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Review: In My Garden of Mutants, by Volha Hapeyeva

Sphinx Review, May 2021

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, 20 May 2021