Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort review – a bright new voice from an endless winter

This exceptional collection from the Belarus-born poet digs into what happens when the self goes missing in an authoritarian regime

Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus, moved to the US in 2005 and now teaches at Cornell University. She speaks three languages: English, Belarusian and Russian and wrote Music for the Dead and Resurrected in Belarusian and English versions. She recently claimed in an interview not to be at home in any of her languages, but reading the English poems, I find this hard to believe. I read her exceptional collection with the excitement you feel on encountering a poised new voice. The opening pieces each contain the words “Self-Portrait” in their titles but this collection is more about what happens when the self goes missing, buried beneath the Minsk snow that falls in poem after poem, muffled by a regime in which it is not safe to speak.

The opening prose poem begins: “I grew up in a microregion of apartment blocks on the south-western edge of the capital city in a provincial Soviet republic…” The sentence continues at length, enjoying its own bulk, and the second begins: “A long sentence, yes, but so was my apartment building, stretching for two bus stops, twelve entrances long and eleven floors high.” Her humour proves a wild and winning card in the pack. She goes on to describe, deadpan, the grim view from the family apartment on to the state dental clinic below and blood on the snow (an image that takes in more than dental trauma).

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