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I tend to think of poetry as language that hovers near the dead, its music the motor that propels it toward that elsewhere—where language breaks free of the sense that the living require to navigate this world. But in Valzhyna Mort’s “Music Practice,” music’s kinship with the dead is less romantic: less a mode of ancestral communion than a dogged attempt to capture what’s lost and return it to the realm of the living. The poem is addressed to a you—now themselves gone. Clinging to the memory of their father’s song, the you imposed music on the speaker. By the time it reached the speaker, the song—sung by the you’s father between two wars, then held in the you’s mind through a third—“had no music.” Trying furiously to recover the song, the you condemned the speaker to “over thirty-two thousand hours of music / practice,” while “not unlike the Nazis // on your dainty wristwatch, / you meticulously kept track / of my every sitting // subtracted trips to the bathroom.” The child’s music lessons collapse into the experience of a fascistic regime; the song that the you tried to rescue from war is thus ultimately overtaken by it. Still the poem itself sings—not the song it describes, but the bright note of “a toddler, mouth full of gooseberries” who understands nothing of the lost song and the impossibility of recovery: “What could a tongue remember after loss and hunger?” Not in trying to negate the absence, but in existing alongside it, the music of the poem plays, touches its dead. 

– Claire Schwartz

Listen to Valzhyna Mort read “Music Practice.”

Music Practice

In the intermission between 
two wars 
your father sang a song. 

                                            By the time

I heard this song, it had no music.

Patching the lyrics with mmm and
aaa (after the third war you got by 
as a seamstress), you lost the thread 
of melody and pitch.

This song, my daily dose of radiation

or vaccination, without words 
except for off-key mooing, 
                                                except for
low-key bleating, this song 
                                                limping
through the lump in the throat. (My dead,
always peeping-tomming,
always peck-pocketing my small girl brain.)

Should I go ahead and profess 
that in the name 
of that man who played any instrument thrown at him
—a cimbalom, a mandolin, a fiddle—
but ended up quickly killable 
once thrown into a war 
(not even a Great one at that)

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 
practice 
(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).

I had neither ear nor voice for it 
(neither did you, I would add, 
since now you cannot contradict me).

What can a toddler, mouth full of gooseberries, understand 
    about a song? 
What could a tongue remember after loss and hunger?

If I didn’t know how we are made, I’d say 
you had no father at all. 

His song sounds too improbable. 

It goes mmm and aaa 
without melody, without 
music. 

All there is to it 
is your sad face 

that goes mmm and aaa 
to Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninov—


Excerpted from Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Poems by Valzhyna Mort. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Valzhyna Mort. All rights reserved.   

Valzhyna Mort is the author of Factory of Tears and Collected Body. Born in Minsk, Belarus, she writes in English and Belarusian. Her new collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected will be published in November.