Even more than its neighbors, Belarus remains chained to its past. Landlocked by Russia and the Baltic states, the country was decimated in the 1940s by the Nazis; over the next two decades, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union, its language and culture suppressed. The majority of postwar poets exported from the former Eastern bloc have been Polish (Herbert, Milosz, Szymborska), and Belarus, still crouching in Moscow’s long shadow, has yet to produce a bard of international stature. So when the press release for Valzhyna Mort’s Factory of Tears declares it “the first- ever Belarusian/English book of poems published in the United States,” the statement comes tinged with urgency.
Unlike her cultural forebears, Mort, born in 1981, does not seem keen to exhume her country’s past. She is similarly ambivalent about its future: “Belarusian I” ends with the cryptic lines “and there on the horizon the gymnast of our future / was leaping through the fiery hoop / of the sun,” suggestive of both courage and reckless self-obliteration. Likewise, the title poem concludes with a series of declarations—“I have compound fractures on my cheeks. / I receive my wages with the product I manufacture. / And I’m happy with what I have”—that hover between bitter sarcasm and weary sincerity. This is not to say that Mort argues against the pro-Western spirit of the many political movements, like the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, that have spread like wildfire throughout Eastern Europe. It’s just that her focus is trained elsewhere.
On sex, for instance. Often (too often, perhaps), Factory of Tears taps the vein that was first opened by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and that, over the past forty years, has been drained almost dry. If Mort aims to shock, one can only assume that Belarusian audiences are scandalized by lines like “Lust is sitting inside me like a cherry pit” and “Who will pinch the ass of love.” Americans have heard it all before. The otherwise elegant translation occasionally dips too eagerly into slang, as if hinting that not all Belarusians are the dreary pensioners that we (admittedly) tend to picture them as.
What’s most compelling about these poems—especially the multipage “White Trash,” whose lines seem written for performance rather than reading—is that they are political, but obliquely, almost sneakily so. “Your glance in certain circumstances can replace tear gas” serves, for instance, as an apt metaphor for Mort’s continual obstruction of the political with the personal. This strategy, if not always well executed, ultimately succeeds. It suggests that the author has captured a perspective that many Americans may have simply overlooked: that of a European generation for which the United States is not a blazing torch of democracy but a bizarre admixture of puritanism, militarism, and sex—a collective export the author approaches with skepticism rather than adulation.