- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Here from the "Selected Poems" of Marina Tsvetaeva, edited by Elaine Feinstein (Penguin Books), are some lines dating to the years 1917-1921 when her husband was fighting with the Russian Whites and she, living in Moscow, was among the Reds:

They all lie in a row,
no line between them,
I recognize that each one was a
But which one is mine? Which
one is another's?

This man was White now he's
become Red.
Blood has reddened him.
This one was Red now he's be
come White.
Death has whitened him.

And so from right and left
Behind ahead
together, White and Red, one cry

And here is an example of Tvsetaeva's prose from those years, a diary entry from Usman where as a young mother in her mid-20s and still without her husband she has arrived after a long train ride in search of wheat and lard:

"… Going on twelve midnight.
"Arrival. A tea house. Groaning tables. Revolvers, machine-gun cartridge belts, leather gear everywhere. They're cheerful and offer us something to eat. We, the guests of honor, are all bootless on our way from the station we almost drowned …
"The proprietresses: two spiteful old ladies. Servitude and hatred. One of them says to me: 'What would you be then their acquaintance?' …"
And later:
"With the teapot to the station for boiling water. A twelve-year-old 'aide-de-camp' of one of the requisition officers. A round face, impertinent blue eyes against white sheep's curls a smart cocked cap. A mix of Cupid and a lout."

Jamey Gambrell, in his English version of "Earthly Designs: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922" (published in Yale's "Russian Literature and Thought" series, Gary Saul Morson general editor) makes the point proven above, I would submit that Tsvetaeva's prose runs along the same lines as her poetry, if less intensely. This creates constant challenges not to say moments of utter despair for the translator of both poetry and prose. Still, Tsvetaeva has attracted her share of translators, and in addition to the two mentioned above, Angela Livingstone's version of the long poem, "The Ratcatcher," a play upon the Pied Piper of Hamlin tale and long suppressed in the Soviet Union because the rats were taken for members of the Party, is available from Northwestern University Press.

Lines from early in that poem run:

There isn't a single (write this
Clarinet in Hamlin.
There isn't a single soul to be
but what bodies, up standing

Solid ones! A concerete post
Is worth any amount of ghost.

For translator and reader, the antithetical and wide-ranging qualities of Tsvetaeva's voice with its sudden shifts among idioms and styles, her allusiveness as regards the classics and German Romanticism, her exploitation of the already difficult (for foreigners) Russian language, add up to, as Mr. Gambrell puts it in his introduction, "a spectacular linguistic density."
Boundlessly eclectic, Tsvetaea was influenced by the Silver Age poetry of Anna Akhmatova, was a fan of Alexander Blok and Konstantin Balmont, another Russian symbolist, and at the same time admired the futurism of Vladimir Mayakovsky (though not his Soviet sympathies, a cause to which, emigre that she was, Tsvetaeva remained forever cold).
To engage Tsvetaeva is to be snared in the best way, seduced (as were so many male lovers in her life) and made an auditory to one of the sharpest yet warmest voices of the old century. The poems speak for themselves. This volume, early prose work of an almost telegrammatic nature in places, provides in addition to personal and literary notes, a vivid report from the Russian front in Revolutionary times. To read Tsvetaeva in these pages is to be there on the day.
Tsvetaeva was born in 1892, the older of two girls in a well-to-do Moscow family.
Her mother was a gifted pianist, and her father, a classifical philologist, founded the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.The mother was deeply concerned with her children's education, and Marina and Asya were from early on given a rich cultural diet.
The family moved to Europe in 1902, when the mother became sick with tuberculosis she died when Marina was 13. The daughter studied in Russia and Paris, and at age 18 had a collection of poems, "Evening Album," published. That summer Marina met Sergei Efron, her future husband. The relationship and numerous extramarital affairs, including with Osip Mandelstam, led to the writing of much of her memorable verse. By the beginning of 1917, Marina was pregnant with her second child, Irina who in the later chaos of revolution died in an orphanage. This was but one of the simply awful things that happened to the previously comfortable Tsvetaeva in Russia's trauma during her lifetime.
Many years of Tsvetaeva's adult life were lived outside of the Soviet Union, and she could have escaped the revolution permanently, but didn't. In May of 1922, she and Alya, her older daughter, left Russia for Berlin to join Efron, then living in Prague. At that time Tsvetaeva started an epistolary romance with Boris Pasternak which would go on for a decade.
The Czechoslovakia years were among the writer's most productive, many of the 150 lyrics in "After Russia," widely reckoned her best book, being written during that time. One takes it that she came to love the country. When on Aug. 31, 1941, Tsvetaeva took advantage of a temporarily empty house to hang herself, she left a note to Mur, her young son asking forgiveness and saying how she was "seriously ill, this is no longer me."
But it is not hard to imagine another motive, reading these lines written for the Czechs in 1938 (from the "Selected Poems"):

I refuse to be. In the
madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live.
With the wolves of the market

I refuse to howl.
Among the sharks of the plain
I refuse to swim down
where moving backs make a

I have no need of holes
for ears, nor prophetic eyes:
to your mad world there is
one answer: to refuse!

After Prague, Tsvetaeva and her little family moved on to Paris, where she lived for many years. But when her husband, having changed political hats and gone to work for the Soviet Cheka, wanted to return to Russia, Marina followed him. Before long, Efron was arrested and executed, and their daughter Alya was sent to the camps, where Tsvetaeva's sister Asya already had been interned.
It was a horrendous world, one lightened in these pages by touches here and there of Tsvetaeva's humor and her unquenchable spirit as when the poet describes getting mugged on the street (no different from any pedestrian here and now). Her accounts of jobs she held, compiling endless lists and newspaper clippings, one of which positions took her daily to the house imagined to be that of the Rostov family in "War and Peace," provide some of the lightest touches of all, like queueing up with other workers to use the tea kettle.
Tsvetaeva reflects in an early draft of pages for this book how, "… there is another mystery: when a thing has been hurt it begins to be right. It gathers all its strength and rights itself, gathers all its rights to exist and stands."
She is as at home with Dante, Goethe and Lamartine as she is with a disappointing shipment of frozen potatoes and the recipients' pathetic attempts at salvage of what remain eatable. In her way, she towers above a dilemma of historic historic almost seems too small a word for it proportions. Her voice coupled with her outspoken self more than warrant the scholarly attention being received today.
What is needed now is an editor (and funder) to gather Tsvetaeva's works into a larger compendium for wider consumption. Memories of the Soviet nightmare already are fading, and a writer like her survives to make sure they are not allowed to do so, and to provide a vivid demonstration of the power of beauty in face of the terrible.
By Marina Tsvetaeva
Edited, translated and with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell
Yale University Press, $24.95, 248 pages, illus.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide