In large part, this book is the speaker’s desperate attempt to reconstruct her family’s history, pulling its various characters together as best as she can, with little more than her own subjective experience to guide her recreation.
Collected Body is the first book Valzhyna Mort has written in English. It is a rich and complex tapestry of characters and their memories, histories, and—most importantly—their personal stories, which often take on mythical elements as they proceed on their shared journey of survival and transformation. On this journey, all are united by their various flaws as they resist death, which, worse than the end of life, threatens to extinguish the memory of their individual and collective human existence.
Reminiscent of works by Glück and Carson (but far from derivative), Collected Body serves as a record that is conceivably, but not certainly, autobiographical, given Mort’s own life, growing up in Belarus and writing in various residencies throughout Europe and the United States. Through her tightly constructed and original language, and her inspired recreation of familiar mythology, Mort attempts to resist the scourge of forgetting and to achieve immortality for her characters as well as for herself. Mort populates the world of Collected Body with a wide array of characters. She quickly and often shifts her speaker’s focus from one figure to the next, trying to incorporate as many individuals as possible into this record.
From her poems, the reader gets the sense that Mort does not want to leave anyone out. However, there are natural limits to storytelling, and omissions are inevitable. Near the end of the first of two extended prose poems, “Aunt Anna,” the speaker (or is it Mort?) is chastised by her grandmother for one such omission:
“A poem named after Aunt Anna, pages about Aunt Anna, and not one word about Boleska” – the clock on the wall sounds like a leaking faucet, drop after drop measured with striking precision. The journey made by your voice is as long as the journey of light. (Boleska, if you are reading this, please find me, everybody is dead.)
This metapoetic moment allows Mort to include the character of Boleska, and hint at her importance, without giving the reader any real information about her (or him—even the gender is ambiguous, at least to an English speaker). But while Mort presents little hard fact about Boleska, the reader gleans more information about the speaker and her family. For example, the speaker is one of its few remaining members—or possibly its last—suggesting this tale is told in retrospect. Death has already created a distance between the speaker and her family members, and that distance seems to grow with each passing second.
In large part, this book is the speaker’s desperate attempt to reconstruct her family’s history, pulling its various characters together as best as she can, with little more than her own subjective experience to guide her recreation. But Mort is certain about one aspect of her storytelling—she emphasizes that the characters’ lives gain greater significance in relation to one another, and together they create a picture that is as simultaneously violent, sexual, innocent, beautiful, and deeply flawed as the world we live in. Mort’s speaker sees her own interior reflected in the exterior flaws of others, particularly the eponymous handicapped character of the book’s second prose poem “Zhenya”: “It is we who, after years of the same image gushing at us through mirrors, windows, and water, are finally pushed to reflect Zhenya in our own distorted ways.”
Significantly, Zhenya also reflects the flaws in the speaker’s own family, where mobility, both physical and social, has often been impeded by “defect”—limping on a bad leg, the restraint of silence, being born a woman. Despite these acknowledged impediments, Mort’s characters travel constantly, and throughout Collected Body journey is an essential agent of change and growth. This seems to reflect Mort’s own life experience—traveling from Belarus to the North Sea island of Sylt and eventually to the United States, where, at the time of this review, she teaches at the University of Baltimore—further blurring the lines between the writer and the speaker. The nomadic theme begins early in the book, in the bygone Eastern Europe of “Aunt Anna,” as characters marry, flee, and seek survival, education, and their families. Mort writes:
Yusefa’s feet would launch thousands of miles of walking in our family. In her short life she walked from P. to M. to visit her own mother so many times, that the only thing left for her daughter was to become a limping invalid.
While the poem is named for Aunt Anna, the sister-in-law Yusefa dominates much of the story along with her unnamed daughter, the speaker’s grandmother. Despite the recurrence of characters and settings throughout the book, the pronouns often shift, at times without warning, leaving the reader in a state of slight disorientation and questioning, who is “you” again? “You” in relation to Yadzenka? The speaker in relation to Zhenya? The speaker in relation to the woman in the blue house? Mort’s speaker references so many characters that it is easy to confuse the familial stories and relationships, particularly in “Aunt Anna” where the speaker is often far removed from the characters in time if not in space, perhaps relying heavily on second-hand memories and speculation. Some characters are only mentioned once or twice, and some never by name but simply by relationship. Even place names—M. and P.—are ambiguous, refusing to provide any specific geographic or cultural context.
The ambiguities, however, reflect Mort’s intent to recognize and embrace shared human flaws, and they provide opportunities to embellish the characters’ stories, adding greater significance. At one point in “Aunt Anna,” the speaker herself questions the details of her grandmother’s birth, filling in the gaps with strong, unusual epithets and elaborating with violent images of domesticity: “Your mother keened with her squirrel hands at her face. Or maybe I’m retelling it wrong. Maybe those were not the squirrel hands that she had, but two front squirrel teeth: the tooth of good and the tooth of evil. She bit them through you, threaded a needle through the bites, and sewed you to that soil like a button. And so that you didn’t have any doubts, she threw over your head – a noose.” Mort’s speaker considers her grandmother’s female birth on par with a death, illustrating the scene with violent, domestic, and agrarian images of sewing and soil. The speaker laments the inevitability of motherhood for her female ancestors, while making the reader a witness to her own gradual journey away from that fate.
The speaker’s path clearly diverges from traditional expectations in “Zhenya,” as she pursues an education at the university and a romantic relationship outside the confines of marriage. Mort tends to focus on female characters and themes of womanhood in Collected Body, relegating her male characters to supporting roles. But to Mort’s feminist credibility (whether she desires it or not), the male characters are certainly not neglected or stereotyped; she doesn’t draw a line between the sexes where virtue and vice are concerned. After all, Collected Body is about unification rather than division.
For much of the book, survival supersedes all other concerns as characters bind together, fighting off death. In a moment from “Aunt Anna,” the speaker’s grandmother and two of her great uncles flee from an orphanage:
… the three of you took off your shoulders the long sleeves of the orphanage corridors, the pleated skirts of its silent staircases, the worn-out collars of its windowsills – left all of this to the sleep of the children whose chests moved up and down in breathing meant not for living but only to fan away hunger. Death, like a spoiled child to whom nobody ever said “no,” was already licking the cream off their sleeping lives, leaving behind the bland crust of their bodies.
Death is the common, wolfish enemy that unites all of Mort’s characters, threatening not only their existence but the memory of their existence. The speaker’s orphaned ancestors choose to leave the orphanage and its other starving and forgotten children behind, as they seek survival with their remaining relatives. Mort spreads suffering freely over her characters, and she is not interested in excluding anyone from social, political, and cultural misfortune. As Mort’s characters grow, change, die, and decay, the interconnected threads of the tapestry become more crucial.
In another metapoetic instant of the book, from “Zhenya,” the speaker addresses her boyfriend, and the voice might just as well be Mort addressing her reader:
What is love if not a need for a beholder, a witness; if not the possibility to be immortalized in the story of another person? The insect caught in a drop of amber knew what it was doing. Neither helper nor bystander. Your blood runs like a tape of an implanted recorder. You are my plan for immortality. The audience for my privacy. I’m molding you into a gravestone of all the words and images of myself I won’t be able to sustain forever.
This passage acknowledges the human (and insect!) desire to be remembered and, more pointedly, the writer’s quest for immortality, even if it means reshaping the memories of family and friends to achieve those ends. And yet, Collected Body is far from an exercise in narcissism. Mort realizes if she failed to intertwine her characters’ lives, effectively they would cease to exist. In writing this book, she breathes new life into time-worn aunts, drowned great-grandfathers, lost children, and debilitated companions. If the speaker is the insect on a kamikaze mission towards the sappy tree branch, then Mort is the amber, the means of preserving her history. Telling these stories, the speaker (and by proxy Mort) intertwines her own existence, and her family’s existence, with that of her audience.
Indeed, after reading Mort’s book, it’s doubtful that any reader would be able to forget her unique structure, style, and imagery. The unusual structure employs many frames—several free verse poems frame and separate two extended prose poems. At times, the speaker’s story frames the stories of others. At other times, the stories of others frame the speaker’s story. These shifts in focus and the interplay of stories reinforce Mort’s themes of interconnectedness and unity. All the while, Mort stuns her readers, re-imagining the world, its histories and myths, with unexpected language and imagery. In this world, “death mews,” “cows howl,” and “accordions grin at dismembered violin torsos.” In this world, Mort is a god, planting many new Gardens of Eden and breathing life into new Adams and Eves. She writes in “Zhenya”:
He shakes the trees and you and I dive underneath and collect the plums into plastic buckets. He shakes again, and a purple night falls over our heads. I try to keep my eyes open to distinguish your figure bent beneath the trees. We take the darkness apart, one plum at a time, exhaling loudly like men saved from drowning. And he shakes the trees again and again. Night and day, night and day, night and day. When we finally emerge, with our buckets full, five years have passed.
If Mort’s characters do not live by the dogma of an Abrahamic religion, they live by the mythology. Images of fruit, gardens, light, and darkness dominate their lives. And while the biblical darkness that surrounds them is inevitable, it is not inescapable—in a way it even provides their salvation from the hungry and violent cycles of history. Early in the book, Mort warns the reader of her intent to explore this darkness. In “Mocking Bird Hotel” she writes, “But often to shed light on the darkness, / light isn’t enough. Often what I need is an even darker darkness.” Collected Body is a record of that salvation through darkness, one that readers will gladly perpetuate as they allow themselves to be molded into the gravestones of Mort’s words.
Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort, Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reviewed by L.A. Grove.