CUTBANK REVIEWS: Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort
Copper Canyon Press, 2011
Review by Caitlin Cowan
One would never guess that Valzhyna Mort’s Collected Body is her first collection written solely in English: her piercing, radiant diction is as keen as that of a native speaker, and exceeds that measure in a way that is likely born from that very same alienation. In reading her incisive descriptions of a woman’s “eyes rolled up like workman’s sleeves” or that of “an apple that bit into me to forget its own knowledge,” one discerns a scrupulous, greedy love of language that fills Mort’s poems with pulsating power.
An apprehension of power—who has it, why do we use it, how it slips from our fingers (or from between our legs)—is central to the collection as a whole, and perhaps central to Mort herself, who emigrated from her native Belarus in 2005 with a published book already in hand. Having been hailed a “rising star” of poetry, Mort shoots poems out of her mouth at readings, much in the same way she seems to have shot to fame here in America. Her readings are guttural and true, and brutally record all of life’s most piercing moments.
Perhaps most compelling are Mort’s poems about her parents and extended family, which comprise a large portion of the book. Mort’s book is, in many respects, an attractive meditation on oppression, and violence of many forms manifests itself in the strangest of places. And again, it is her stunning use of description and metaphor which repeatedly guide us to this recognition of brutality. In the powerhouse opener, “Mocking Bird Hotel,” Mort narrates the way in which a waiter “slashes the table with our bill,” how “gulls / smash their heads beneath their wings,” and “Parakeets / watch [a man] from the bare nerves of the garden.” In this representative piece, Mort here electrifies what could have been a quotidian landscape with aggressive verbs like “slash” and “smash” and unusual, painful metaphors (the naked plants have been stripped to their excruciating “bare nerves”). It is in these rich passages that the savagery of the world is exposed, and the speaker of these poems—at times opaque, at other times vibrantly foregrounded—records all in undaunted verse as if to say, Look. It hurts. But look.
The long prose pieces at the center of the book, “Aunt Anna” and “Zhenya,” fail to match the intensity of her lineated work, which is her greatest strength. But these narrative pieces are anything but prosaic. Unafraid to sketch those closest to her in the most revealing (if unflattering) light, Mort investigates her own origins through the lives of those who came before her. But even as we navigate Aunt Anna and Zhenya’s worlds, the echo of Mort’s “Mocking Bird Hotel” rings in our ears: “Do not eat the fruit from your Family Tree.” It seems that Mort does in fact violate her own early prohibition, and the result is both delicious and stomach-turning.
The image that adorns the cover of Mort’s collection, Peter Paul Rubens’ interpretation of the myth of Leda and the Swan, is an apt invitation to the book’s contents. While the image of Leda’s muscled body cradling the bird between her legs points to the violence and violation of rape, Rubens seems to focus, as Mort does in so many of her poems, on the possibility of beauty in destruction. In the pair of poems titled after a German island and tourist destination, “Sylt I” and “Sylt II,” Mort juxtaposes two images of the female body and its permutations—first in a loss of sexual innocence, then in a vision of parturition and a resultant emptiness—with saturated, gorgeous images of beach-going and a pipe organ’s creation of music. The first poem of this pair is particularly dazzling, and reflects the speaker’s complicated relationship to the book’s central themes: family, sex, motherhood, and suffering. As she towels off after a swim in the ocean, the speaker tells an unknown, invisible interlocutor:
She, too, is rough and indifferent toward her full breasts,
as if she were brushing a cat off a chair
for her old father to sit down.
They drink beer in the northern light that illuminates nothing but itself.
Saliboats slip off their white sarafans,
baring their scrawny necks and shoulders,
and line up holding on to the pier as if it were a dance bar.
The speaker wonders, too, what her father finds when he dries off his own private parts, gritty with sea salt, as he turns away from his children to tend to his ablutions in a more solitary manner:
It bothers her, what did he find there after all?
So she touches herself under the towel.
It is easy to find where he has been digging –
the dug-up spot is still soft.
This callback to the poem’s opening discussion of a lover who as “dug out two thighs of sand” in his exploration of the speaker’s body resonates fully in the speaker’s probing of her own rawness, her meditation on the manifold ways in which the body is intruded upon or in which we intrude upon the lives of others.
This collection points to the countless ways in which our bodies and our selves are formed through small contributions from the people and landscape that daily surround us. In particular, the notion of external influence on the self also makes Collected Body is also a timely book, in the most flattering sense of the term. The raw poetic muscle that Mort flexes over and over in this collection is a refreshing demonstration, to say the least. As a reading public we have become inured to the fact of female meditation on femininity; a female meditation on the freedoms and restrictions of female power rings much truer in an age when women’s rights are being decided by politicians who are scared to use the term “vagina” in legislative proceedings.
Bald discussions of the body turn out to be a dominant tendency in this book as well, but here the unflinching, documentarian’s eye Mort turns on a rural woman “with breasts like the Ural Mountains / separating her face from her body” or a young urban woman who perceives her lover’s mouth and its attendant ministrations as “a noose of his saliva over her pussy” shows us how the body can become something that we haul around behind us, rather than a joyful frame for our interiority. Hardly a celebration of womanhood, Collected Body is more properly an attempt to strip the flowery language and obfuscation of the female sex from the reality of what women daily clothe, clean, and carry with them each day. And in this way, Mort’s poems and the truths they excavate throb with sovereignty and potential that make this young writer a startling new talent, capable of crafting poems that drop our jaws with surprise and recognition.
Valzhyna Mort is a Belarusian poet who now lives in the United States. Her first book of poetry, I’m as Thin as Your Eyelashes, came out in Belarus in 2005. Her first American publication, Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), the first Belarusian/English poetry book published in the U.S. Collected Body(Copper Canyon Press, 2011) is her most recent book of poetry and her first collection of poems composed entirely in English. Mort studied at the State University of Linguistics in Minsk. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from American University. Known throughout Europe for her live performances, Mort works explicitly to reestablish a clear identity for Belarus and its language. Mort is the youngest poet to be featured on the cover of Poetry & Writers magazine.
Caitlin Cowan’s poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in Nimrod, Faultline, The Mississippi Review, Poet Lore, Fugue, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of The Mississippi Review Prize, The Ron McFarland Prize for Poetry, and an Avery Hopwood Award. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from The New School, and will complete a PhD at The University of North Texas, where she is currently a teaching fellow.