post-Fall of Berlin Wall generation turned towards individual experience.  Though Mort belongs to the younger end of the latter group (and writes poems about sex and growing up) it seems to me her poems contain elements of both, and her surreal metaphors certainly recall some of the former, such as Różewicz and Holub.  Her perspective can be both very personal and broad at once, as in ‘for A.B.’:

it’s so hard to believe
that once we were even younger
than now
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
and we were thinking of taking it home
but somebody else took it first
gave it a name
and trained it stranger
against us

Mort has said she is old-fashioned in that she believes in ‘inspiration’.  Audios of her reading in Belarusian sound great – she’s been described as a ‘fireball’ and ‘electrifying’.  The best poems come across on the page with the force and originality of something inspired.  Wherever she’s going, I hope she doesn’t abandon the national costume completely, to be lost in the great American crowd. 

Factory of Tears is published by Copper Canyon Press (love its cover, the laminated flower tablecloth and low enamel kettle – that’s Ostalgie).  Collected Body, same publisher, comes out in September 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment