Valzhyna Mort’s Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Review by Katsiaryna Lozka

The suburbs of Minsk, the Kurapaty forest, the night of October 29-30. Here, in 1937, the Soviet NKVD executed over one hundred Belarusian intellectuals, among them prominent writers and poets, including Aleś Dudar, Michaś Zarecki, Jurka Lavonny, and others. The brutally murdered Belarusians received no proper burial, and the tragedy was shrouded in silence until the late 1980s, when Belarusians began holding an annual action in memory of the Night of Executed Poets. This “forest of the unburied dead,” which is referred to in the poem “To Antigone, a Dispatch,” is the starting point for Valzhyna Mort’s third English-language poetry collection that lifts the curtain on history and life in Mort’s native Belarus. Starting from its title, Music for the Dead and Resurrected points to the cultural context where individual and national memories are constantly concealed, repressed, and distorted. Mort’s poems claim the remains of the past and attempt to reintegrate the fragmented national memories and narratives into the present.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a story of identity and remembering.  In the poem “An Attempt at Genealogy,” Mort asks several times: “But where am I from?” This need to find a personal point of origin and to reclaim history is at the core of her poems. “A bone is a key to my motherland,” says Mort, pointing to the suppressed memories and unknown fates of thousands of people. Mort makes us aware of the silence on the verge of screaming that permeates every cell of her nation’s body. Confronting the legacies of family and collective violence, this collection of poems gives voice to the silenced and murdered. “Antigone, […] pick me for a sister,” Mort appeals in “To Antigone, a Dispatch” demonstrating a sense of remembering and responsibility to her family history and to the history of the Belarusian nation. The engagement in self-reflection and demand for an honest national conversation also reverberate throughout Belarusian society today. In October 2020, Belarusians made a human chain, “Kurapaty-Akrestsina: Never Again!” from the Akrestsina detention center in Minsk, a symbol of the brutal suppression of the protests that erupted after the contested presidential election, to the Kurapaty forest, a Stalin-era execution site, thus pointing to the continuity of their torn national narrative.

Mort’s poetry masterfully shows how, incomplete and distorted, these memories allow the unconfronted past to maintain itself in the present. Her poem “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica” is set on the streets of Minsk, where instead of confronting the violent past, its perpetrators become cemented in everyday life and even glorified:

One by one, streets introduced themselves

with the names of national

murderers.

Repressed and distorted, the individual and collective memory of Belarus claws its way through the forests and swamps, resisting oblivion. As if seeking their final resting place, the ghosts of the unresolved past haunt the land in the present. Here, “every ditch, every hill is a suspect” and a witness to the continuous human tragedy.

Reminders about the murderous historical past are given in the lines like a chain of radioactive emissions. “Radiation, an etymology of soil,” Mort says, recounting the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded and burned, sending a cloud of radiation to neighboring Belarus. The Soviet authorities at first attempted to deny the incident and their silence exacerbated the terrible human costs of this disaster. In today’s Belarus, the authorities continue to deny and neglect the effects of the radioactive fallout. “Mine is a city defaced with light’s acid,” says Mort. This acid is not visible, this soil is silent, but the spirit of the unconfronted disaster permeates the air and the body of the nation.

For this nation, as Mort shows, the stories of the dead keep resurrecting, the stories of the living keep being silenced. “Did I tell you about the day the Bolsheviks came to take the roof off my farmhouse?” asks the title character of Mort’s prose poem “Baba Bronya,” “Did I tell you about how Uncle Kazik died? […] Did I tell you…” A cascade of personal and collective memories pours out of her. Baba Bronya repeats the same stories as if trying to assert her truth and transmit the experience that will be neither documented nor officially recognized.

Valzhyna Mort, “Baba Bronya” from Music for the Dead and Resurrected

The witnesses’ testimonies might disappear, but, as Mort shows in “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica,” objects can talk when people cannot:

In the purse that held—

through seven wars—

the birth certificates

of the dead, my grandmother

hid—from me—

chocolates. The purse opened like a screaming mouth.

As if it were a keeper of history, the family purse seems to scream. The purse tells a story, and so do the trees and other objects. Objects also become relatives: “Hold me, brother-apple,” writes Mort. They unite and restore the notes of the familial melody and the music of the nation. They do not allow repressed memories to disappear. Although keeping silent, these objects provide an understanding of the continuity of life. As Mort writes in “Psalm 18”:

I pray to the trees and language migrates down my legs like

mute cattle.

I pray to the wooden meat that never left its roots.

Generations one by one bring their repressed past back to light and purge it from the national unconscious. “The city of iron and irony” is how Mort describes her native Minsk. This is a place with parallel lives, where the stories like the ones Baba Bronya tells live side by side with repressed memories.

As Mort shows, finding the way after a century of silence, killings, and ruthless propaganda involves facing contradictions and distortions. One important vehicle for dissemination of propaganda was an official Communist Party newspaper called “Pravda [Truth],” the lie in its very name. Remembering her life on Pravda Avenue in Minsk, Mort describes it in “Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue” in the following way:

The mouthpiece of the street

named after the mouthpiece

of propaganda.

These lines note the hollowness of the state-sanctioned version of history. In her poems Mort brilliantly satirizes the language of officialdom and propaganda emptied of meaning. She uses irony and humor to convey the helplessness of the people living under the perpetual shadow of a deficit of basic commodities. As Mort shows in her “Bus Stop: Ars Poetica,” in this kind of life, a “Supermarket” becomes “a temple” and “the knowledge of sausage prices, the virginity of milk cartons” become priesthood and a kind of religion for people. However, not only basic commodities, but also living space is scarce (“a tiny apartment”), so “a separate room” becomes a universe.

Mort skillfully layers meanings, packing each poem with multiple historic references. In the same poem the atomized individual universes live next to the still-breathing hidden history:

In the State Archives, covers

hardened like scabs

over the ledgers.

Collective history that’s scabbing over in the state archives doesn’t shed light on individual lives. Despite the gap in knowledge, the missing roots persist in the form of a family song that is disappearing from memory. Mort writes in “Music Practice”:

By the time

I heard this song, it had no music.

Yet however weak, the family song lives on, as does the music of the nation. Its songs often seem to have only “mmm and aaa” for words. Do the words even exist, inquires Mort. Sometimes, even the melody is gone, but “mmm and aaa” remain, she says. These bleating sounds become the sole memory about past generations. “But where am I from?” Mort continues asking. At the intersection of silence and screaming, in the mirrors of reality and state propaganda, among the speaking trees and silent people, Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a masterpiece sketch of a story that is yet to be told in Belarus. Mort’s poetry is a melody of human tragedy that continues to take place in her home country. As in her poetry, the people of Belarus today remain trapped inside a cynical and brutal regime that pushes them back into helplessness and liminal existence at the crossroads of the repressed past, the violent present, and the highly uncertain “future that runs on the schedule of public buses.”

Katsiaryna Lozka is a PhD fellow at the Ghent Institute of International and European Studies. Her research focuses on Eastern Europe and Russia’s policies in the post-Soviet space. She holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe in Bruges and an MA in European Studies from Comenius University in Bratislava. She previously studied international politics and peace research at the University of Oslo and the Belarusian State University in Minsk.

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