A Review of Valzhyna Mort’s Factory of Tears
By J. Hope Stein
When asked why she chose Belarusian as the language for Factory of Tears Valzhyna Mort said she always wanted to be a musician and was able to achieve a certain musicality through the Belarusian language that she couldn’t achieve with the Russian Language. Mort, born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1981, made her American debut in 2008 with a poetry collection Factory of Tears –the only book of poetry to be written in Belarusian with side-by-side English translation—And the musicality translates to English through Mort’s chorus-like lyrics, alternating rhythms and short percussive line breaks. But why does she choose Belarusian, when the language is not expected to survive the next generation?
Belarusian is an Eastern Slavonic language with about 7.5 million speakers in Belarus. In “Bellarussian I” Mort establishes that she is part of a history of Belarusians who have fought in difficult circumstance to keep their language alive.
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
when our eyes were poked out we talked with our hands
when our hands were cut off we conversed with our toes
when we were shot in the legs we nodded our heads for yes
and shook our heads for no and when they ate our heads alive
we crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers
as if into bomb shelters
to be born again
She continues this theme throughout Factory of Tears and culminates with “Belarusian II” where she refers to the fact that part of the vulnerability of the Belarusian language is that no one can agree on a spelling system for the language.
Your language is so small
That it can’t even speak yet
Letting another’s language suck your own milk?!
A bluish language lying on the windowsill—
Is it a language or last year’s hoarfrost?
For Mort, choosing to write in Belarusian is a form of political activism. By physically connecting Belarusian to the English language, Mort has taken action towards keeping Belarusian alive and as she says in “Juveniles” “…no one is going to deny us the city we grew up in.”
Mort was 14 years old when Belarusian lost it’s status as the exclusive language of Belarus. There’s a childlike fearlessness and vulnerability preserved in Factory of Tears which seems to urgently fight against the system that is depriving the survival of the language. Many of the images used in Factory of Tears belong to a child. And almost all her poems use a crayon-like palette of simple primary colors to reinforce imagery. In “Juveniles’ she writes from the perspective of a child “…painting our faces like Easter eggs,” often repeating “ because we are children.”
In “For A.B.” for she writes – Our skin so thin/That veins blued through it/Like lines in school notebooks.” In “White Trash” She writes - “Who is building his joy like a snowman, a dumpling….who is pinching the ass of love.” In one poem Mort uses a multiple choice test to show the thought process of a child trying to logically understand terrorism.
Mort uses “we” and “our” throughout her poems, talking for her generation. In that sense Factory of Tears gives voice to her generation with an urgency. Very early in the book Mort identifies her generation with the fragility and vulnerability of the Belarusian Language– “we discovered we ourselves were the language.”
Mort says that she was so close to her grandmother that it was almost as if her grandmother wrote Factory of Tears. In this sense Factory of Tears is about the survival of Mort’s grandmother and how they saw the world together. In “Grandmother,” she writes “…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.”
Factory of Tears is a document of survival. Survival of Belarusian language, survival of Mort’s Grandmother, survival of Mort’s generation and survival of Mort’s childhood. Mort achieves her music with modern poetics and strong images drawing from a generation’s nostalgia and frustration, childhood references and a grandmother’s insight. The technical musicality of her poems furthers her cause to brand Factory of Tears and Belarusian on its reader.