Saturday, June 12, 2010


[Lake Strusta, Belarus]

Valzhyna Mort (the pen name of Valzhyna Martynova) was born in 1981 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Though her first language was Russian, she fell in love with the music of Belorusian. Her bilingual volume, Factory of Tears, has been translated into English, Swedish, and German. At the age of 24, she moved to the United States. Currently she lives in Baltimore, MD, and teaches at University of Baltimore. Her second volume, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press, consists of work written in English. (I wonder if she'll eventually translate her English-language poems into Belorusian; I find it extremely difficult to translate my poems into Polish.)

Valzhyna Mort has been influenced by the work of modern Polish poets, whose work she translated into Belorusian. This influence (particularly, I think, that of Zbigniew Herbert) shows itself in this marvelous poem:


how do they break away from the land
where even stones take root

how do two languages share one mouth
like two women in one kitchen

how do they bring the bloody bodies
wrapped in accordions instead of bandage
through Security

do new hotels remind them
of boxes of german chocolate

it is true that their pillows
are stuffed with soil
softer than any feather

their faces differ from the locals’
by the number of wrinkles
as if they started
sculpturing something new out of their skin
but then stopped having changed their minds
and never finished their reincarnation

the tiny wrinkles in the corners of their eyes
twisted and shiny from sweat
like bonbon wrappers

but when you look into those eyes
you are looking down the barrel of a gun –
what do you need
in the territory of their city
painted on the wall of the restaurant
Taste of Europe

and there
that very taste
fills your eyes with saliva

                 ~ Valzhyna Mort, from Factory of Tears
translated from Belarusian by the author, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright  


This strong poem is chiefly metaphorical, and yet anyone familiar with history will also find it quite realistic. As for the ending, I understand it in two ways: first, it shows the defiance that's part of the Polish cultural tradition (again: see history), and it may also refer to the feeling of having been betrayed by the West, "sold" to the Soviet Union in the Yalta Pact (which Churchill called a pact with the devil, as any agreement with Stalin had to be). 

Valzhyna Mort's Factory of Tears is somewhat uneven, but its treasures outweigh its flaws. In fact, considering the author's youth, this is an extraordinary book. Her poems abound in rich, unexpected statements. For instance, “Marriage” starts:

this isn’t how you glue a broken cup

it’s collecting drop by drop
ocean sprayed all around the world

“White Trash,” a prose poem, makes some poignant statements about living in the age of terrorism:


Once they used to say, “One body is nobody.” Now it’s all in reverse. Yesterday one was an infantryman, another – a cavalryman; another rode a tank. Today you alone are weapons and the whole cavalry and a brigade of a million infantryman at once. Your glance in certain circumstances can replace tear gas. The footsteps you leave are nothing but mines. And everybody raises a serpent in her mouth. And everybody carries a bomb inside his head.


We need players who are still not afraid to go outside, not afraid to take trains, open their suitcases, people whose main life principle is “It won’t happen to me.”




Scattered throughout are amazing statements about God. My favorite passage comes from an untitled prose poem dedicated to the poet’s grandmother:


I see your life as God’s bible, as a manual that will teach God about humans and make him believe in them. I see God kneeling beside your life.


Dear Valzhyna’s Grandmother! This is God talking to you. We haven’t been personally introduced, but you might have heard about me – I was mentioned in books here and there. I can’t talk long. These tears appear so out of the blue, like an enemy army, special forces landing on my face. These tears in their uniforms of protective color – transparent in the air, adopting the color of cheek, of anything they land upon. Grandmother! I’m so old that already many speak publicly of my death! If it keeps going like this I myself will soon believe it. Put me in your lap, tell me the stories about the world that is standing on tortoises. Your hands feel like a tortoise’s shell. Let me hide my head in them.




There are many more striking lines in this volume. I’ll limit myself to the ones below:

I protest against everything: low-quality goods in supermarkets, pigs in the subway, and those who protest against pigs in the subway . . .  this is the only way to survive.

[ we were] completely free only in public toilets
where for a little change nobody cared what we were doing


come on, let this system kiss my



( – yes, in addition to writing, Valzhyna Mort also plays the accordion.)





  1. Oriana, thanks for introducing me to the this poet and her richness. Even though I've promised the people I love that I will never buy another book, I will make an exception in the case of V. Mort.

  2. Yes, fascinating writing from V. Mort. The passage on terrorism ("And everybody carries a bomb inside his head.") is truer than I would like to admit. And not just to write overtly about God but convincingly in God's voice is truly awesome.

    I was, however, unconvinced about the Yalta Treaty allusion. Given V. Mort's age, I wondered she were alluding to a more recent defiance.

  3. Thank you for your comment, and particularly for pointing out that it's awesome to write convincingly in God's voice. That's the ultimate feat in the use of persona.

    You may be right about "a more recent defiance." On the other hand, just last summer I met a Polish immigrant, by no means elderly, who was quite emphatic in his view of the Yalta treaty, as many Poles are, regardless of their age (true, those born before WWII are more bitter about it). It's possible that Valzhyna talked with someone like that. But I don't insist on that point.

  4. Re: John's comment.

    Yes, it's a fascinating book. As I said, it's worth getting in spite of some unevenness. Several poems are very short, and some readers might therefore use the word "thin" -- but I think those weaker pieces are outweighed by the strong poems.

  5. Oriana, if I may, I'm going to invite you to read another post on my blog. It's about one Polish-Jewish-American man's experience of "returning" to Poland. Everytime I read his story, I tear up. Link:

  6. Oriana, another reading assignment for you, if you have time. No pressure.

    I just posted a blog post about ... well, you can see if you have time. Polish immigration.