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Marina Tsvetaeva: where to start with her literature

3 February 2022

“No more passionate voice ever sounded in Russian poetry of the 20th century,” Joseph Brodsky declared of writer Marina Tsvetaeva. American author Susan Sontag, too, was an ardent admirer: “Is there prose more intimate, more piercing, more heroic, more astonishing than Tsvetaeva’s? (…) Voicing gut and brow, she is incomparable. Her recklessness commands, her nakedness flames.” Yet Tsvetaeva, a poet and essayist who was both scarred and inspired by Russia’s calamitous 20th century, remains little known outside of her native land. Long overshadowed by fellow Modernist giants – including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam, to all of whom she was once friend and confidante – Tsvetaeva is sometimes regarded as Akhmatova’s dark twin. Her feverish intensity and surging linguistic invention match the measured elegance of her contemporary; where Akhmatova sees herself as a custodian of Russian poetic tradition, Tsvetaeva sets fire to centuries of conventional imagery and versification. Brimming with wordplay and carried along by a propulsive rhythm, her lyrics strive to upend fixed habits of mind and speech, promising readers a dizzying renewal of vision.

Tsvetaeva was just as uncompromising in her personal life. Much of her best work was inspired by a string of stormy relationships with both men and women. Her lyric love poems addressed to Russian poet Sofia Parnok, as well as a whimsical novella documenting their romance, have cemented her status as a pioneer of Russian queer literature. Her entire biography is emblematic of the triumphs and tragedies of Russia’s “Silver Age” poetry. Married young to Sergey Efron, an army cadet who went on to fight against the Bolsheviks, she endured years of poverty and deprivation in Civil War-era Moscow. She then followed Efron into exile in Prague and Paris, where they found no respite: Tsvetaeva’s apolitical stance and admiration for Soviet poets left her largely isolated in émigré circles. After Efron was implicated in the murder of a dissident, the entire family was forced to flee to the USSR, only to be swallowed up in Stalin’s Terror. Embittered and friendless as her husband and daughter disappeared into the gulags, Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941, in the small Tatar town of Yelabuga.

It took another two decades before Tsvetaeva’s poetry – championed by literary lights such as Akhmatova and Brodsky in the West – was rediscovered. Her tragic fate and remarkable sensibility have since made her a cult figure in Russia. Her poems have been set to music by composers no lesser than Dmitry Shostakovich and Sofia Gubaidulina; the perennial Russian film favourite, Irony of Fate, features Alla Pugacheva’s rendition of her Mne nravitsya (“I like that you are burning not for me…”) Her houses in Moscow and Yelabuga have both been transformed into museums; Russian literature lovers come in their droves to affix sheets of verse to the walls, as the poet herself used to do.

That her work has not enjoyed a similar revival abroad is largely due to the language barrier. Her famously multi-layered, polyphonic, heightened style — on full display in epic poems such as “Poem of the Mountain” and “Poem of the End” — has led many a seasoned translator astray. But below is a subjective guide to some of Tsvetaeva’s best writing accessible in English.

Lyric love poetry

Tsvetaeva left behind a raft of longer verse works, grappling with topics as varied as the price women pay for poetic inspiration (“On a Red Horse”); the end of an affair which threatened to unravel her marriage (“Poem of the End”, “Poem of the Mountain”); and Russia’s revolutionary turmoil (“The Ratcatcher”). Yet to Anglophone readers, these remain largely elusive: few translators have done justice to the original Russian’s frenetic wordplay, luscious sound effects, and intricate patterns of internal rhymes and half-rhymes. Neither has a “definitive” rendition of her confessional love poetry emerged in English – yet the deceptively simple charm of her lyrics, by turns sly and imploring, fares substantially better in translation. A case in point is Mne nravitsya (“I like it”), which appears to describe a friendship joyfully free of erotic tension (in Lydia Razran Stone’s version: “How nice to know what ails me is not you, / How nice to know what ails you is not me. / And thus we’ll never feel, as lovers do, / Firm earth beneath us turn to flowing sea…”)

Tsvetaeva delights in the simple closeness between her and her listener, seemingly relinquishing all deception (“I’m grateful to you, more than I can tell, / For gifts of love, though given unaware: / For peaceful nights I sleep alone and well, / For keeping twilight trysts so very rare, / For moonlight walks that never came to be, / For sunlight not intended just for two…”), before bringing the poem to a shattering conclusion (“Because, alas, you’re burning not for me, / Because, alas, I’m burning not for you.”) For their part, her early poems for fellow Russian wordsmith Alexander Blok are tightly coiled wonders of sensual imagery: “Your name is – a bird in my hand, / A piece of ice on my tongue. (…) / Your name at my temple – the sharp click of a cocked gun. / Your name – an impossible / kiss on my eyes…” In “An Attempt at Jealousy”, she berates a lover who has abandoned her for an “ordinary” woman, and once again uses the last lines to turn the poem on its head. (“How’s your life with the other one? / Simpler, is it? A stroke of the oars / And a long coastline – / And the memory of me / Is soon a drifting island (…) / How do you live with cheap goods: is the market rising? / How’s kissing plaster dust? (…) / Are you happy? No? In a shallow pit – how is your life, / My beloved? Hard as mine / With another man?”) These lyric fragments, scattered as they are, allow the reader a glimpse of Tsvetaeva’s strange and beguiling poetic power.

Poems about Moscow

Russia’s foremost Modernist poets seemed to follow one of two distinct faiths: some were nurtured and tortured by the ethereal beauty of St Petersburg, while others drew strength from the earthier delights of Moscow. Tsvetaeva falls squarely in the latter camp. Raised among the old capital’s rustic courtyards, she is responsible for some of Russian literature’s most sensuous depictions of the city. In Tsvetaeva’s lyric poetry, declarations of love for a distant listener often fuse with – and feed off – her ardour for her fabled birthplace, as in the 1916 cycle “Poems for Moscow” .(“From my hands – take this city not made by hands, / My strange, beautiful brother. / Take it, church by church – all forty times forty churches, (…) / Take the circle of the five cathedrals / my soul; the domes wash us in their dark gold…”) In the same year, she addressed these lines to fellow poet and avowed Petersburg lover, Alexander Blok: “While you walk by your proud Neva, / I am standing here by the Moskva, / I stand still and I bow my head. / In the streets the lights run together. (…) / But never will my river and your river, / never will my hand and your hand / meet, O my joy, never / unless daybreak overtakes daybreak.” By the Kremlin at dawn, all sorrows are sweet to the taste; all the poet’s tears turn to gold.

Poems about women

Tsvetaeva remained married to Russian army officer (and later reluctant NKVD agent) Sergey Efron from 1912 until her subsequent suicide, after he had vanished in the maze of Stalin’s secret prisons. Earlier, when she had been reunited with her husband after a four-year separation during Russia’s Civil War, she vowed to “follow him like a dog” through the dying embers of the White rebellion, and into exile. Yet her life and writing was shaped by a series of passionate extramarital relationships. Tsvetaeva’s poems to Sofia Parnok, collected in the cycle “Girlfriend”, rank among the most evocative works of Russian queer literature, revealing a romance as tormented as it was creatively fruitful. Although no extant English translation has done “Girlfriend” justice, it stands out for its striking imagery (“Night weeps over coffee grounds / as it looks to the east”; “Now, why would you need / the soul of a Spartan child?”). Tsvetaeva, the spurned and expectant lover, finds herself undone and reborn under Parnok’s sad, steely, all-seeing gaze.

Other poems extol the joys of female friendship, especially that between unconventional, spirited women. In “Bound for Hell”, Tsvetaeva declares: “Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured, / Is where we’re bound: we’ll drink the pitch of hell – / We, who have sung the praises of the Lord / With every fibre in us, every cell. / We, who did not manage to devote / Our nights to spinning, did not bend and sway / Above a cradle…” Yet her delight at having been part of this doomed circle (“we, careless seamstresses – our seams all ran, whether we sewed or not”) is evident. Rather than reaping heavenly rewards, Tsvetaeva would rather “be lost in nights of starlight” with her sparkling companions – “striking up the songs of paradise / around the campfire of a robber’s lair.”

Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917 – 1922

After leaving the USSR in 1922, Tsvetaeva campaigned tirelessly to have Earthly Signs an account of her “desperate years” spent fending off starvation while her husband was at the front amid Russia’s Civil War — in its entirety. Successive publishers refused, urging her to cut out reams of “political material” in a bid to accommodate Soviet censors — but Tsvetaeva objected passionately to such an assessment of her writing. (“Outside of politics? I answered in turn: Moscow 1917 – 1919. What was I doing, rocking in a cradle? I had eyes and ears (…) There is no politics in this book: there is passionate truth, the partisan truth of cold, of hunger, of anger, of the Year (1918)”.)

Far from wallowing in self-pity, Tsvetaeva’s work paints a chilling, darkly funny picture of a city on the brink: contradictory accounts of the war’s progress turning ordinary conversations into “a nightmarish delirium”; her work at the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities (“Pure humour! A bit terrifying”); “thousands of small scenes: in queues, squares, at the markets, the everyday life of revolutionary Moscow.” She is ready to ridicule her own lack of practicality: one memorable entry tells the story of a sham “business trip” to study folk embroidery in provincial Russia, which was cover for Tsvetaeva to “import” grain, flour, and lard into the capital. (Unfortunately, she was hopeless at bargaining with her peasant hosts, and ended up with wooden dolls instead.) Published in full in 2017, in Jamey Gambrell’s effortless translation, Earthly Signs is as much a valuable historical document as it is a moving study of “a living soul trapped in a noose – but alive nevertheless.”

Letters, Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marina Tsvetaeva

This recently re-published book charts the passionate correspondence between three lyric poets at varying stages of their careers, all in vastly different circumstances. Tsvetaeva was living from hand to mouth in her Parisian exile; Boris Pasternak was struggling to carve out a space of freedom in Soviet Moscow; and the older Rainer Maria Rilke was facing the spectre of his own mortality in a Swiss sanatorium. Susan Sontag’s preface describes their mutual discovery as “a portrait of the sacred delirium of art. There are three participants: a god and two worshippers, who are also worshippers of each other. (…) These three-way love letters – and they are that – are an incomparable dramatisation of ardour and poetry, and about the life of the spirit.” Kept apart by closed borders, Rilke’s worsening health, and the unspeakable state of Tsvetaeva’s finances, the poets nevertheless meet each other halfway, rejoicing at the recognition of the others’ prodigious gifts. Language differences fall away (Tsvetaeva: “writing poetry is in itself translating from the mother tongue into another – Orpheus bursts nationality”), as the trio compose pieces for each other in a frantic burst of creativity. Upon hearing of Rilke’s death, Tsvetaeva responds to his masterful “Elegy for Marina” (“Waves, Marina, we are ocean! / Depths, Marina, we are sky. / Earth, Marina, we are earth, / a thousand times springtime”) with one of her own: the tumultuous, raging, lovelorn “New Year’s Greetings.” This work is itself the subject of a riveting essay by Brodsky, “Footnote to a Poem” – a fine companion piece to this book of letters, or indeed to any of Tsvetaeva’s longer works. The exchanges between Tsvetaeva and Pasternak are likewise laden with love and longing. In one letter, Tsvetaeva writes: “Suddenly you have discovered America: me. That’s not what I want. Be so kind as to discover America for me…”. In Sontag’s words: “nothing can dim the incandescence of those few months in 1926 when they were hurling themselves at one another, making their impossible, glorious demands.”

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