REVIEW: Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort

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by Ansley Clark

Suffering is deeply rooted in the body. As is forgiveness. “It is all about the release of weight,” Valzhyna Mort tells us, in her poem “Sylt II.” In her second collection of poetry, Mort sets up binaries such as this, alternating her poetic moments between suffering and forgiveness, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, beauty and the grotesque.

Born in Minsk, Belarus, Mort is widely known and praised in the international poetry world and is especially known for her dynamic reading style and voice. Collected Body features a multitude of these voices, narratives that are both subtly connected and disconnected through both lineated poems and longer prose pieces. In “Zhenya,” one of the book’s two prose pieces, Mort offers us an old opera house: “Its massive porous building, a worn-out white sponge, absorbs the damp air of the dark park…The fire of raindrops sores the bullet cavities on the walls” (44). Just a few pages later, Mort describes a family member’s country garden: “All those years of the unmatched harvests of marbled plums, white apples, birch syrup, and raspberries we used to wear as thimbles” (51). In rich, detailed language, Mort creates a world that does not shy away from any subject, describing abundance just as thoroughly as scarcity.

One of the most wonderful parts of Collected Body is the burning energy it exudes. This energy is yet another of the book’s binaries; Mort creates a sharp tension between the burning of shame and self-loathing, and the brighter burning of the need to escape this shame, of self-forgiveness. The shorter, slightly quieter poem “Guess Who” contains a perfect example of this binary. The poem opens with “i [sic] found healing” and then responds a few lines later with “should I be ashamed of myself?” (42) Here is a women’s body, self-doubting, but trying to spin itself upwards out of the flames

Part of this shame and self-loathing comes from sexual violence and oppression, two subjects which the book returns to again and again. In her poem “Utopia,” Mort writes:

and again the moon hangs like a white cocoon
so that at dawn a red moth will open its wings
and come down to the brook
and our men try to subdue it
they jump on its back
like overripe plums falling from trees
to tame the horse of the planet
and then with their lips dry from thirst
they rush to our mouths
and through them
they pull out our hearts
like buckets full of cold water
out of wells
and then they let them fall down with a roar
and this is why our hearts ache (40)

In a watery cascade of lines, Mort allows her images to bleed into one another and transform themselves as they fall down the page: first, a moth, then the violence of the men, falling plums, a wild horse, and women’s bodies, suffering. This is a suffering caught between a country’s political violence and its struggle to rebuild itself. And this political violence and struggle to rebuild is etched across women’s bodies. In her prose piece “Aunt Anna, Mort writes, “To which does motherhood in M. belong? Sanctity or disturbance; milk or manure? Mothering a child into a country unfit for history…” (19)

Similarly, while political suffering is expressed through women’s bodies, women’s bodies are also expressed through the landscape. Mort writes, “nipples of corn were getting harder and darker” (17) and “the flock of M’s gardens shrunken by perspective into a single bush, as if it were the pubes of a woman, lying flat on her back, naked” (16). Thus, Collected Body carries several implications: the political body of a country, women’s bodies, men’s bodies—giving and receiving violence, the body of the landscape, scarred. And finally, the connections and disconnections between all of these different bodies, the ways in which these bodies nourish and destroy one another.

It is the tension between these collected bodies, as well as between the book’s many binaries, where Collected Body’s speaker balances on a thin and shimmering thread. While this speaker alternates between positions of strength and weakness, the book ends with the speaker in a position of power over a man’s body: “Here he lies on his stomach­ ­– /the gap between his ass and his thighs/forms a perfect black diamond” (60). In this moment, at least, the speaker finds a position of power, a strong foothold on the wobbling thread.

Collected Body is available from Copper Canyon Press

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Ansley Clark is currently an MFA candidate at University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. Her poems have appeared in Smoking Glue Gun, BODY, Spork, and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and Berkeley Poetry Review.

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