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Review: In My Garden of Mutants, by Volha Hapeyeva

Sphinx Review, May 2021

In My Garden of Mutants, Volha Hapeyeva
(translated by Annie Rutherford)
Arc Publications, 2021 £7.00

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, 20 May 2021