In my garden of mutants, Volha Hapeyeva

(translated by Annie Rutherford)Four fifths of the jacket has a black background, but there is a vertical grey stripe to the right of the jacket. All text is in white and set against the black background. A rectangle in the middle holds a detailed graphic, a painting, I think, of a several animal bodies, or one body with several animal features, curled asleep against a soft white material. So we see on top a sleeping lioness, with a stags head where one of her legs might be. There's also a dog perhaps, and a fog, and a rabbit, and one shoulder has the head of a sleeping girl with dark hair. The text features the author's name first in small white sans serif caps. Then the title of the pamphlet over two lines in a bold seriffed font. Below the graphic is the text 'Translated and introduced by Annie Rutherford'. The Arc logo is grey and small in the bottom left hand corner. IN the bottom right hand corner, on the grey stripe, is a black button stating that the publication is 'Winner English Pen Award'.

Arc Publications, 2021 £7.00 (currently £6.30 special offer)

You, me and the duck of joy meet in these poems

As Annie Rutherford’s introduction tells us, Volha Hapeyeva ‘is one of the leading poets on the Belarusian scene’, making the political choice to write in Belarusian throughout the current brutal repression of peaceful protests.

That might make you expect poems that make the reader feel privileged and small. But not so. Many of them sing with wit. And many of the problems that the women in them face are not so very far away or long ago for any of us.

[These are poems mainly without formal titles, so quotations will be referenced by page numbers.]

The pamphlet starts in front of the mirror, the poet’s reflection surely that of the reader (p. 7):

I never thought it this hard to wear a dress
skirt heels necklace
without transforming into a tree at Christmas

‘drink, my girl, drink’ (p. 9) sounds at first like a folk song (‘cow bitter / sage / clover / bay leaf / wild rosemary’) but it soon becomes clear that it’s a series of increasingly desperate prescriptions for home abortion:

plant yourself with onions
grow fir trees or philodendrons inside
poke yourself with horsehair, branches, iron rods
do you remember what happened in the gas chambers — how it all came out at once
it’s like this in the bathtub where the boiling water makes it unbearable to sit 

but still she sits

The escalating fear must be recognisable to almost every woman reading, even those of us lucky enough never to have needed an abortion, let alone lived where such a procedure is unobtainable except through ‘borrowed money’ and ‘a friendly Jane to help’.

I particularly like the poem in praise of women who hold onto life in extremis by ‘holding onto only the air’ (p. 26), full of common reference points (‘liquids were banned on planes’ p. 23).

Also the one of (self-mocking) advice to a friend. Write about ‘the duck who was your joy’ (p. 27), counsels the narrator-poet, and not the ‘black dog’ of ‘solitude’. But the friend is not in the mood to take this advice. They feel they must ‘write a serious thoughtful text’

so me and the duck are left on this side of inconceivable reality
while you and the dog are on the other
and the only place we can all meet
is in this poem

Ramona Herdman

Two is company

If you read these poems in their translated forms, rather than in the original Belarusian (the poems are presented side-by-side in both languages) the relationship between poet and translator feels strong, trustworthy. The reader also feels invited into the relationship; invited to share and enjoy the poems.

Many of which are about relationships. For example, in ‘I never thought it this hard to wear a dress’ (p. 7) Volha Hapeyeva explores the relationship with herself:

before the mirror in the hallway
I use my eyes to remember everything we’ve been through
and it looks at me
for today, once again
I am wearing something that doesn’t quite fit

Woven between the intense, sometimes-troubling, relationship with drink and the refrain ‘drink, my girl, drink’, which is also the first line of the poem on page 9, the relationship with emotions is exposed:

but still she sits
shame and despair are always close by
talk her into patience
suggest a thousand options

In the poem on page 13, the reader is told, ‘the heart regenerates / more slowly than other organs / and is never renewed completely’. Might these lines refer to a relationship with matters-of-the-heart as well as to the physical organ?

And when ‘mandatory happiness was being handed out’ (p. 15) the narrator ‘took it home, stuck it in a cupboard / without looking at the instructions’, but (spoiler alert) it ‘turns out / I have to live with it’.

As if tackling the human relationship with happiness is not enough, Volha Hapeyeva then faces the issue of ‘determining the size’ (p. 41), where what needs to be found is

how much space I need for myself
how much for others

That such a big question can be put so simply — in so few words, and via a translator — is what makes this collection a joy to read: a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable joy, but a joy nonetheless.

Page after page, poet and translator seem present to just the right degree, reassuring but not intruding, wanting and willing to share.

Three is definitely not a crowd.

Sue Butler