This is a 'Review' of the PEN Presents: A Reading in Solidarity with the Belarusian People, which featured eight orators speaking a range of both self-written and pre-written poetry, as well as formal literature which revolved around Belarusian freedom, grievances, and experiences of many different kinds. The link for the event can be viewed here.
Poetry has the ability to make intangible, psycho-somatic remembrances inhabit physical space to such an extent that, even through Zoom, a listener can perceive the frightful tremors of the exact temporal moment being described. Robert Caroll explains this phenomenon, “It is in times of extremity that we long to find words or hear another human voice letting us know we are not alone,” and the virtual success of PEN’s ‘A READING IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE BELARUSIAN PEOPLE’ was facilitated by this web-based, symbiotic connection. Those without first-hand experience of the now two-month ongoing conflict in Belarus, that being the people’s total rebellion against their 26-year dictator Alexander ‘Sasha’ Lukashenko, were ushered into a distressingly, inescapable reality, for me in Michigan, some 4,613 miles away. The Belarusian demonstrations, if nothing else, have shown the International community that no matter how ‘foreign’ a conflict may feel to those elsewhere or how spatially detached one may be from Belarus, the foundational desire for autonomy of mind and body is fundamental, not only to human nature but to the preservation of the evolution of man. For without the freedom to choose, to say no, and to oppose, what are we left as? Animals expected to drink, with our eyes closed, the poisoned nectar of our handlers.
PEN presented eight speakers, a somatically diverse group of deeply passionate individuals who, despite the virtual format, intoned the predicament of the Soviet false-Renaissance, a debilitated drive to hope, the conscious fight to avoid ‘Total sluggishness and indifference to being’, the recollection of an empathetic historian, the cry of a generation unfamiliar to protest, alarming anti-nostalgia, the rebellion against the ‘great unspoken arrangement,’ and finally those incredibly barbaric words, unfit for auditory consumption, ‘I want my body back.’ The first speaker was The New Yorker Staff Writer Masha Gessen, who presented a passage from Svetlana Alexievich’s second novel, ‘Secondhand Time.’ PEN made a wise choice starting with Masha, as her excerpt felt less like an external reading, and more like a contemporary observation of the American framework, ‘Everything Soviet is back in style.’ In an assertive, measured, low-pitched tone, Masha depicts a world infatuated with Sovietism, Gulags are theme parks, and Stalin, a venerated Icon. Svetlana is right, the future isn’t where it should be, and I suspect even Nietzsche would be abhorred. Following Masha was Valzhyna Mort who read ‘To Antigone, a Dispatch.’ and Part 12 of ‘Attempt to Genealogy.’ Taking an ontological approach to her Belarusian identity, Valzhyna expresses the act of an attempted, honorable burying of a loved one who has died at the hands of the police. Her quiet interlocutor, Antigone, grimly accompanies Valzhyna through the preparing, mourning, burying, and cleaning process, her own felo-de-se stinging Creon's air, reminding Valzhyna that this death is not for naught.
Tatsiana Zamirovskaya followed, her small stature contrasting death's consumptive presence, although only mitigating its effect without removing the dark sensation. She recited an excerpt from a work in progress about a Belarusian-American citizen who rejects his Belarusian identity, touching upon complicated issues of linguistic ephemerality and translational disjunctions. She mentioned ‘ahulnaya mliavasts i abyakavasts da zhytsy,’ a subsidiary of the term ‘pamiarkounasts’ meaning moderation of temperament a.k.a total conformism. But the Belarusian people refuse to conform and accept tyrannism any longer, a vow of ideological acceptance taken because of the empty promises of stability and restrictive, totalitarian policy. President of PEN America Jennifer Egan came next, and her background served to only highlight her sagacious nature, made palpable because of her constant eye-contact and utter resistance to the ‘electronic wall,’ peering right into every listener as she spoke. She recited a passage from ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich, which explained Svetlana’s methodological approach to history. She doesn’t write about war or its form, rather the occupant