Marina Tsvetaeva is one of those poets whose biography (privilege, revolution, poverty, exile, return, suicide) tends to generate more word-count than their work. Presumably that’s not merely because of her life’s drama and passion, and because the distance between the lived and written personae appears so small, but because the work is so difficult. Nonetheless, translators do love a challenge and there are nowadays plenty of options in English – Feinstein, Alvi/Krasnova, White, Whyte, Naydam/Yastremski, Kneller, Kossman, McDuff, just for starters – giving us Tsvetaeva’s who are fatalist, formalist, bourgeois, Orthodox, faithless, feminist, tsarist, unstable, ironic, bisexual, cool, or all of these. As for this book, most of the translations in its second half – from After Russia and the Thirties – are already available in Belinda Cooke’s praised 2008 selection from Worple Press with only minor amendments here. (And many of those look like typos, of which this book has rather a few.) The new ones come from 1917-8 and the early Twenties. This means we get less of the joyously passionate Tsvetaeva and more of the grief, anger and despair:
O, from the open drop
to fall below – to become dust and jet-black.
This Tsvetaeva often has a contemporary demotic feel (‘I’ve had it with obsessing’), though she can equally (‘That which is called death’) be grammatically traditionalist. Like most of her anglophone incarnations, she’s cut down on the abundant exclamation marks, so that for example, ‘– увы!’ (lit: alas!) becomes the much more English ‘Sadly, […]’. Some insistent anaphora is also softened, lines are occasionally moved about, and there’s no attempt to imitate the original’s rhyme-schemes. Visually, these versions (mostly) preserve stanza-lengths and indentations but indulge greater variance in the line-lengths. They also keep many of the dashes and ellipses attendant on Tsvetaeva’s compulsive aposiopesis, but don’t fetishize doing so; so that this, for instance (to a now far-distant Pasternak):
Не рассорили — рассорили,
(lit: not fallen out — fallen out,/ stratified…)
they didn’t make us quarrel
but they dropped us like litter,
they lay us apart, put us in separate layers of cake,
The repeated ‘they’s replace the original ‘ras-’ head-rhymes. The liquids and sibilants are reordered but still detectable. And the translation explicates (or interprets) the concisions, albeit at some length. As a good Modernist, Tsvetaeva gives the underinformed reader no quarter, so it’s similarly useful to have, for instance, ‘the Twelve Apostles’ glossed as ‘Prague’s/ […] clock of the Twelve Apostles’. Often, however, the sonics are quite untranslatable. ‘Poem of the Mountain’ relies on the ‘gor-’ head-rhymes in the Russian words for ‘mountain’ and ‘grief’/’grieved’, and subsequently for ‘city’, ‘hump’, ‘spoke’, ‘Gordian knot’ and so on, so that the speaker like a weighed-down Atlas keeps emitting ‘gor’s as groan-sounds themselves. Feinstein tried ‘the mountain mourned’, but are those ‘m’s just too soothing a noise? Cooke, whether sensibly or despairingly, just doesn’t go there.
Plenty remains, in whatever event, for the British reader to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’). This is a book packed with love and death, Classical and Biblical allusion, poems about how important poets are (we all like those), monologues on the model of the Heroides, lips, sin, the ‘milky call’ of the Russian language, ‘roses of blood’, ‘God in a brothel’ and ‘this most fairytale of orphanhoods’. What more do we ask of the world’s famous poets?
Guy Russell 8th October 2021