Out of reverence for the body’s irreducibility, Mort’s keeps strictly close to the phenomenal world, thereby freeing her imagination to honor all the body’s modes: five-fold sensuality, hunger as well as lust, youth and aging, selfishness and tender community.
Collected Body, Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort’s second book, and her first originally in English, demands loyalty to passion over prudence, to lavish flaws over stingy perfection.
As the title suggests, the book takes the body as its subject, but avoids any neurotic “body as text” prevarications or taboo-busting sex hooliganism. Out of reverence for the body’s irreducibility, Mort’s keeps strictly close to the phenomenal world, thereby freeing her imagination to honor all the body’s modes: five-fold sensuality, hunger as well as lust, youth and aging, selfishness and tender community. Sexuality indeed abounds, unabashed and delicious, but as only one case of a heightened, besotted relationship with the world.
The book’s heart is a blue house in the Belarusian village of M., the setting for “Aunt Anna,” a poem that overflows into prose memoir. “Aunt Anna” traces the rural lives of the speaker’s grandmother, great-grandmother Yusefa, and Aunt Anna, Yusefa’s sister-in-law, through twentieth century calamities. But images and characters from the blue house in M. creep into other poems as well, knitting them—organically, without exposition or explanation—into an expansive universe. Readers will have no choice but to reread the opening poems.
But meandering in retrospect, Mort says, is memory’s way, and life’s. If nobody foretold the importance of the blue house in M., and if Aunt Anna can walk back from Siberia—twice!—why should the reader be exempt? Rarely is readerly experience so cannily shaped by form.
Along this winding path, Mort’s succulent, virtuosic imagery provides the sustenance:
My body, like an inaccurate cashier, adds your weight to itself.
Her pussy reaches up and turns on the light in her womb.
stars sucked the moist belly of the sky.
Blood rolled out of bodies like a red rug for the fire to walk on.
[The cold] prefers the flatbreads of fish bodies to the curves of animals.
Mort’s metaphors aim wholly to evoke, not at abstract argument or metaphysics. But without some external test, pure imagery curdles into solipsism, and openness to the world, into claims of ownership: the pathetic fallacy. The motifs Mort chooses—sea, city, and land—run the greatest risk, for once made into metaphorical bodies, their vastness and variousness can be coerced into any desired fantasy of meaning.
Discipline, attention, and humility are Mort’s protection. In “Aunt Anna”:
Mort describes the cemetery’s “unseeable” spiritual meaning in terms of sensation (“how brightly lit”) and corporeality (“impossible to raise my eyes”), while remaining aware (that is, ironically unaware) that the light is “the light of [her] memory.” She makes personal experience mean as much as she possibly can—and no more. By honoring this limitation, Mort transforms the genre of memoir into a figure for memory itself, all its meandering, omission, and contradiction.
The other prose poem, “Zhenya,” named for a bullied disabled classmate, addresses solipsism directly. The speaker’s boyfriend “looks for the same woman in many women,” while she seeks “many men in one” they elude each other along the way. Love is diagnosed as a self-serving bid for immortality. Meanwhile, a classroom scene of Zhenya’s humiliation haunts the speaker:
Stepping into a shower, I have often fallen into a trap of doubt — is it indeed a shower cabin or, possibly, a desk in my classroom? What if I were standing like that, naked, bloated, and sweaty, on top of my desk during grammar class, reaching for the ceiling lamp, confusing light with water, laughter with the sound of water hitting my body?
This derangement captures poetry’s peril: runaway metaphors multiplying out to infinity, psychosis holding sway when anything can stand for anything else. The blue house in M. offers the remedy: the discovery that gardens, people, bodies, and lovers change according to their own lights, unexpectedly, irreparably, without regard for our ideas about them.
At times the lushness of Mort’s language comes to resemble the overripe pears at the blue house in M., “tasted by no one,” falling to the ground at night and “by the first rooster already rotten.” Even the most arresting images may arrive in paraphrased twins and triplets, pile-ups of parataxis. The sea is, wonderfully, “this polonaise in Gray-flat minor,” and, right away, “this gray flat wing of an injured bird,” literalism flattening the wit. Other times irresistible parentheticals tangle up the syntax. Occasionally, amid this tumult, clichés take root.
Mort knows she is doing this. As she tells us about the blue house in M.:
The garden, disseminated, overgrown, keeps on producing out of its own insanity.
This figure of the garden, coming not long after the pears, exemplifies the body, but also the book, itself a figure for the body, just as the prose memoir form is a figure for memory. And a tidy body is a lie.
Having disavowed the rhetoric of conciseness and the sterile idealism it promises, Mort chooses multiplicity over duplicity. If a metaphor generates beauty from the multiple aptness of its image, Mort, in search of greater beauty, writes to trade unitary images for disparate ones. Indirect seduction profits more than forceful clarity. Or as in “Island,”
My head, thrown back in laughter, has bought me more
than money thrown forward…
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the book’s weakest moments are those where Mort, in allegiance to urgency, abandons vivid perception for passion baldly asserted. But most of the time Mort gets the beauty she wants; the proof is that even amid excess, it’s impossible to decide what to cut.
And so, when considering criticisms of the book—unruly, overgrown, overflowing—that could be made equally of the glorious blue house in M., I halt. Shall I bring plastic roses and a riding mower to the graveyard? Shall I haul the rusty bathtub, “which has no other purpose than catching falling leaves” out for scrap? Without the carpet of rotting pears attracting butterflies, how else could Mort “savor the moist softness of rot and the sharp crackle of the butterfly wings under my bare feet”?
Nevertheless, no matter how intoxicating, poems must transcend themselves. Can the restive perversity of the body find transcendence? Mort hints that it can. The opening poem, “Preface,” dispenses with first-person perspective and instead hums with an omniscient oneness. A beast perches in a tree, and
Now it’s the tree that prowls over the beast,
a cautious beast itself.
But Death’s bad bargains fracture the oneness. The reader must swim through lifetimes’ worth of experience to surface with another perspective, in the final poem, “Island”:
A body strips down all the way to forgiveness
and grants itself before there’s even a reason, unless
it wants to tell the other: I forgive …
As if in recompense for the journey’s convolutedness, Mort’s conclusion arrives, stark and inescapable. As with the people we love, or our own bodies, if Collected Body fails us occasionally—and it does—we must forgive it, because it is so magnificently alive.
The book could end there, but Mort gives us two more stanzas: one last glimpse of a man’s gorgeous ass.