And, in part, 143. (Elaine Feinstein), since it is Feinstein’s translations (written with the assistance of Angela Livingstone) from the Russian on which I will be relying. Although Livingstone tells us that Tsvetaeva’s voice is “particularly difficult to capture,” Tsvetaeva took a view of poetry that might empower a translator, though it also places a burden of the highest creative expectations on the act of translation. In a letter to Rilke, from July 1926, she argues that Goethe (a hero of hers) was wrong to say that nothing significant in poetry could be achieved in a foreign language: “Writing poetry is in itself translating, from the mother tongue into another, whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it.” From which it might follow that translating poetry entails rewriting the mother tongue of the translation.
Feinstein at least brings something alive into English–and, I think, also something that is alive unlike other English poems (and so, by Tsvetaeva’s standards, a success). Here, the tenth part from the sequence, Poem of the End:
Closely, like one creature, we
start: there is our cafe!
There is our island, our shrine, where
in the morning, we people of the
rabble, a couple for a minute only,
conducted a morning service:
with things from country markets, sour
things seen through sleep or spring.
The coffee was nasty there
entirely made from oats (and
with oats you can extinguish
caprice in fine race-horses).
There was no smell of Araby.
Arcadia was in
But how she smiled at us
and sat us down by her,
sad and worldly in her wisdom
a grey-haired paramour.
Her smile was solicitous
(saying: you’ll wither! live!),
it was a smile at madness and being
penniless, at yawns and love
and–this was the chief thing–
at laughter without reason
smiles with no deliberation
and our faces without wrinkles.
Most of all at youth
at passions out of this climate
blown in from some other place
flowing from some other source
into that dim cafe
(burnous and Tunis) where
she smiled at hope and flesh
under old-fashioned clothes.
(My dear friend I don’t complain
It’s just another scar.)
To think how she saw us off,
that proprietress in her cap
stuff as a Dutch hat…
Not quite remembering, not quite
understanding, we are led away from the festival—
along our street! no longer ours that
we walked many times, and no more shall.
Tomorrow the sun will rise in the West.
And then David will break with Jehovah.
–What are we doing?–We are separating.
–That’s a word that means nothing to me.
It’s the most inhumanly senseless
of words: sep rating. (Am I one of a hundred?)
It is simply a word of four syllables and
behind their sound lies: emptiness.
Wait! Is it even correct in Serbian or
Croatian? Is it a Czech whim, this word.
Sep aration! To sep arate!
It is insane unnatural
a sound to burst the eardrums, and spread out
far beyond the limits of longing itself.
Separation–the word is not in the Russian
language. Or the language of women. Or men.
Nor in the language of God. What are we–sheep?
To stare about us as we eat.
Separation–in what language is it,
when the meaning itself doesn’t exist?
or even the sound!–well an empty one, like
the noise of a saw in your sleep perhaps.
Separation. That belongs to the school of
so how does it happen?
Like a lake of water running dry.
Into air. I can feel our hands touching
To separate. Is a shock of thunder
upon my head–oceans rushing into
a wooden house. This is Oceania’s
further promontory. And the streets are steep.
To separate. That means to go downward
downhill the sighting sound of two
heavy soles and at last a hand receives
the nail in it. A logic that turns
everything over. To separate
means we have to become
single creatures again
we who had grown into one.
Here, for a change (a change, that is, for those who have read a lot about the poetry of the 20th century) is a poem that neither seeks to alienate language, and make it strange, nor that speaks to the inadequacy of language; it is instead a poem that confronts the language that matters most as already alien to and alienating experience; and the poem, rather than end there, seeks to arrest the alienation, to work against it, and bring it into alignment with an experience of alienation. The word “separate,” she says is not in the mother tongue, and so she rewrites the tongue to speak of her experience of separation; she wants to close the gap between herself and the word, between herself and the experience, and also, as we read through the poem’s fragments of memory, between herself and the places from which she and that other, the addressee from whom she is separated, have drifted, been cleaved. The work of collecting, bringing near, making stable and immediate, her tactile and felt experiences of life, and her language also, is in service of better apprehending the exile and distance she feels from there.
In “Footnote to a Poem” (a lengthy essay on Tsvetaeva), Joseph Brodsky writes with admiration:
Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context. On the plane of sound, it was a matter of the voice striving in the only direction possible for it: upward. A striving similar to that of the soul toward its source. In the poet’s own words, “gravitation from/ the earth, above the earth, away from/ both the worm and the grain.” To this should be added: from one’s own self, from one’s own throat…But while acknowledging that this rejection of the world by the voice is indeed a leitmotif of Tsvetaeva’s work, it must be noted that her diction was completed devoid of any “etherealness.” On the contrary: Tsvetaeva was a poet very much of this world, concrete, surpassing the Acmeists in precision of details, and in aphoristic and sarcasm surpassing everybody. more like that of a bird than an angel, her voice always knew above what it was elevated, knew what was there, down below (or,more precisely, what–there below–was lacking).
Brodsky has all of the advantages as a reader of Tsvetaeva, reading her with immense familiarity, admiration, and care for the Russian; but what he says here seems to take hold of the wrong end of the stick. Finding that her voice is in some way removed from the world, he sees it as aspiring for further, more complete, liberation or escape. Agreeing that the self of her poetry is often nearly dissolved, often untethered from place or displaced from location, ranging above a field of details, I find instead that her poetry aspires to establish, summon, and ground itself in a particular present and a particular spot in the world; but that doing so means, as she feels she must rewrite her language, rewriting immediacy, rather than assuming it.
Here is “Homesickness” (1934; she was living, an emigre, in Paris):
Homesickness! that long
It’s all the same to me now
where I am altogether lonely
or what stones I wander over
home with a shopping bag to
a house that is no more mine
than a hospital or a barracks.
It’s all the same to me, captive
lion what faces I move through
bristling, or what human crowd will
cast me out as it must
into myself, into my separate internal
world, a Kamchatka bear without ice.
Where I fail to fit in (and I’m not trying) or
where I’m humiliated it’s all the same.
And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet
(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time
stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most
indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.
For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.
Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
Her poems summon, stumble into, lose hold of, but reach out for, an immediate context of the world’s space and time, from which bearing towards another, the addressee of the poem, absent, distant, or towards another place, the remembered home, the point of departure, the lost shelter, are possible. She is a poet of perpetual exile, from the past and across the present, but she does not write as much about what it is like to be apart from others as she writes in order to ground herself, to contain her voice, and to amass sufficient sense of self so that the longing of exile can have orientation and so that the disorientation of exile can have a center without which disorientation cannot be felt. She is a lyric poet seeking the force of gravity that Brodsky sees her as wanting to escape.
A poem that not only looks earthward, but clings to an anchorage on earth, here is the seventh section of Wires (1923):
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 teeth. 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.
In the second to last line “this” points towards a horizon, or is it a corner? vast or confined? it both sets something before us and the poet and declines to illuminate the shadow; it is exclusionary and inviting at once; it orients us towards an abyss.
“Lyric poet” for Tsvetaeva is a term of precise significance, explored in an essay, “Poets without History and Poets with History.” A “lyric poet” is the former–and it is also the sort of poet Tsvetaeva knows herself to be. Though she does not place herself in the discussion, she lists her great contemporaries, and friends, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam as “lyric poets”–admitting Blok as an additional example, with qualifications. She circles down on her subject as she writes, and recurring in her descriptions of a lyric poet is the delineation of the lyric poet as not only being in the world, but as coming to the world, as if each lyric poem was a reassertion of being in the world, rather than a moving continually outward in a world in which the poet has long existed (the latter would be the Poet with History):
Mine or others’, the vital or the superfluous, the accidental and the eternal: everything for them is a touchstone. Of their power, which increases with each new obstacle. Their self-discovery is their coming to self-knowledge through the world, self-knowledge of the soul through the visible world. Their path is the path of experience. As they walk, we physically sense a wind, the air they cleave with their brows. A wind blows from them.
When you approach the sea–and the lyric poet–you are not going for something new, but for the same again; for a repetition, not a continuation. Lyric poetry, like the sea, even when you’re discovering it for the first time, is something you invariable re-read; while with a river, which flows past, as with Pushkin who walks past–if it’s on their banks you’ve been born–you always read on. It is the difference between the crossways, lulling, lyrical motion of the sea, and the linear, never-returning movement of a river. The difference between being somewhere and passing by.
And if some poets seem dull because of their monotony, then this comes from the shallowness and smallness (the drying up) of the image, not from the fact that the image remains the same.
Lyricism, for all that it is doomed to itself, is itself inexhaustible (Perhaps the best formula for the lyrical and the lyric is this: being doomed to inexhaustibility!) The more you draw out, the more there remains. This is why it never disappears.
Pure lyricists, only-lyricsts, don’t allow anything alien into themselves, and they have an instinct for this just as poets with history have an instinct for their own general line. The whole empirical world is for them [lyric poets] a foreign body. In this sense, they have the power to choose, or more exactly, the power to select, or more exactly, the power to reject.
Tsvetaeva is an extreme example of a lyric poem. Her lyric poetry is inexhaustible because her self must always, from the extreme of feeling, gather into itself in the lyric poem; reading her poetry is like “being somewhere” not only because it is varied in its sameness, but because the sense of “being somewhere,” is an end to which the poetry aspires. She not only has the power to choose and the power to reject the “foreign body” that is the world–but her poetry is a demonstration, a reminder and an enactment, of the power to choose and reject, since that power of choice and rejection is what remains to her, and must be exercised, at her remove—from the past, from the addressees of her poems, from her homes, from even her self.
Here the epilogue to Poem of the Mountain (1924):
There are blanks in memory cataracts
on our eyes; the seven veils.
I no longer remember you separately
as a face but a white emptiness
without true features. All– is a
whiteness. (My spirit is one
uninterrupted wound.) The chalk of
details must belong to tailors!
The dome of heaven was built in a single frame
and oceans are featureless a mass of
drops that cannot be distinguished. You
are unique. And love is no detective.
Let now some neighbor say whether your
hair is black or fair, for he can tell.
I leave that to physicians or watchmakers.
What passion has a use for such details?
You are a full, unbroken circle, a
whirlwind or wholly turned to stone.
I cannot think of you apart from
love. There is an equal sign.
(In heaps of sleepy down, and falls of
water, hills of foam, there is
a new sound, strange to my hearing,
instead if I a regal we)
and though life’s beggared now and
narrowed into how things are
still I cannot see you joined to
revenge of memory.
Tsvetaeva in a letter to Pasternak, May 1926:
But there’s one thing, Boris: I don’t like these. Can’t bear it. A vast expanse and nothing to walk on–that’s one thing. In constant motion and I can only watch it–that’s another. Why, Boris, it’s the same thing all over again, i.e., it’s my notorious involuntary immobility….It cannot be caressed (too wet). It cannot be worshiped (too terrible). As I would have hated Jehovah, for instance, as I hate any great power. The sea is a dictatorship, Boris. A mountain is a divinity. A mountain as many sides to it. A mountain stoops to the level of Mur (touched by him!) and rises to Goethe’s brow; then, not to embarrass him, rises even higher. A mountain has streams, nests, games. A mountain is first and foremost what I stand on, Boris. My exact worth. A mountain is a great dash on the printed page, Boris, to be filled in with a deep sigh.
To end, the seventh part of the Poem of the Mountain:
The mountain mourned for what is now blood
and heat will turn only to sadness.
The mountain mourned. It will not let us go.
It will not let you lie with someone else!
The mountain mourned, for what is now
world and Rome will turn only to smoke.
The mountain mourned, because we shall be with
others. (And I do not envy them!)
The mountain mourned: for the terrible load
of promises, too late for us to renounce.
The mountain mourned the ancient nature of
the Gordian knot of law and passion.
The mountain mourned for our mourning also.
For tomorrow! Not yet! Above our foreheads
will break–death’s sea of–memories!
For tomorrow, when we shall realize!
That sound what? as if someone were
crying just nearby? Can that be it?
The mountain is mourning. Because we must go down
separately, over such mud,
into life which we all know is nothing but
mob market barracks:
That sound said: all poems of
mountains are written thus
The poem is written to recover the mountain; to allow the poet to be overtaken by its force of gravity and pull of place; it is the lost place, the original point of return that exile forbids, comforting because it mourns for her no less than she for it. And it almost made to return to hand: “That sound….crying just nearby? Can that be it?”
Sighing for the mountain, in the spaces and dashes of the page, in the rewritten language of her poetry, she finds her self to stand upon.