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Poetry Talk with Valzhyna Mort

The Singing Bone: A conversation about music, metaphor, and translation in poetry.


Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, who has lived in the U.S. for years and writes bilingually, in conversation with poet Uljana Wolf, also Mort’s translator into German, about music, metaphor, and translation, about childhoods in prefabricated housing, and the memory work of poetry.

Uljana Wolf: Dear Valzhyna, I was looking forward to having this conversation with you in real time and space in Berlin this summer during the international poesiefestival. Because of the long pandemic we are now entering this dialogue on the space of a page, a place not unfamiliar to both of us – during the winter months I translated the poems from your latest book, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, from English, a process that unfolded as an intense multilayered dialogue – with your haunting poems, their ghosts, with you, with Katharina Narbutovic who translated the other half of the poems from Belarusian, and faintly also with the ghosts from my own childhood in an Eastern apartment block building related to the ones you invoke in your book.
So it seems fitting, perhaps, to begin this conversation with an inquiry about the voices that inhabit the page and the mind while you write, wrote, are writing – or perhaps are being written, by them. I‘m thinking here of the voices that inform your book – your grandmother, Baba Bronja, Branka, the music teacher, Mikoła Hussowski, Żubr, and I also think of the way you foreground this dialogue with lines such as „that words, once uttered / crowd in the brain as in a hospital lobby“ and “The golden bones of my motherland are ringing!”.
In fact, as I’m writing this, I think “voices” may even be too limited a concept – do ghosts speak with voices? Maybe we go with “sounds” – sounds weave in and out of your poems, make up the music, punctuate the rhythm, shape the listening, persuade the metaphor. “A rotary phone is my gene pool. / My body rings as it runs.” Can you tell us something about the way you converse with voices – sounds – on the page? How did you make a language for the voices that inform the poems in the book? And how did you go about listening? Who – or what – picks up the rotary phone?

Valzhyna Mort: Thank you, Uljana. We’ve been “in conversation” through translation, and I’m glad to have an actual conversation now, though I wish it were a spontaneous one, in person. Let me immediately bring in more voices who speak on the subject of language, sound and meaning. First, here’s an American poet Lucille Clifton: “I think that we are beginning to remember that the first poets didn’t come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, “Ahhh.” That was the first poem.” Second, is a Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva: “My difficulty (in writing poems – and perhaps other people’s difficulty in understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan: nnh, nnh, nnh. To express a sound using words, using meanings. So that the only thing left in the ears would be nnh, nnh, nnh.”
What is this “Ahhh”? An exclamation. What is “nnnh”? A moan. Francis Bacon, the artist behind striking, distorted portraits insists that what he paints is the scream, not the horror.
I too believe that a poem is not a story, but an exclamation, a scream, a moan. A poem is not language in its ordinary state, but in a highly concentrated state, in the highest state of intensity. This week, I’ve been reading a book called On the Forgetting of Languages, written by Daniel Heller-Roazen. In a chapter called “Exclamation,” the author is dissatisfied with the idea of speech as a communicative, utilitarian form and asks what it would mean if the primary form of speech was not a naming – so, not Adam naming plants and animals in Paradise – but an exclamation. (George Steiner proposed that the primary function of speech was not communication with others, but communication with oneself – a proposition that I also hold dear.) Heller-Roazen’s idea is in conversation with Dante, a great poet who I won’t call Italian because Dante is of the whole world, who claimed that human speech has always begun with an exclamation of despair. Heller-Roazen writes: “Nowhere is a language more itself than at the moment it seems to leave the terrain of its sound and sense, assuming the sound shape of what does not – or cannot – have language of its own: animal sounds, natural and mechanical noises.”
So, when I stand on the sixth floor of my apartment block on Pravda Avenue and look out of the kitchen window, I see an overpopulated plot of land that was methodically depopulated forty years before my birth, during World War II, and then built up with these blocks that remind one of a paused Tetris game. All these windows are in front of you and the cliché goes that they are eyes, but to me they are all mouths, open in speech but – what can they say? Like a lot of children in my generation, I had a grandmother at home with me while my parents left for work at 7 am and returned at 7 pm. My grandmother was a survivor of the 30ies, of the 40ies, of the Soviet experiment that culminated in a Chernobyl explosion. Every day upon returning home from school I sat in the kitchen having lunch while my grandmother sat across the table and spoke of hunger, flowers, war, orphanhood, Stalin, recited poems she remembered having completed four years of school, sang songs, told stories of people of whom absolutely nothing and nobody was left. She was a survivor of the 20th century. A survivor of the 20th century made me cabbage soup, wiped my ass, reminded me to wash my hands. A survivor of the 20th century monitored my TV viewing, knitted my clothes, said good-night to me in the evening. And all around us, the apartment blocks stood with their mouths constantly open.
Whatever was told to me at the kitchen table has become my obsession. It is a constantly ringing phone. It rings from the past, from the future, from the underworld, from apartments, gardens, books, streets. Yet, having heard these stories daily, for many years of my life, I cannot repeat them. They were not in the words, but in the intonations, in the body, in the sighs. I have to write not a story, but a sigh, a scream, a face covered with hands. And it is all music to me. Music as civilized form of a scream. Language of poetry as a true mother tongue of a human being, the tongue of animal sounds, awe, despair (“ahhh!” and “nnnh”). In this past year I found myself so often in the armchair making a sound of a cow-sheep-horse and every time I thought to myself: there, there’s my real human voice.

UW: There are so many paths – or shall I say corridors –, leading to so many doors, – or shall I say mouths – dear Valzhyna, in what you wrote. When you mentioned Echolalias. On the Forgetting of Language I probably jumped in my chair and made a sound only audible to my cat called Dante, who also jumped. (The way cats scat around in their own sonic architecture, a poetry unnoticed by us.) Echolalias has been one of the most important books for me in recent years, mostly because of the way Heller-Roazen reads ‘forgetting’ in languages as a form of subversive, illegitimate, drifting form of counter-memory. I think this is deeply connected to the way poetic language remembers in dismembering common sense language and the national boundaries such utilitarian use of language heeds to. He also writes: “Language has no being beyond its drifting parts, and its sole consistency may lie in the layers of forgetting and remembrance that tie and untie it, in ever-changing ways, to those before it […]”.
The idea of counter-memory of sound leads me to a question about your poems that’s been on my mind for a while. It is connected to the kitchen-table-conversations with your grandmother, to the open mouths of the apartment blocks. And to the ‘coda’ of your poem “An Attempt at Genealogy” which I want to quote here at full length:

The golden bones of my motherland are ringing!

Put your bones into braids of graves, woods.
Put your bones into braids of graves, ravines.
Put your bones into braids of graves, fields.
Put your bones into braids of graves, swamps.

Put your graves into braids of bones, mother.
Put your graves into braids of bones, moth.
Put your graves into braids of bones, ghost.
Put your graves into braids of bones, guest.

Braid your bones neatly.
Braid your bones bravely.
Finger-comb your bones
into neat braids
in our woods, ravines, fields, swamps.

This passage sends chills through my spines and the whiskers of my cat every time I read it. Because the striking simplicity of its spiritual refinedness (reminiscent of a prayer, a chant, a spell, a fairy tale wish) houses an incandescent net of relations illustrative of the way sound can simultaneously desolidify meaning and establish counter-meaning through likeness. This is the moan. This is the “nnh, nnh, nnh” you mention: Mother-moth-ghost-guest. Braids-grave-bravely-ravines. Here you go. A tiny history of totalitarian terrors. Presented as a permutated network of sounds and also relations of letters. Letters which echo letters on graves and also the lost letters, or the lost senders of letters, which you mention in other poems. This is the music. This is the ringing of the “golden bones of the motherland”, a motherland = poetry.
So my question is tiny and maybe very idiosyncratic, and I might be totally off – are fairy tales and folk tales part of your poetic upbringing? I ask because there is a fairy tale complex called “the singing bone” which I’ve been privately obsessed with since reading, as a child, what was probably the Afanasjev version. It’s also called the Bone Flute. The pattern is: Sibling slays sibling in the woods and buries the body, from the grave grows a reed which a shepherd makes into a flute – a flute that sings the truth of the murder. What I relate to is not the idea that poetry sings the truth (a concept I distrust and wholly disagree with because it often confuses truth with transparency and poetry with a need to get through – through to what? to whom? in whose language? on whose terms?), but rather the figuration of trauma being uttered through a delayed, displaced, estranged agency. And through music. Through poetry. Through something that has no place. Can you relate to that at all?

VM: Fairy tales, absolutely, as a place where what you say, how, when, and to whom matters, where the least common-sense language is the more power it possesses, where you have to “go there, you don’t know where” and fetch “that, you don’t know what.” Fairy tales are full of various forgettings: a spell-word, an ingredient, or an object (a shoe!) are forgotten, left behind. Often, a warning is forgotten: the most important thing to say is forgotten to be said. Fairy tales are built on circles of repetitions (first he went to the bronze house, then to the silver house, then to the golden house), animals and trees possess key pieces of knowledge without which a human character cannot achieve their destiny. Trees are witnesses to life and when necessary, they speak. Any ordinary thing or object – an apple, a crow, a hat, a fence, a house, a needle, a cat, a shoe, a coat, a bed – can be imbued with mystical, extraordinary powers. Often, these objects are connected directly to humans: somebody life is accessible – to harm or to help – through an object, a bird, a tree. Everything appears to be connected in unexpected – poetic – ways. And a character in a fairy tale is often a character who goes and does exactly what is forbidden to do. Open any door, except for this small door – and immediately she goes and opens that small door. Pick any flower, except for this one red flower – and she goes and picks the forbidden flower. That’s what Eve does too in the biblical story about Paradise, but there’s a serpent there guiding her to trespass. Having been brought up in an atheist culture, on fairy tales, I think that there was no serpent. Dozens of fairy tale women before Eve had done the forbidden thing without anybody tempting them. They do it without much hesitation, it’s never a moral or ethical choice. Once something is forbidden, we know that this is exactly what our character is going to do. Because something is marked as forbidden, somebody has to go and do it. That’s the only “morality”: break the law. This is why, early in my book, the poet pledges her allegiance to Antigone. It’s not a reference to antique drama. It’s an invitation into the space of a fairy tale. A family lineage is not just wiped out by violent history, it’s forgotten, and the poet is looking around in search for hints, for information imbued in the light on the wall, in the curtains, in the shape of things. In a country where witnesses don’t survive to tell their tale, where survivors are mute, silenced, it is the landscape – linden trees, apple trees – that give testimony. Since when I could remember myself, I always felt the glance of trees on me, a glance burdened with what has been witnessed and now has to be kept in the branches, just above the ground, without a way of unburdening. It is a horrible destiny: to be a witness to human cruelty. In Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War,” one woman talks about the site of a village massacre and horses that stand among the corpses. The speaker says something to the extent of “How could somebody do such a thing in front of horses?” Or, a line from a Russian writer Gennady Gor comes to mind, from his poem written in the sieged Leningrad: “a raven looked down… at how slowly this human was eating that human.” What does me mean to be a human not in the face of each other (how important it is for us to keep appearances in the face of each other!) but in the face of animals, in the face of trees? As we move through this unclear beginning of the 21st century, this ecological question is as relevant is ever; new to some but, in fact, not new at all. Particularly not new to the readers of fairy tales.
Today – as I write this part of our conversation – is April 26th, the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. I was a toddler when Chernobyl happened, the age of fairy tales. And suddenly, fairy tales became reality. Adults talked about monsters – monster-humans and monster-animals, about poisonous apples, poisonous water, about invisible poison that was in everything, so nothing was as it seemed. Everything around us was imbued with mystical power. To talk about Chernobyl, adults used the language of war, but I, a child, saw it as a frightening fairy tale, real and true. The book is full of speaking trees, screaming purses, bones, teeth. Also, metaphors. A metaphor for me is a space of metamorphosis that brings together the spell of fairy tales with the “nothing is what it seems” of Chernobyl.

UW: I really appreciate your thoughts on fairy tales as linked to silence, testimony, and knowledge voiced by speaking trees and things. Speaking and resisting. Breaking the rules. Red threads also come to mind, Philomele’s subversive stitching, the red-and white embroidery of contemporary Belarusian artist Rufina Bazlova who turns folklore into resistance. And metaphor, yes! It’s chilling to have this conversation with you in this very moment of the anniversary of Chernobyl. Radiation is a recurring motif in your poems. It is at once a real memory of the “invisible poison”, but also a vivid metaphor for the ghost language of the lost and silenced dead that seeps through (onto?) everything. In Nocturne for a Moving Train you write: “Radiation, an etymology of soil / directed into the future, prepared / a thesis on the new origins of old roots, / on secret, disfiguring missions of misspellings”. This is an instance where metaphor releases what poet and translator Joyelle McSweeney in an interview called the “dark energy” of relations that are “double but not binary”: “metaphor, simile, which American poetry moralists seem to frequently abjure, is another one of these relations—the two entities in the comparison are-and-are-not each other, and this undecidability, this impossible doubleness and supersaturation, releases the delicious dark energy which may not agree to apply itself to conventional ethical or aesthetic aims.” I thought this was brilliant, and very true for your poetry. Translation is another one of those supersaturated relations where a “would-be binary” collapses.
You are a multilingual poet and translator and you compose your poems both (simultaneously) in Belarussian and in English. I was wondering, in the context of our conversation, how your relation to metaphor is shaped by this bilingual poetic practice and by your rich background of multiple poetic traditions – Russian, Belarussian, American English? And we could perhaps also mention that your linguistic origins lie in a language that is sort of doubled, because you grew up speaking the Russian-Belarusian mixed language “Transianka” as a child?
(Right after I wrote this question, I read your translations of Julia Cimafiejeva’s poems on language published on the multilingual web-magazine Specimen. They articulate a relationship to the mother tongue that is fraught with doubt, estrangement, even linguistic exile as the only way to speak (You gave me life
/ and I opened inside it a school / of foreign languages.“ – Mother Tongue). And I find a striking metaphor in the poem titled I Read a Poem in a Foreign Language:

A woman partisan is a strange image
I don’t like war but
on the territory of a foreign language
I am a melancholy spy
I have to steal a secret
of these strange hills
under the cover of mist
So that later, I could sit down at a rest stop
and write
the script-mist
of my own poetry

Do you ever feel like a language spy or partisan when you write? And which – after many years living, writing and teaching poetry in the United States – would be your foreign one, if any, English or Belarussian?)

VM: And indeed, a metaphor. “Double but not binary,” that’s an important formulation to remember. I’m a poet of metaphor, while a metaphor is often seen as an unnecessary flight of fancy, “the wizardry of words” that Czesław Miłosz rejects. Polish poetic tradition is my true home and Wisława Szymborska’s directive to write “with ordinary words on ordinary paper” is what I aspire to when I write. Yet, I come from a reality in which nothing is ordinary. A kitschy Christmas gnome in the window is called “an individual piquet.” The owner is visited by police and has to pay a fine. A white empty LG box on the balcony is seen as an anti-governmental protest. A woman is detained for walking on the street with flowers. Belarusian police see flowers as a political metaphor. Belarusian police searches cities and villages for political metaphors, arrest people who wear white and red colors. A special committee formed by the National Academy of Science makes a statement that white and red color combination in interiors, clothing, gardens and wherever else, is not theoretically illegal.
What is often perceived as metaphor in my work is not, for me, a literary device. It is an ordinary representation of an extraordinary reality in which nothing is what it seems – nothing is what it should be – nothing is what it can be.
Children know this. I know it because I was a child like that: any one thing could be anything. Nothing is set in its one meaning, one use. As a child I played with books: sometimes books were my pets, sometimes books were my dolls, sometimes books were building blocks. A leaf or a stone picked up on the way from school had endless potential for play. For a poet, a word is not solidified in a set of dictionary meanings. A word’s potential to mean is endless. A Belarusian journalist Yulia Slutskaya writes from jail that an empty matchbox can be used as a sugar spoon (the detained aren’t given utensils between meals). Or, that one could make instant porridge inside a soap dish. Recently released Hanna Barushka recalls women making a mattress out of menstrual pads (the detained aren’t given mattresses). This is how poets think and how children play: anything can transform into anything else; a metaphor. There’s no fancy here; a metaphor is a method of survival.
Writing in English and Belarusian, for me, is a survival game in which one language is used in order to speak the other. So no, I don’t see myself as a spy (Julia and I discussed this metaphor at length when I showed her my translation, but there is no space in this interview to go into details). I see myself as a schizophrenic who speaks English thinking that she speak Belarusian, and Belarusian thinking that she speaks English. Czesław Miłosz complained that the popularity of Polish poets in English led to some American poets writing as if they were writing in translation, from Polish. My English is the English of a foreigner. I invent my own English. It helps me a great deal that the poetic tradition closest to my heart – Polish – is not only well-translated and available in English, but it has also seeped into the English of American poets. My Belarusian is a learned – often passively, through radio – language. My Russian is the Russian of a Belarusian Russian-speaker. My grandmother spoke “trasianka,” a pidgin of Belarusian, Polish and Russian. My mother often speaks it too. It was and remains the language of our home. No amount of embarrassment, correction and calls for “literary purity,” changed that. Trasianka is who I am. My people (family, not nation) don’t know whether they are Polish, Belarusian, or Russian. It is a colonial condition that imposes cultural and linguistic schizophrenia. It is a condition of imposed and self-imposed invisibility which requires a language of its own, the kind that moves – slantly, as Emily Dickinson tells us – across established linguistic orders. Just clear enough to be understood by many; just strange enough to indicate separateness. My Belarusian language is the Belarusian I invented for my poetry.
You are yourself a multilingual poet living in translation. Would you say a few words about translation in your poetic life and the translation of our book in particular?

UW: What connects our poetic and translatory and ‘translantic’ trajectories – different though they may be – is the idea that to write poetry is to approach language as a foreigner. Maybe one could call it the Trasianka trajectory. That writing entails not only the initial encounter of the respective language as something foreign but multiple. And the will to invent one’s own language in order to make this foreignness – and by that I don’t mean a distinctive ‘other’ but rather the humane condition of mixture, gibberish, stuttering, multitude – palpable and not subject to erasure. Even though I write mainly in the language I was raised with, German, I approach it with translational procedures, the dizzying eye of similarity and illegitimate conduits to other languages in order to destabilize meaning and the monolingual habitus we inherited from 19th century national narratives. Wandering errands. Errant trajectories. Russian was my second language which I began learning as a 10-year-old – my parents had studied in the Soviet Union and continued using Russian words into our daily lives. My first encounter with translation was a workshop with young Polish poets. After that I studied Polish and lived in Poland for a while, writing poems that entered the “awakening room” of shared Polish and (East-) German history. Living in New York, on the other hand, has led me to experiment with English and German ‘false friends’ and writing procedures that would allow me to playfully question the hegemonic authority of both languages, their colonial and historical dimensions.
I’ve come to understand that my foreignizing desire is deeply connected to the recognition that decades of troubling (and doubling) historical experiences, of violent continuities in East Germany and in my family have largely been dissociated from and kept in gigantic emotional freezers. A metaphor, yes, borrowed from writer and activist Ines Geipel. Decades of dissociative affects. Part suffering, part survival. Part martyr, part party. Frozen into silent reservoirs which lie threateningly under and amid the present. None of this is comparable to the experience of growing up in Belarus, or of the horrifying totalitarian repression of the present, but when you write of an “extraordinary reality in which nothing is what it seems – nothing is what it should be – nothing is what it can be”, I can definitely relate.
And so, my translational practice spans between East and West, between English poetry and Slavic poetry (which I translate collaboratively with other people). In my mind the poets I translate (for example, Erin Moure, NourbeSe Philip, Eugene Ostashevsky) form an imaginary community writing in what Sarah Dowling in Translingual Poetics has described as “poetry that is self-consciously situated between languages and that attends to the complex processes of domination and refusal that can be observed and interpreted from the discursive context of each.” It’s important for me to point out that this kind translingual poetics, though it might have undergone translational transitions, ultimately resists translational equivalency. And that, though it originates in a pre- or post-monolingual linguistic realm, is not necessarily multilingual on the surface. And that, though it is local and contextual in the way it positions power relations between languages, bears at heart a shared movement (mova?) defying, like you say, linguistic purity. And so I’m drawn to your English and Belarusian poems precisely because they ‘originate’ in a linguistic contact zone and poetic memory named Trasianka. (And for many other reasons.) The same way I’m drawn to the Polish poetry of Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki because his poems reflecting the violent and schizophrenic contact zone between Poland and Ukraine “originate” in the Chachlackian language. (Originate as in … a carrier bag of origins.)
I write all this not to take away space from your interview but to explain why, when I translated your poems into German (half of the book from English, while Katharina translated the other half from your Belarusian manuscript), I translate them from – and into – this linguistic, historical, emotional contact zone. It’s physical. It touches my memory. It speaks future. It’s the singing bone, doubled, tripled. My antennas vibrate when your English scratches the rules of grammar from within, with Russian and Belarusian in mind – for example, no definite article, for example, syntax. I try to retain this “slantedness” and what I perceive as a calculated harshness, in German. My antennas also vibrate when I sense that vowels and consonants seem to stitch echo patterns into English which are not in line with a certain economy of plain English. Even though they are, as you write above, “clear enough to be understood by many”. I translate the English, and I try to translate the singing bone. I read the English, and I read the stitches. And, in the stitches, I think I also read the holes or wounds opening the conduits of circulating memory, of voices that touch us both. The music of your poems.

VM: Music is what makes it possible for me to forget to worry about languages. In the end, it is music that I want to make. A feeling, an emotion, a tension, not a story. And to make this music, I’m ready to break and burn all the linguistic material available to me: music – like our “war victory” – by any means necessary. I will burn all of these languages to keep the fire of my music going.

Valzhyna Mort is part of Weltklang – Night of Poetry