Updated: Oct 20
Ribwort showcases the strength of poetry from a life under violent authoritarianism. Imprisoned for her part in the protests that followed the rigged Belarusian elections of August 2020, Hanna Komar now lives in exile, completing her PhD and publishing her poetry in the United Kingdom. This is her second collection in dual texts of Belarusian and English; if the privilege of hosting a dissident was not already clear, her book is the concluding argument in our support of Belarusian refugees.
The clutch of dark seed-heads, each on its own stalk, at the pathside of towns or parks: Ribwort is a plant you’ll recognise. Less clear in the UK is its role in folk medicine, though the leaves are a more effective remedy for stings than dock. To understand the wound and the recovery in Komar's work, we first need the original self, which the book’s early poems provide. Hanna has spoken of her early propensity for love poetry; she almost describes it as a weakness, given the colossal failure of ideals in the frustrated revolution. Yet they have a tenderness that is necessary to our understanding of Ribwort's later poems. Dublin Night, the book’s first piece, shows us what Komar might have been: a poet of romantic love in the grand tradition of Eastern European writing. Advice, where an old woman clutches dead flowers like marital advice, shows us where this voice might have gone in this golden era of feminist poetry, with Komar’s capacity for both criticism and a certain bleak humour.
That sensitivity is instead outraged by dictatorship, and her readers are led to depictions of prison and exile. The poems lose their easy shape and are cast into different voices; they are given to us in shards. They become like the scattered belongings – deodorants, newspaper crosswords – passed among the inmates of In Our Prison Cell. Before long, even their titles are illegible: 0l*sя /t0г0||а, like a name redacted or scrambled, for all the voices that were silenced in Lukashenko’s crackdown. At times Ribwort abandons words altogether, turning to photographs for symbolism. Komar herself is the subject of these photos, dressed in white but never in full focus, her certainty in language fading out. By the time we reach the book’s closing stages, the poems have left the personal entirely behind: Komar has said that she was unable to write as an ‘I’, only as ‘Belarus’. This destruction of the self is the defence of many survivors of trauma. It is testament to the bravery of Komar’s recovery that the final poem, When it is over, ends with a tentative return to romantic poetry: [the protests and prisons] where we went out at night / rather than making love.
The work of 3TimesRebel Press is also due its praise. Previous to Komar, director Bibiana Mas had never published a book of poems. The funds behind an independent press are like the needle on the fuel dial of a dashboard, surviving in red for as long as you pray. To take the further risk of a book of poems is an act of significant faith. Given the excitement in the readings I have attended in Edinburgh, it’s faith that the author repays.
Komar never turns away, always towards; she is gifted equally in the expression of grief and love, of anger and tenderness, of after and before. A life torn down the centre finds something beautiful in Ribwort – and, we sense as its reader, something almost inadmissible, something of hope. Anyone unsure of the power of poetry in translation should take Ribwort as their remedy.
Ribwort is available to order from 3TimesRebelPress at this link.
As editor of Interpret, James Appleby has published winners of the International Booker Prize, the UK Gold Medal for Poetry, and the US National Book Award. His translations have been featured at individual events at the French Institute of Scotland, and his poetry is published in some of the UK's leading magazines.