Russian and Soviet poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who was born 122 years ago on 8 October 1892, had the most tragic life. She lived through the Russian Revolutions of 1917, the Civil War and the Moscow famine. Marina tried to save her daughter Irina from starvation by placing her in a state orphanage in 1919, where Irina died of hunger. Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 and lived with her family in Paris, Berlin and Prague, all that time struggling with poverty before returning to Moscow in 1939. Her husband Sergei Efron and her daughter Ariadna Efron (Alya) were arrested on espionage charges in 1939; Ariadna survived Stalin, but Marina’s husband was executed. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Tsvetaeva escaped with her son from Moscow to Elabuga in the Tatar Republic where, unable to go on, she hanged herself on August 31, 1941.
Tsvetaeva’s suffering is what makes her not only a lyrical poet, but also a witness. She was a chronicler of the human conditions of life in her times. In the only poem that Ahmatova wrote for Marina “A Belated Reply”, which Tsvetaeva never saw as she died a few months later, Anna addresses Marina not as a fellow poet, but as another woman, who has suffered and whose suffering both follows and precedes the suffering of other humans.
A Belated Reply
My white-fingered one, my dark princess.
My double and my jester, unseen,
You who hide at the heart of bushes,
Who nestle in the house of the stare,
Who flit among cemetery crosses.
Who call from the Marinkina Tower:
‘Here I am, I’m home today.
Cherish me, my own fields,
Because of everything I suffered.
My loved ones lost in the abyss,
My native country despoiled.’
Today we are together, Marina,
Crossing the midnight capital,
With all those millions behind us,
And never a more voiceless crew,
Walking to the sound of funeral bells,
And to the savage, Moscow moaning
Of wind and snow, erasing our steps.
Despite the unimaginable suffering that Tsvetaeva went through, her poetry is infused with love for other humans, for Russia and for life itself. He poetry encourages us to strive for freedom in the face of mortality and to be open to the world despite of its cruelty. She came from a good family, but never judged anyone according to their wealth or status – all that mattered to her was what the person did with whatever circumstances they found themselves in. She believed in self-development, valued the personal will for awakening and never stopped educating herself. Marina made many mistakes, had many psychological breakdowns,went through the deepest levels of pain and despair, yet still found the strength to strive for higher ideals, to cultivate within herself higher thoughts and feelings.
Internally she was tormented by two opposing forces – as a poet, she strived towards absolute freedom of will, as a mother and wife, she wanted to remain loyal to her moral duties. In her search for freedom, she tried to stay true to herself and to follow her own conscience, rather than the opinions and judgements of others. Her inner dedication to higher ideals, meant that she was her own harshest critic, though she did measure herself up against other great poets and writers.
Tsvetaeva was also known as ‘the dark princess’, a death-obsessed manic depressive, however her poetry is imbued with the light of love and inspires her readers to go on living regardless of the darkness that they might find themselves in. Tsvetaeva’s primary condition for creativity was keeping the flame of love within herself, even if it was sometimes at the expense of hers and other’s peace. She was very clear about this, when she said: “All I need is to love”. And she loved passionately, even though she knew that transient loves end in disappointment, separation and pain. Like a Phoenix, she burnt herself in the fire of love, in an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of gifting humanity the best she could offer – her poetry.
Marina fell in love with the beauty of humans, with their nobility and their talent. She fell in love with poets whom she never met – like Pushkin and Byron, and with those whom she only met a few times – Block and Pasternak. This love came from an evaluation of people’s characters, like a mark of their inner and outer beauty. Despite having had many of these loves, she remained dedicated to her family and to her husband. In the end, the flames of her passions always calmed down in the harbours of her home.
She was an insomniac and a dreamer, and sometimes dreams for her were more important than reality (her way of escaping pain and suffering). However, her heightened emotions were always subtly tuned to her razor-sharp intellect. Her poems often have deep meanings which reveal themselves in streams of emotions. Her hand was operated with the muscles of her heart, but her mind was always overseeing this process.
Tsvetaeva’s poems, like prayers, bring light and joy to her readers’ hearts – they enrich them spiritually, as well as emotionally and intellectually. Here is a selection of some of my favourite poems:
‘I know the truth! Renounce all others!’
I know the truth! Renounce all others!
There’s no need for anyone to fight.
For what? – Poets, generals, lovers?
Look: it’s evening, look: almost night.
Ah, the wind drops, earth is wet with dew,
Ah, the snow will freeze the stars that move.
And soon, under the earth, we’ll sleep too,
Who never would let each other sleep above.
Passing me by, as you walk
To charms doubtful and not mine -
If you but knew how much fire,
How much life is wasted in vain,
On the rustling, occasional shade
What a heroic flame -
And how enflamed my heart
This gunpowder wasted in vain!
O the trains flying into the night,
Carrying sleep on the station away..
If you recognized – if you but knew -
Then and there, I know, anyway.
Why are my words so sharp
In the smoke of my cigarette -
How much dark and menacing angst
Is there in my light-haired head.
From “Poems for Blok” “I am happy living simply”
Your name is a—bird in my hand,
a piece of ice on my tongue.
The lips’ quick opening.
Your name—four letters.
A ball caught in flight,
a silver bell in my mouth.
A stone thrown into a silent lake
is—the sound of your name.
The light click of hooves at night
Your name at my temple
—sharp click of a cocked gun.
kiss on my eyes,
the chill of closed eyelids.
Your name—a kiss of snow.
Blue gulp of icy spring water.
With your name—sleep deepens.
Translation by Iliya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine
“I am happy living simply”
I am happy living simply:
like a clock, or a calendar.
Worldly pilgrim, thin,
wise—as any creature. To know
the spirit is my beloved. To come to things—swift
as a ray of light, or a look.
To live as I write: spare—the way
God asks me—and friends do not.
Translation by Iliya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine
Where does this tenderness come from?
Where does this tenderness come from?
These are not the – first curls I
have stroked slowly – and lips I
have known are – darker than yours
as stars rise often and go out again
(where does this tenderness come from?)
so many eyes have risen and died out
in front of these eyes of mine.
and yet no such song have
I heard in the darkness of night before,
(where does this tenderness come from?):
here, on the ribs of the singer.
Where does this tenderness come from?
And what shall I do with it, young
sly singer, just passing by?
Your lashes are – longer than anyone’s.
18th February 1916
Translation by © Elaine Feinstein
What’s it like with another woman –
Simpler? – a flash of the oar! –
Did the memory of me
Soon fade off-shore,
Like the beach of a floating island,
(In the sky – not in the sea!)
Souls, souls! You’ll be sisters,
Not lovers – that’s what you’ll be!
What’s life like with an ordinary
Woman? Now that you’ve dethroned
Your idol (renounced the throne).
Without the divinity?
What’s your life like – occupation –
Shrivelled? Getting up – what’s it like?
What do you pay, poor man,
For endless triviality – the price?
‘I’m through with hysteria, convulsions!
I’ll rent a place, have done!’
What’s it like with a common
Woman, my chosen one?
More suitable and edible –
The food? Boring? – Don’t complain…
What’s it like with an imitation –
You who climbed the holy Mount? A strain?
What’s your life like with a stranger,
A worldly soul. Well? – Is it love?
Like the god’s whip, does shame
Not lash your head from above?
What’s it like – your health –
How is it? How do you sing?
How do you cope, poor man,
With the festering sore of endless conscience?
What’s life like with a marketable
Purchase? The price – terrible?
What’s it like with crumbling plaster of Paris
After the finest Carrara marble?
(The Goddess made from stone –
And smashed to bits!)
What’s your life like with one of millions,
You, who’ve known Lilith?
Does the marketable purchase meet
Your needs? Now magic’s dead,
What’s your life like with a mortal
Woman, neither using the sixth sense?
Well, swear, are you happy, then?
No? What’s your life like in a pit
With no depth, my love? Harder,
Or just like mine with another man?
19th November 1924
I think about the morning of your glory,
About the morning of your days too, when
Like a demon you from sleep had stirred
And were a god for men.
I think of when your eyebrows came together
Over the burning torches of your eyes,
Of how the ancient blood’s eternal lava
Rushed through your arteries.
I think of fingers – very long – inside
The wavy hair, about all
Eyes that did thirst for you in alleys
And in the dining-halls.
About the hearts too, which – you were too young then -
You did not have the time to read, too soon,
About the times, when solely in your honor
Arose and down went the moon.
I think about a hall in semi-darkness,
About the velvet, into lace inclined,
About the poems we would have told each other,
You – yours, I – mine.
I also think about the remaining
From your lips and your eyes handful of dust..
About all eyes, that are now in the graveyard
About them and us.
To Boris Pasternak
Dis-tances: miles, versts…
We’re dis-severed, dis-persed,
They’ve rendered us silent, terse,
At the far ends of the earth.
Distances: tracts, versts…
We’re disjointed, and disbursed,
Displayed, splayed, un-destroyed,
They don’t know we’re…an alloy
Of inspirations, and tendons,
Not disjoined – though dis-joined,
By ditch and wall,
Eagles: tracts, versts…
Not disunited – oh, no worse
Than disengaged, in the wastes
Of earth, like orphans displaced.
How many, how many days…of March?
Since they scattered us like a pack of cards?
24th March 1925
I’ll conquer you from all lands, from all the sky,
Because forest is my cradle and in the forest I’ll die,
For I stand on the ground with just one of my legs,
For I will sing to you like no one else.
I’ll conquer you from all times, I will fight
All golden banners, all swords and all nights,
I will chase away dogs from a porch and I’ll throw the key
For in winter night not even dogs are more loyal than me.
I’ll conquer you from all others – from that one
I will be no one’s wife, you – no one’s groom,
And in the last argument I will take you – be quiet! -
From the one with which Jacob stood in the night.
But for now I won’t on your chest the fingers cross -
With you, you remain – O the curse! -
Your two wings, that at the ether take aim -
Because the world is your cradle, and world your grave.
I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.
I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.
With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it -
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.
How many people fell in this abyss,
I fathom from afar!
There will be time, and I will vanish too
From earth’s exterior.
All will be still, that sang and that did struggle,
That glistened and rejoiced:
The greenness of my eyes, the gold of my hair,
And this my tender voice.
Life will continue with its soft hot bread,
With day’s oblivion.
All will continue – under outstretched heavens
As if I’d never been!
Like children changeable in every mien
And angry not for long,
Who loved the times when in the fireplace
Into ash turned the log,
Violin and cavalcade within the forest
And in the village, bell…
Upon this dear earth – I will be no longer
That was alive and real!
To all – who are the friends and strangers
To never having known the measure, me?
I turn to you with this my faith’s demand
And love’s query.
Both day and night, in word and letter both:
For truth of yes and no,
For that though I am but twenty I am
So often in such sorrow,
For unavoidably my slights and trespasses
Will be forgiven me -
For all of my impetuous tenderness
And look too proud and free -
For quickness of events as they come rushing,
For truth, for play, say I -
Please hear me! But do also please love me
For this that I will die.
Thus to thirst life: And to be tender
And rabid and noisy,
To be intelligent and charming -
Gorgeous to be!
More tender than what are or have been,
Guilt not to know…
This, that in graveyard all are equal,
Angers me so.
To be what nobody holds dear -
Like ice become!
Not knowing what has come before now
Nor what will come,
To forget how the heart broke and
Grew back together,
To forget both the words and voice
And shine of hair.
Bracelet of ancient turquoise
On the stem, on
This my white arm
Narrow and long…
Like painting over a cloud
One took the mother-of-pearl pen
In one’s arm,
Just like the legs jumped
Over the fence,
To forget, how along the road
To forget, like flame of azure, how
Days are subdued…
All my mischief, all my tempest,
And poems too!
Laughter will be chased away by
I, always-pink, will be
The most pale.
And they won’t open – thus is needed -
Pity this one!
Not for the sight, not for the fields,
Not for the sun -
These my lowered eyelids. -
Flower not for! -
My earth, forgive for centuries
Thus both the moon and the snow
Will melt away,
When this young, beautiful century
Will rush on by.
‘Cut veins: irrecoverably’
Cut veins: irrecoverably
Irreplaceably, life whips out.
Bring out basins and bowls!
Though the bowl’s – too low,
The basin’s – too shallow.
Over the lip, watch it flow,
To black earth, to feed the reeds.
Irreplaceably, verse will go,
6th January 1934