A Life in Poems
Nobody loves her,
Some hate her with a vengance,
Only a few truly like her
or have ever read
Yet Marina Tsvetaeva is, among her contemporaries Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak, arguably the most prolific and possibly the greatest poet of 20th-century Russia.
I encountered Tsveteva on one of my sojourns in Moscow in the 1980s. A physicist coleague in a choked voice recited “Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,... - I like that you're not mad about me,...” [Poems, May 1915]. It was the time of Tsvetaeva's belated rehabilitation in the Soviet Union, and everyone seemed to have heard and seen Alla Pugacheva in the film Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! “Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath”, (1975). Curious, because I had not heard of Tsvetaeva (I never saw the film!), I asked a Russian-German friend. She sent me a bilingual anthology of Tsvetaeva's poems, in which I found the following poem to Boris Pasternak:
by Tsvetaeva's reductive use of Russian, I spent several weeks
translating the verses, discussing every word with my friend by mail.
- The above English version is the result of this co-operative
exercise. This was in 1994. Professional and personal events
interfered, and only now am I able to return to a close examination
of Tsvetaeva's poetry – and life.
Early on I learned that one cannot understand her poetry separate from her biography: Tsvetaeva wrote from her full “Быть и Бытие - Life and Being”, baring her soul and emotions without restraint. A biographical essay woven around her poems appeared indispensable: Describing the often tragic events in her life, it takes up the larger part of this essay.
Born 1892 into an highly educated, bourgeois family, she loses her mother to tuberculosis when she was 14, publishes her first book of poems three years later, marries Sergey Efron at 20, and gives birth to their first child, Alya in 1913. The first World War passes almost unnoticed, but then history begins to accelerate and rapidly overtakes her. Sergey disappears during the Revolution. She and Alya barely survive the Famine Years. A second daughter dies from starvation. In 1921 her husband resurfaces in Prague. Marina escapes with Alya to Berlin. Supported by a Czech grant they spend 3 years in Czechoslovakia. Restlessness and the hope of making a living from her writing persuade them to move to Paris, the center of Russian émigré life. There she gets caught in the internecine fighting and intrigues between the pro- and anti-Soviet factions – and Sergey Efron turns into a willing pawn of the NKVD. When in 1937 the French police takes notice, he is spirited away to the Soviet Union. Alya had already left for Moscow. Marina with their third child, Murg follows Sergey and returns to the “Motherland” in 1938, during the worst Stalin years. Alya and Sergey are arrested in 1939. In desperation Marina hangs herself in 1941. Efron is executed in the same year, Mur dies in the second World War – only Alya is released alive from the Gulag and “rehabilitated” after Stalin's death.
A cruel fate, however, not that different from what many Russian emigrants suffered, but Tsvetaeva lived her life to the last bitter truths in her poetry... Nothing drives her poetic power like distress and - love. One “affair” follows the other, with women as well as with uncounted men, poets, actors, writers, famous and infamous, worthy and unworthy. Sergey watches quietly from the wings, knowing that after every crash she will return to him. Her “immorality” and her self-centredness seem to be two of the reasons why certain people hate her. - Tsvetaeva has nerver denied or replied to any of the often abusive attacks on her [VS p.268-273]. They were below her level.
The severe criticism of her personal conduct is in part based on a misunderstanding. Only two or three of her “affairs” were consummated. Despite her search for new loves in her exalted poems, sex is not the object of her dreams. – Eminently Russian, she longs for an Empyrean that will transport her out of the misery of daily existence, that might conjure-up a kindred soul with whom she can share her spiritual loneliness. She is not religious in the conventional sense, “I never obeyed the commandments and never went to confession...” - Yet the beauty of her imaginary, transcendental “Other World” recalls the golden domes of the churches that rise equally other-worldly from the drab Russian landscape.
Tsvetaeva's morality – in the conventional sense – and her ideological position between the two Russian emigrant camps is best explained by Russians. An enlightening conversation on the subject has been recorded by Solomon Volkov in his “Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet's Journey Through the 20th Century, 2002” [VB p.40-47]. It pits young Volkov's summary dislike of her against Brodsky's superior understanding of the moral (ideological) dilemma of Tsvetaeva. An excerpt of this interview is available online through Google Books.
Late in Tsvetaeva's torrential life Boris Pasternak befriended her. The only man who did not run scared from the on-surges of her emotions. Together they lived through the summer of 1926 and the stellar meeting with Rilke – all by letter! Prevented by fate and mutual reluctance, the two would not meet until 1940 in Moscow. During Marina's most difficult émigré years she turned him into the last god of her imaginary world, her first equal love. Notwithstanding, that she disjoins herself from Pasternak in an attack of jealousy and haughty disdain, when he divorced his wife and married a mutual friend of theirs. He remains spiritually faithful to her beyond her death. - The above poem was written at the height of their relationship.
A detailed knowledge of the circumstances associated with her poems may help in understanding, but is of little use in translating them. Her verses are inherently difficult to translate, especially into English. The grammatical structure of Russian – five cases, a complex system of inflections of the verb, and the lack of articles and personal pronouns – poses nearly unsurmountable difficulties. To make things worse, Tsvetaeva has a way of making-up or using archaic words, which are not found in dictionaries. The poem to Pasternak is an example of that.
However, the lexicographic hurdles are but one obstacle to the appreciation of Tsvetaeva's poetry. The beauty of her verses, especially her late poems, lies in their sound when recited in Russian. Her musical rhythms cannot be reproduced in any other language. Her poems need to be heard - in Russian. To this effect I included the Russian texts of all selected poems and added a number of links to audio readings. Antokolsky's reading of the Pasternak poem is attached above. Listen to it, its resounding alliterations are the bones of her stanzas.
The other, even more fundamental observation is that her poems lack the visual imagery we are used to depend on in reading poetry. In her essay on Natalya Gontsharova Tsvetaeva says, “I am no painter, may others speak about that... What for? Painting is of no meaningful importance to me.” For the sake of its rhythm she plays a disturbingly cerebral game with the language, deconstructing (her word) Russian like few others – a quality of her poetry which intrigued this foreigner. Tsvetaeva's has a highly developed sense for music and rhythm, beyond that she is blind. This might be the reason why her poems taken out of context often leave a dull impression with the non-Russian reader.
Nevertheless, to ease my translation dilemma, I decided to dispense with all attempts to reproduce her rhyme and rhythm in favor of a more modest, literal reading of her words and their meanings. Some readers may not recognize “their” Tsvetaeva in my translations. I ask for their indulgence: This is an attempt to elucidate Tsvetaeva's poetry to uninitiated English readers, as well as to some Russians. I do not endeavor to present new superior English renditions of her poems or to compete with existing critical examinations of her life and writings.
I would be grateful for corrections and all constructive criticism.
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Pacific Palisades, June 2010