Though born into a family of means, Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) soon fell victim to the same disasters that crushed so many Russians during that time. Though I may write about her life elsewhere, for now I'll just mention that it became so trying for her that she hung herself from a nail in a cottage in the Tatar Republic...
The turmoil and depression of her last years had stilled her poetic sources, but she had already produced the work for which she is now widely recognized as one of the finest Russian poets of the twentieth century. Like most artists, she had moments of self-doubt, but she knew her quality:
Written so long ago, I didn't even
know I was a poet,
my lines fell like spray from a fountain
or flashes from a rocket,
like imps, they burst into sanctuaries
filled with sleep and incense,
to speak of youth and dying.
All my unread pages
lie scattered in dusty bookshops
where nobody picks them up
to this day. Like expensive wines,
your time will come, my lines.
Tsvetaeva wrote quite a bit of love poetry for her various lovers, including a lyric cycle Girlfriend (1914-1915) for Sophia Parok, but also for Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke, to whom she had conceived a verbally passionate love at a distance.(*) Though I am highly allergic to conventional love poetry, I rarely felt the urge to sneeze, for she nearly always found a tack, an image, a tone that floated her poem over the leaden clichés without losing contact with the communalities of experience which are our receptors.
She also wrote four lengthy narrative poems influenced by fairy tale or folklore, excerpted in this collection, and she wrote some very biting satires. But her primary gift is that of a lyric poet for whom, though she was viewed as a modernist poet in her time, clarity, beauty and drama are the main values.
One more short lyric:
I opened my veins
I opened my veins. Unstoppably
life spurts out with no remedy.
Now I set out bowls and plates.
Every bowl will be shallow.
Every plate will be small.
And overflowing their rims,
into the black earth, to nourish
the rushes unstoppably
without cure, gushes
Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems (2009) is the second, revised and expanded version of Elaine Feinstein's rendering of a selection of Tsvetaeva's poems into English. Though Feinstein has occupied herself with Tsvetaeva for forty years (also writing a biography of the poet), Bride of Ice belongs to that subgenre in which the "translator" works from literal translations provided by others having a better grasp of the original language. Though I am a bit leery of such translations in general, Ezra Pound's famous and very influential Cathay is one such, and Feinstein's poems are very fine. She explains in her brief introduction that she tried to maintain Tsvetaeva's "stanzaic patterning" and capture the pauses and swift changes of pace that are said to be typical of her work. With these attractive versions I am just commencing my acquaintance with Tsvetaeva's poetry.
(*) She never met either man. Rilke was already sinking into his final illness, and at the later opportunities to meet Pasternak, she hesitated and stalled. But her relationships to these men (one-sided for Rilke, mutual if epistolary for Pasternak) served as muses to her poetry. Here is one of the poems from Wires, containing poems to Pasternak.
Patiently, as tarmac under hammers,
patiently, as what is new matures,
patiently, as death must be awaited,
patiently, as vengeance may be nursed.
So I shall wait for you. (One look down to earth.
Cobblestones. Lips between. And numb.)
Patiently, as sloth can be prolonged,
patiently, as someone threading beads.
Toboggans squeak outside, the door answers
Now the wind's roar is inside the forest.
What has arrived is writing, whose corrections
are lofty as a change of reign, or a prince's entrance.
And let's go home!
This is inhuman -
yet it's mine.