Drafted Into Music: A Review of Music for the Dead and Resurrected

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort. FSG, 2020. 112 pages. $25.

Existing in the space of both documentary and theater, Valzhyna Mort’s newest collection of poetry Music for the Dead and Resurrected rides in on the narrow body of a ghostly train. As the scenery—filled with towns, trees, people and ghosts—tears past, Mort carries her reader from image to metaphor, from metaphor to memory to the subjunctive. In the poem “Psalm 18,” the speaker describes

The grave of memory, grave
upon grave of memory: a train of coffin-wagons,
headfirst rushes, headfirst
rushes, rushes, train upon train 
arrives in the earth.

At the next stop: my ghosts, come out, take a breath,
I’d be waiting there. I’d bring
fresh dog rose tea in our Chinese thermos.

History, textuality, and the many gaps and elisions between them, layer Music for the Dead and Resurrected. For example, Mort’s “Psalm 18” shares its name with the Psalm 18 found in the Psalms of David—a psalm of deliverance and triumph—but in Mort’s psalm, the speaker looks directly earthward, praying “to the trees” and “to the wooden meat that never left its roots.” Instead of God as audience and auditor, Mort’s psalm contains the spiritual presence of “Ghosts, my teachers!” The remembered dead crowd the psalm-poem (“In the branches of lindens—breathe, my ghosts”), and in the place of train stops, we have “grave / upon grave.” The musical presence in the poem is both the allusion to “Bach’s fugue, Bach’s silence” and the formal repetitions of “grave” and the train wheels rushing. In a recent interview with Mike Sims at The Poetry Society, Mort discusses the figure of the night train in her Forward Prize-nominated poem, “Nocturne for a Moving Train”:

On the Belarusian border, the train would be lifted up above the ground as the gauge of the track differs from that in Western Europe. In Brest, on the Belarusian-Polish border, international trains hang above the ground for a good hour while, usually in the dark of the night, workers move underneath, changing the wheels. Then, the train can proceed from one history into another. 

This hour of being suspended in the air is otherworldly: not so long ago, the border was firmly shut behind the Iron Curtain and, during my student years of travelling to Poland, it was not just about changing wheels, but about changing dimensions.

I am captivated by the description of the Belarusian train that must have its wheels changed before crossing the border, particularly in connection with Mort—a poet and writer who works linguistically between the borders of English and Belarusian without compromise, and with much labor.¹ The image of the moving train plunging into the grave of memory in “Psalm 18” runs alongside the literal Belarusian trains and history’s tracks of war and violence. The trains of Europe were integral to moving populations, emptying towns, filling camps, but the stops in “Psalm 18” are personal, crowded with voices that the poet remembers and listens for, voices she addresses in the possessive (“my ghosts”) and greets with a thermos of dog rose tea in hand. 

As much as Mort’s new collection is interested in music—particularly music carried, half-remembered but mostly forgotten, through families—at the core of Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a silence that the music rests in like a leaf on water. Jorie Graham, in her craft essay “Some Notes on Silence,” writes of sound as something poets win from silence: 

One can feel the weight of what the language is battling with every expectation of rhythm or rhyme or tone or form that is not met. The poem doesn’t hurry or slow because of whim, after all, but because of what the silence within or without demands, silence from whom it is, in effect, won. Some poets win easily and always. One feels no fight for the poem in the poem. Some put up a powerful struggle. Some often or always lose.

Graham’s adumbration allows Mort’s reader to hear how the music of Mort’s poetry is agonistic and resistant, wrested from historical silence as well as political noise. Observes Mort:

Belarusian history is a history of violence whose witnesses cannot speak for themselves because they didn’t make it out alive. This silence has burdened me since childhood. Since I can remember myself, I’ve always thought that old trees are telling us something. The trees remember and are continuously speaking to us about the violence they’ve witnessed. In [“Nocturne for a Moving Train”] poem, it’s chestnut trees that grow in abundance in the Minsk parks.

The speaking presence of trees featured in Music for the Dead and Resurrected implicates the silence of humans, and the frailty of (and lack of commitment to) the memory of nations regarding war crimes—not only the intentional forgetting of oppressors, but the erased memory of the dead. “How could it be that I’m from this Earth, / yet trees are also from this Earth?” asks the speaker in Mort’s “Psalm 18,” while “Nocturne for a Moving Train” closes “Shhh… / The chestnuts are about to speak.” In “Music for Girl’s Voice and Bison,” a long poem with multiple entwinements in history, music and art, the wild bison or zoobrr becomes—in multiple revisions of Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”—“a sylvan angel of history, / a bison of melancholia, / a black van.” ²

Music, in several forms, adds to the sonic weight of Music for the Dead and Resurrected. “In the intermission between / two wars / your father sang a song,” opens “Music Practice.”³ Intergenerationality, the exchanges that happen between grandparents, parents, and children, hums in the pages of Music for the Dead and Resurrected, and particularly this poem. “By the time / / I heard this song, it had no music,” notes the girl speaker of the father’s song in “Music Practice.” The song becomes “patch[ed]…with mmm and / aaa,” and the speaker uses a sewing metaphor: “you lost the thread / of melody and pitch.” The song, passed from father to daughter and now to the poem’s speaker, leaks power into her “small girl brain,” the song “my daily dose of radiation / / or vaccination.” The metaphors of radiation and vaccination demonstrate how the song the speaker carries is not an inert or even a safe thing, but live as radiation, or a germ. Yet the song draws the speaker to its memory, and to find the notes is an act of self-recovery and historical-spiritual survival:  

I was drafted into music.

Because your sole memory of your father
was a man singing a tune in the gooseberry yard
to a toddler
      who, later,
could remember neither words nor melody,
I had to learn Bach, 
Brahms, Rachmaninov, Haydn, 
               on a red accordion,

I had to put in
over thirty-two thousand hours of music
(not unlike the Nazis,

on your dainty wristwatch,
you meticulously kept track
of my every sitting

subtracted trips to the bathroom
           carried out under your disapproving,
suspecting gaze).

The hanging indentations and the fractured lines mimic continuity and breakages within families: the differences of generations, and yet the way we carry those before us with us. That music is something one might be drafted into, like the young into their parents’ wars, makes the music compelled and yet it represents what is shared within a family. So the speaker, in “Baba Bronya” can describe with dry humor being “test-child exposed to the burning reactor of my grandmother’s memory. In the first decade of my life, I receive a full dose of her—you—pravda [truth] as a daily injection.” 

“What to do about the etymology of us? / Our etymology?” asks the speaker in “An Attempt at Genealogy.” (Mary Ruefle writes, “Every word carries a secret inside itself; it’s called etymology.”) Yet sometimes it is not secrets that inhibit a person’s knowledge of themselves and their family, but a silence growing from (forced) omissions and elisions. “An Attempt at Genealogy” contains twelve sections that sing, shout and whisper together through juxtaposition (Section 11: “The golden bones of my motherland are ringing!”). The poem’s final section shows how deep the ground is that the poet digs in, and how stratified the memory of the body—even when unknown—as it speaks to the Belarusian dead and offers the anaphoric lines “Put your bones into braids of graves…” and “Put your graves into braids of bones…,” closing with the imperative encouragement and instruction:

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

The poet will not forget who has been executed and buried in “our woods, ravines, fields, swamps,” but uses her pen like fingers against a scalp. Thick with history and music, Mort’s new collection is a book to marvel over, to travel with, to parse the lines even as the poet braids them into being. 

 ¹ Mort: “I translate poetry and I write poetry in two languages, Belarusian and English, because it is important for me to remain neither here nor there. Mastering this secret passage between languages, times, and realities is my idea of what it means to be a poetic hermit. It is also a very Belarusian condition. For centuries, Belarusians were supposed to choose between the east and the west, Poland and Russia, king and tsar. Instead, Mort: “I translate poetry and I write poetry in two languages, Belarusian and English, because it is important for me to remain neither here nor there. Mastering this secret passage between languages, times, and realities is my idea of what it means to be a poetic hermit. It is also a very Belarusian condition. For centuries, Belarusians were supposed to choose between the east and the west, Poland and Russia, king and tsar. Instead, we grew self-reliant, moving freely between both traditions.” Interview: Valzhyna Mort – “a spilling voice.” The Poetry Society, 2020.

 ² My emphasis added; “sylvan” meaning associated with trees or woodlands, from the Latin “sylva.”

 ³ There is a resonance here with Ilya Kaminsky’s “Question” poems in Deaf Republic, for example: “What is a child? / A quiet between two bombardments.” Anne Carson writes that how we tell time is particular to who we are and our locality; for both Kaminsky and Mort, war and bombings are marked by the quiets and intermissions on either side.

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