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Russian and Soviet poet Marina Tsvetaevawho 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.

                                          Marina Tsvetaeva

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:

XXX

‘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.

  XXX

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.

XXX

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.

Your name at my temple

—sharp click of a cocked gun.

Your name—impossible—

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.

1916

Translation by Iliya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine

XXX

“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.

1919

Translation by Iliya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine

XXX

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

XXX

Attempted Jealousy

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

XXX

    To Byron

 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.

XXX

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,

We’re divided…

                    By ditch and wall,

Disconnected, conspiratorial

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

    XXX

 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.

     XXX

     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.

   

  XXX

     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.

  XXX

  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

     From afar,

     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

     Shade advanced.

     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

     My miracle.

     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

     Forevermore.

     Thus both the moon and the snow

     Will melt away,

     When this young, beautiful century

     Will rush on by.

XXX

‘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,

Irrevocably, irrecoverably.

                              6th January 1934

 

One thought on “Marina Tsvetaeva: The Dark Princess with White Fingers

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