Valzhyna Mort: How Can This Exist on Earth?

In this month’s issue of Poetry Magazine, I stumbled across a name I couldn’t even attempt to pronounce. While this may not seem like a notable occasion, in a magazine known as “the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world,” running across a name so unabashedly un-Anglicized is reason to take note. Besides an annual translation issue, the magazine doesn’t deal much outside of the English language. When it does, it indicates that the artist in question is someone who has truly transcended country borders in order to garner international attention.

The poet--Valzhyna Mort--was born and raised in Belarus but is currently living in D.C., according to her Poetry Foundation biography. Her biography also confirmed my suspicions of Mort being an international sensation, though it at the same time suggested her unwavering nationalism. Though Mort has released acclaimed works in many individual countries, she continues to compose all of her poems in her native Belarusian in an attempt to revive and preserve the language.

A little bit more digging revealed that Mort is truly an electrifying poet, in almost every way that the word can be used. Her infamous readings are rivaled only by her equally enthralling subject matter. Though Mort, unlike Anjuman, doesn’t seem too worried about preserving the beauty of her language, what her work in translation does betray is a palpable effort to maintain a certain rawness, a plain-style sincerity that ensures her troubling and often disturbing imagery is maintained:

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 couldn’t tell which of us was a girl or a boy
we gorged on dirt thinking it was bread
and our future
a gymnast on a thin thread of the horizon
was performing there
at the highest pitch
--From Belarusian

In just a few words, Mort communicates the poverty, helplessness, and abject hopelessness that pervaded her generation and her country. Her intricate and bizarre imagery reinforces the other-worldliness of their situation, asking always: how is it possible that these conditions could exist on earth? With all her travel and success and ascension into high-brow literary circles, it is remarkable that she has not stopped asking this question. It makes our inability--or perhaps refusal--to answer that much more palpable.
Watch Mort read part of Belarusian in the video above.