Growing up in Minsk, in the nineteen-eighties, the poet Valzhyna Mort spoke Russian at home and studied Belarusian in school. Now she has written a collection of poems, “Music for the Dead and Resurrected,” in English. All the same, Mort insists that she does not know any of the three languages particularly well. “Luckily, I very strongly hang onto the idea that poetry does not come from language, but rather from the unsayable, from the untranslatable,” she told the Guardian last year. “It only makes sense for me that I am trying to say it in a language—in any language—in which I know I would fail ultimately.”
That a bard of the unsayable would emerge from Belarus is not an accident. Given the suppression of artists and intellectuals under Stalin, in the nineteen-thirties, and the current censorship of journalists, under President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusians have been warned for the better part of a century not to tell anyone what happens there. Mort recalls, as a child, listening to her grandmother tell stories about growing up as part of a class of well-off farmers, kulaks, who were forcibly dispossessed under the Soviet regime. After these chats, Mort’s mother would always remind her, “Valzhyna, you cannot tell this to anybody.” Mort dedicated her first book of poetry published in the United States, “Factory of Tears,” from 2008, to her grandmother.
Visitors to Belarus often compare entering the country to stepping into the past. Though the nation became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, the economy remains largely state-run, with the government controlling much of broadcasting, land ownership, banking, and manufacturing. Lukashenka has fought efforts to take down Soviet-era monuments, and has even installed new ones—a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, an architect of the secret police and the Red Terror, was unveiled in Minsk in 2006. Meanwhile, the government continues to whitewash Stalin’s crimes.
And so the poetry of writers like Mort, herself an outspoken critic of Lukashenka, will have to suffice. Mort, thirty-nine, rose to prominence in the two-thousands, when she began giving electrifying performances on the poetry-festival circuit in Europe. Excitement intensified with the publication of “Factory of Tears,” which this magazine described as “argumentative,” adding, “Mort, a young Belarusian poet living in America, strives to be an envoy for her native country, writing with almost alarming vociferousness about the struggle to establish a clear identity for Belarus and its language.” The book included Mort’s poems in the original Belarusian, placed alongside the English translations, which were prepared by Mort in collaboration with Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and the Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright. Mort once compared translating her work to “giving oneself a haircut with a kitchen knife.” Language politics are complicated in Belarus, where Belarusian was repressed during most of the Soviet era, and where Russian remains the standard in public life. But Mort insists that her decision to write in Belarusian was artistic, not political. As a child, she sang in the chorus at the Minsk Opera House, and she thought Belarusian sounded more musical. Writing in the language, she told the Irish Times, “became my attempt to compose music rather than to write poetry.”
Perhaps this explains the title of “Music for the Dead and Resurrected.” The book offers a melodic memorial to the people Belarus has lost and the calamities it has suffered—the Stalinist purges of the thirties; the Second World War, during which more than a quarter of the country’s population perished; the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion just across the Ukrainian border; and the horrors of life under Lukashenka. In doing so, Mort presents a striking study of what Belarus can teach the world about state violence, collective memory, and the role of poetry in fighting tyranny.
In 1988, a mass-burial site was uncovered in a wooded area on the outskirts of Minsk. Those buried had been executed by officers from the N.K.V.D., which oversaw both regular law enforcement and secret-police activities, from 1937 to 1941, in Stalin’s purges. The exact number of victims is disputed—estimates range from thirty thousand to a quarter of a million—but the area, called Kurapaty, has become central to debates in Belarus about how to memorialize the casualties of Stalinist repression. In April, 2019, Belarusian officials dismantled seventy tall wooden crosses that activists had installed near the graves, and arrested protesters who had gathered there.
“Music for the Dead and Resurrected” begins with a poem inspired by Kurapaty. The poem is titled “To Antigone, a Dispatch” after Sophocles’ heroine, who was imprisoned for giving her brother a proper burial. In the play, Antigone’s sister Ismene refuses to help her. In the poem, Mort offers herself in Ismene’s place: “Pick me for a sister, Antigone. / In this suspicious land. / I have a bright shovel of a face.” In another poem, “Little Song for a Pocketknife,” Mort writes about the train journey of a Belarusian woman being taken north, to a labor camp: “Outside—ever-red pines. / The train claps, claps, claps, claps.” Mort is known for her performance style, which is marked by a kind of combative vitality; when she recites the poem, its rhythm mimics the chugging of a train and the dark, heavy cadences suggest the nature of the destination.
For Mort, memory must always be enshrined, and the lack of a memorial in places such as Kurapaty is a moral and an aesthetic concern. In an interview with the Cornell Chronicle, from 2017, she asks, “How does one walk through this silence?” She goes on to suggest poetry as one remedy, a mode that uses a direct and pointed economy of speech to break through the equivocations of bureaucrats. Poetic form “doesn’t tolerate approximated semantics,” she says, “but asks for words sharpened to shoot into the very core of things.” Her poems are often barbed, eager to cut to the chase. In “Bus Stop: Ars Poetica,” she writes, “Streets introduced themselves / with the names of national / murderers.” As for the forgotten victims, Mort makes a virtue of the transient. Her verse, like war itself, can shift tone and direction suddenly, even within a single line. In “Ode to Branca,” we get this: “You can drink water from any well / or jump in and drown yourself. / You can hang yourself from one of the garden branches / or pick a half-rotten apple. / Bless this landscape of choices, clear as a clear night.”
This sort of candor is a tonic, especially as Belarus enters a new era of unrest. Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, is the first and only President the country has known. (Previously, the title did not exist.) His most recent reëlection, in August, which he claimed to have won by a landslide, was mired in allegations of fraud. Protests have broken out across the country, and the government has countered with brutal crackdowns on demonstrators and the press. In a series of violent clashes, more than seventeen thousand people have been arrested, and eight have reportedly died, either in police custody or during standoffs with authorities. (The figure might be much higher, as dozens of protesters are officially listed as missing.) Lukashenka has also targeted the country’s leading intellectuals, including the Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, who reported being called in for questioning this summer. These actions make Mort’s poem “Little Songs” eerily prescient: “Our famous skills / in tank production / have been redirected / at students and journalists.”
Writing about these events, in the Times, Mort voiced her support for the protesters: “What is happening in Belarus is a mass improvisation in dignity, a movement against dehumanization and invisibility.” Her book is part of that movement, and it captures, through language, the contours of dissent. Soviet monuments remain upright in Minsk, like concrete odes to terror, repression, and silence. And yet “Music for the Dead and the Resurrected” feels like its own monument, not only to Belarusians but also to victims of state violence around the world. They will know just what Mort means when she writes, in “Little Songs,” that “Justice has turned out to be / more terrifying / than injustice.”