Reviews, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Translated from Belarusian by the author, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright
Copper Canyon Press, 2008
Paperback, 116 pp., $15
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Factory of Tears, originally written in Valzhyna Mort’s native Belarusian, appears with the translation alongside the original work. According to the book jacket, it is the author’s intent “to reestablish the traditional language of her homeland.” The country’s official language has been divided between Russian and Belarusian since 1995. Belarus, situated between Lithuania and the Ukraine, is a country with a history of fighting for independence.
Mort’s work reflects a poetics of survival in “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 crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers
as if into bomb shelters
to be born again
Other works present the implications of youth and aging in the context of change and sameness; others, in boredom, loneliness, frustration and disgust with life. Still others, like “White Trash,” strive to be epic in a Whitmanesque sense, but the effect is more that of a pointless rant. “White Trash” is interspersed with stanzas about Chechnya that seem out of place in the midst of such lines as “Who is ready to take luck by the throat, and make it sit on the potty whispering into its ear: ‘Finally you’re mine, pain in the ass’?”
“Fall in Tampa” provides a mediocre evocation of seasonal metaphor while poems with titles like “Cry Me a River” come off as cliché and unimpacting. Mort uses abstract language without the abstractions themselves. An example of this is in “You see your life as something borrowed,” where Mort writes, “It’s not your life that teaches you—it’s you who gives your life a lesson. To be yourself. To give yourself to the end.” Lines like these abstract a grounded sense of reality, and are philosophical without providing concrete examples.
“Belarusian I,” along with “Factory of Tears” are two of the most effective poems in the collection. Mort’s strongest attribute as a poet may be her ability to synthesize life in political upheaval with a poetics of continuity.