Written in barbed wire : Motherfield : Poems and Belarusian Protest Diary By Julia Cimafiejeva.

I type the town of Sperizh'e into Google Maps. All I see is decontextualized green, so I zoom out until my screen shows a location in southeast Belarus, no more than 30 miles from the Ukrainian border -farcloser to Kyiv than Minsk.

To the immediate left of Sperizhe's is the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve, an enclosed territory created in 1988 to cordon off the land most affected by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Sperizhe's is the hometown of the Belarusian poet Julia Cimafiejeva [born 1982], whose trenchant first collection in English, ''Motherfield,'' is now available. In one of the poems, ''Rocking the Devil,'' Cimafiejeva describes being a schoolgirl waiting for the bus the day after the explosion.

As the acid raindrops begin to fall, she and her sister playfully stick their tongues out to collect them. The trees sway in the storm, she recalls, ''the branches waving to us : 'Farewell!'''

Tongues, Cimafiejeva wants us to understand, have been a matter of life or death in Belarus for as long as she can remember. In his effort to appease Moscow, Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenko, has overseen a campaign to sideline the Belarusian language in favor of Russian.

In recent years, publishers and booksellers who promote Belarusian literature have seen their licenses revoked and shops closed, as part of a broader crackdown on the country's intelligentsia.

For a poetry collection from a Belarusian-language poet, ''Mothefield'' starts off unexpectedly - with prose written originally in English. The piece in question, ''Protest Diary,'' traces Cimafiejeva's time in Minsk during the antigovernment protests [and their brutal repression] that swept the country in 2020.

At an event with PEN Sweden in 2021, Cimafiejeva - who now lives in Austria -explained that she wrote it in another language to create distance for herself.

She also could not write poetry; she was glued to Facebook, to the testimonies pouring across her feed.

Inspired by the experimental oral histories of Svetlana Alexievich, she wrote ''Protest Diary'' in an effort to capture this record of daily life. Fittingly, one of protesters' slogan was ''Every Day,'' a call for nonstop demonstrations.

Cimafiejeva describes walking to the polling station on Aug. 9. Election Day in Belarus. By the entrance, a ''teenage girl in a pseudo-folk costume with a wreath on her head'' sings, in Russian, ''about her love for the Motherland.'' 

THAT same night, as the exit polls revealed a landslide victory for Lukashenko, protesters began to gather in cities and towns across Belarus. The internet had been shut off, but Cimafiejeva was able to access her Telegram app ''through the multiple proxy servers.''

On her phone, she read reports of ''military vehicles driving into peaceful gatherings, stun grenades thrown at the unarmed, shooting at the peaceful protesters who disagree with the results of the rigged election.

''It is said, she writes, that the police were distributing Covid-infected prisoners across cells to spread the virus. She is scrolling her feed when a text message arrives from her brother : ''Taken. Me.''

The internet is the dominant theme of ''Protest Diary,'' though it comes, as in life, in and out. Between poetry readings and meals, Cimafiejeva is always looking at her screen. ''I feel nailed down to the kitchen stool,'' she writes.

During the 2020 protests in Belarus, internet access was wielded like a weapon : the government shutting it down on one side, the people finding a way to bring it back to life on the other.

The Telegram channel Nexta became a key source of information for protesters and was thus labeled ''extremist'' by the government [in 2021, subscribing to it carried a seven-year prison sentence]. ''Protest Diary'' sometimes reads like a manual on digital disobedience.

On Oct. 1, before a demonstration, Cimafiejva writes, ''It's important to clear all the history off your cellphone.'' Elsewhere, after her brother's arrest, she mentions a Telegram channel listing detainees.

The whole thing makes the world's discourse on the ''internet novel'' and the question of how to represent our addled Twitter brains feel embarrassingly slight.

The World Students Society thanks review author Jennifer Wilson.


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