Wednesday, June 25, 2008


That you can feel with your hands

I recently finished reading Factory of Tears by Valzhyna Mort, translated from Belarusian by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright, published this year by Copper Canyon Press. These are poems of stark strength and startling honesty, constantly revealing the shock of the reality of everyday existence, touched often by a quiet dry humor. Her poems remind me sometimes of the work of Polish poets Tadeusz Rosewicz and Anna Swir, a similar tough spare quality. The quick movement of Mort's thought is evident always, her poems never dwelling long on their own irony. Valzhyna Mort, born in 1981, is of a generation of poets who in these years are sounding their presence in the world. This is a defining collection of 21st century poems.
my grandmother
doesn't know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water

her body like a grapevine winding around a walking stick
her hair bees' wings
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
there's nothing else you can do with it
only a rose
(From the poem "Grandmother.")

Often I feel in Mort's poems that she has somewhat stepped back from herself, observing as though from a small distance away, not as any sort of artifical pose, but as an instinctive step to perceive more keenly. She is capable of introspection without falling into the knots so common in modern academic writing and thinking.
you've curled up on the edge of the bed
so suddenly
out of the blue
like a toy that has rolled under a wardrobe

and your mrs. columbus is here
with eyes red like meat
peering but not seeing
farther than the nose of her ship

who would set off to discover you now
when all maps are purchased and framed
who would believe
that the ocean is a hole
that threw upon itself a gray bedsheet
to play ghosts with you and me
(From the poem "Marriage.")

Roughly halfway through the book is a longish prose piece, "White Trash," a kind of free-roaming observation on the marvels and brutalities and ironies and simplicities of daily life in a world constantly hurtling toward tomorrow. Reminiscent of Rimbaud's prose sequences, in some respects, though rushes in with headlong abandon, not in disgust at the world around her, but in questions and wonder.
[...] But there's nothing scarier than falling asleep with your hands crossed. Every time it seems I would certainly die because of these hands. And it's hard to hear but to stay awake is also impossible. I'm trying to listen but my ears can't catch hold of anything. It's not just the absence of sound. It's the silence that was forced to shut up. It's the silence that had its throat jumped down. Silence that was tied hands and feet, and gagged. Silence that you can see with your own eyes; as if it's a table, a chair, a picture on the wall. It is these train schedules, newspapers, sunglasses, McDonald's, streetlamps, time, heavy traffic. Silence that is constantly talking to you. Silence, that you can feel with your hands all over as if it were a woman; define the size of breasts waist, thighs, go to bed with it at night and make it coffee in the morning. I'm dreaming of a high mountain made of stones of all colors and sizes. It rises up confidently, a heavy stone triangle. I'm dreaming of a tiny ant with a grain of sand on its back. It climbs up the mountain, higher and higher, and on the very top, sharp as a needle, the ant takes the grain off its back and puts it on the peak of the mountain. [...]
I'm in no position to gauge the accuracy of the translations, knowing no Belarusian, though to my ear the translations read well in English. Belarusian is written in a slightly modified Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian; the book includes the originals alongside the translations. Here and there, with the tiny slivers of what I know about Russian, I attempted making my way through a few lines of the originals here and there, to see if I could get a least a little sense of how they sound. Many of the poems have a warm hypnotic quality in the sound and rhythm. I would love to hear Valzhyna Mort read her poems sometime.

outside your borders,
they built a huge orphanage,
and you left us there, belarus,
maybe we were born without legs?
maybe we worshipped the wrong gods?
maybe we brought you misfortune?
maybe we were deathly sick?
maybe you were not able to feed us?
but couldn't we just beg for food?!
maybe you never really wanted us,
but at first we also
didn't know how to love you

your language is so small
that it can't even speak yet,
but you, belarus, are hysterical,
you are certain
that midwives mixed up the bundles
what if you're feeding somebody else's baby?!
letting another's language suck your own milk?!
a bluish language lying on the windowsill--
is it a language or last year's hoarfrost?
is it hoarfrost or an icon's shadow?
is it a shadow or just nothing?

(From the poem "Belarusian II.")

Valzhyna Mort's poems convey a constant openness to raw experience, to taking and grappling with whatever she encounters in common life. In an age pressed between corporate media jabber and the vault of silence of the imperial marketplace, between breaking news and mission statements and commercials for prescription drugs and quarterly meetings to discuss results, we need the clear speech of these poems.
While the Food Refinery Station
was trying to digest another catastrophe
the Factory of Tears adopted a new economically advantageous
technology of recycling the wastes of the past--
memories mostly.

The pictures of the employees of the year
were placed on the Wall of Tears.

I'm a recipient of workers' comp 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.
(From the poem "Factory of Tears.")

Monday, June 02, 2008


Couple of things

Just today got my hands on You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941 edited by John Marsh, published 2007 by University of Michigan Press.

The book is a collection of poems gathered from labor newspapers and similar publications of the period, written by workers in a wide variety of labor unions, industries and occupations: Sleeping Car Porters, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the International Association of Machinists, the United Textile Workers, Carpenters and Joiners; United Auto Workers, International Ladies Garment Workers Union, International Sailors Union, United Mine Workers, United Steel Workers, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers; the Industrial Workers of the World, the Sailors Union of the Pacific, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union; and this isn't a complete list.

This is poetry rough, untamed, unpolished, priceless. I'll write more about the book here once I've spent more time with it.


On a somewhat different note, I found online a short interview, from 2003, with poet Clayton Eshleman, in which he discusses (among other things) his opinions on the current state of American poetry; the responsibility of poets in dealing with the changes in American politics and culture after the events of September 11, 2001 and the beginning of the war against Iraq; the research Eshleman did on cave paintings France, as part of the background work of his book Juniper Fuse (published by Wesleyan U. Press), and notions about the early origins of human imagination; and other topics.

At one point Eshleman names a number of poets whose work he has found especially relevant and important to his own work. My own list of poets would be very different from his, and my general sense is that our aethetic approaches are pretty different; still I liked reading what he had to say.

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