“I am happy living simply/ like a clock, or a calendar,” Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in 1919.
Tsvetaeva’s life was anything but simple, for she had the misfortune of living through some of the most turbulent years in Russian history.
She married Sergei Efron in 1912, but was soon separated from him during the Civil War. She had a brief love affair with writer Osip Mandelstam, and a longer relationship with Sofia Parnok. She nearly starved to death in the Moscow famine and lost one daughter to starvation. The family fled to Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they lived in poverty. Tsvetaeva, Efron, and her two remaining children returned to the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a fatal decision, for Efron was arrested in Moscow and executed, and her surviving daughter, Ariadna, who had been imprisoned in the 30s, was sent to a labor camp. Their son Mur soon died in World War II. Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself on August 31, 1941.
It is because of the efforts of Tsvetaeva’s sister, Anastasia, who served two terms in labor camps, and her daughter, Ariadna Efron, that we have a rich collection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, notebooks, and manuscripts today.
With Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Alice James Books, 2012), Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky and American poet Jean Valentine have created a brilliant collection of “readings” of Tsvetaeva. These are not translations in the strictest sense, but renderings of a small selection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, journals, and prose. The book also includes a CD of fifteen Tsvetaeva pieces read in the original Russian by Polina Barskova and Valzhyna Mort.
For a reader like myself, largely unfamiliar with Tsvetaeva’s vast oeuvre, Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva is the perfect introduction to this unique, passionate voice. Through their astute selection of passages, careful arrangement, and sharp, empathetic ear, Jean and Ilya have made Tsvetaeva, the most mysterious of Russian poets, more alive, while also giving us a glimpse of the everyday life of women during these “terrible years” of Russian history. Here is a passage from Tsvetaeva’s poem “The Desk”:
I’ve loved living with little.
There are dishes I’ve never tried.
But you, you people eat slowly, and often;
you eat and eat….
You—with belches, I—with books,
with truffles, you. With pencil, I,
you and your olives, me and my rhyme,
with pickles, you. I, with poems.
When Tsvetaeva writes, “My little thefts in the Commissariat: two gorgeous checkered notebooks (yellow, bright), a whole box of quills to write with, a glass bubble of red English ink. I am writing with it now,” there is a special intimacy to her words. Kaminsky and Valentine are like guides, leading us to a beautiful, but somewhat mysterious place. With skill and brevity, they reveal the essence of Tsvetaeva, and in doing so, create a deeper understanding and connection between the Russian poet and her English readers.
The book’s superb afterword, written by Kaminsky, is a work of art in and of itself. Kaminsky’s experimental essay weaves together fragments of Tsvetaeva’s writing with facts about her own life story, along with Ilya’s own thoughts and impressions of the poet.
Kaminsky helps us understand (through Tsvetaeva’s eyes) that language, like silence, is powerful, most especially in a culture where there is no free speech. This is why in 1922 “the Communists ordered two hundred philosophers, scientists, and writers to board a ship. Subsequently called The Philosophers’ Ship, it included every single prominent non-Marxist philosopher in Russia. All were sent into exile.” That same year Tsvetaeva also left Russia for Berlin.
Here is Kaminsky quoting Tsvetaeva:
“My motherland is any place with a writing desk, a window, and a tree by that window.” She wrote in exile: “For lyric poets and fairy-tale authors, it is better that they see their motherland from afar—from a great distance…”
“Russia (the sound of the word) no longer exists, there exist four letters: USSR—I cannot and will not go where there are no vowels, into those whistling consonants. And, they won’t let me there, the letters won’t open.”
As Kaminsky explains, Tsvetaeva almost starved to death after the Revolution. Believing that her two daughters would be better fed and cared for, the poet left her girls in an orphanage. Despite her efforts, the younger daughter, Irina, died of starvation. When Tsvetaeva learned the news from a stranger on the street, her response was to live in silence for three months.
Again, Tsvetaeva: “not a word of death—to anyone—so she [the child] did not die finally, and still (in me)—lived. This is why your Rilke did not mention my name. To name [call/speak]—is to take apart: to separate self from thing. I don’t name anyone—ever.” As Kaminsky notes, Tsvetaeva’s silence is a remarkable fact: “Marina Tsvetaeva, the poet so obsessed with the Russian language, the Russian poet of her generation, the poet who wrote elegies for everyone else—including the living—at her own elegiac moment, chose not to speak.”
For Tsvetaeva, poetics were not only political, but also extremely personal. She didn’t translate Rilke, Pushkin, Shakespeare, and Lermontov as much as rewrite them. According to Kaminsky, “Scholars call her best work of translation—her take on Baudelaire’s ‘Voyage”—a work translated ‘not from French into Russian’ but from ‘Baudelaire into Tsvetaeva.'”
And this is, to some degree, how Kaminsky and Valentine have chosen to approach Tsvetaeva herself. “To imitate Tsvetaeva’s sounds produces just that: an attempt at imitation that cannont rise to the level of the original,” writes Kaminsky.
“To translate is to inhabit. The meaning of the word ekstasis is to stand outside of one’s body. This we do not claim. (We wish we could, one day.) Jean Valentine and I claim we are two poets who fell in love with a third and spent two years reading her together….These pages are fragments, notes in the margin. ‘Erase everything you have written,’ Mandelstam says, ‘but keep the notes in the margin.’
This “homage” to Tsvetaeva captures moments, lines, and fragments the way a talented artist captures an individual with a few well-placed strokes of charcoal. As artists understand, a faithful rendering is not always the best way to capture an individual, a scene, or an idea. It is not completeness or precision that are most important, but instead, intuition, empathy, and artfulness. And in this sense Dark Elderberry Branch succeeds brilliantly.
Not only does this extraordinary book allow us to sit across the table from one of Russia’s greatest poets, but we enjoy this privilege with two gifted guides at our side—guides who are geniuses of language in their own right. We would be remiss not to pause and pull up a chair.
from Poems for Blok
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.
APRIL 15, 1916
Assassination Attempt on Lenin
Evening of the same day. My roommate, communist Zaks, bursting into
“And are you happy?”
I look down—not from shyness, of course: afraid to offend him. (Lenin
has been shot. The White Army has entered the city, all the communists
have been hanged, Zaks first among them.) Already I feel the generosity
of the winning side.
“And you—are you very upset?”
“I?” (Tremble of shoulders.) “For us, Marxists, who don’t recognize
personal identity in history, this, in general terms, is not important—Lenin
or someone else. It is you, the representatives of bourgeois culture,” (new
spasm), “with your Napoleons and your Caesars,” (a devilish smile),
“. . . but for us, us, us, you understand . . . Today it is Lenin, and tomorrow
Offended on Lenin’s behalf (!), I say nothing. Awkward pause. And then,
quickly-quickly, he says:
“—Marina, I’ve got some sugar here, three-quarters of a pound, I don’t
need it; perhaps you would take it for your daughter?”
DAYBOOK, MOSCOW, 1918-19
from An Attempt at Jealousy
How is your life with that other one?
Simpler, is it? A stroke of the oars
and a long coastline—
and the memory of me
is soon a drifting island
(not in—the ocean—in the air!).
Souls—you will be sisters—
sisters, not lovers.
How is your life with an ordinary
woman? Without the god inside her?
The queen supplanted—
How do you breathe now?
Flinch, waking up?
What do you do, poor man?
“Hysterics and interruptions—
enough! I’ll rent my own house!”
How is your life with that other,
you, my own.
Is the breakfast egg boiled?
(If you get sick, don’t blame me!)
How is it, living with a postcard?
You who stood on Sinai.
How’s your life with a tourist
on Earth? Her rib (do you love her?)
—to your liking?
Is it life? Do you cough?
Do you hum to drown out the mice in your mind?
How do you live with cheap goods: is the market rising?
How’s kissing plaster-dust?
Are you bored with her new body?
How’s it going, with an earthly woman,
with no sixth sense?
Are you happy?
No? In a shallow pit—how is your life,
my beloved. Hard as mine
with another man?
from Poems for Akhmatova
I won’t fall behind you. I’m the guard.
You—the prisoner. Our fate is the same.
And here in the same open emptiness
they command us the same—Go away.
So—I lean against nothing.
I see it.
Let me go, my prisoner,
to walk over towards that pine tree.
The mysterious disappearance of the photographer on Tverskaya Street,
who long and stubbornly took (free) pictures of the Soviet elite.
EARTHLY TRACES, 1919-20
Not long ago, in Kuntsevo, I suddenly crossed myself when I saw an oak.
Evidently, the source of prayer is not fear, but delight.
EARTHLY TRACES, 1919-20
About Ilya Kaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, former Soviet Union in 1977, and arrived to the United States in 1993, when his family was granted asylum by the American government.
Kaminsky is the author of Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), which won the Whiting Writer’s Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, the Dorset Prize, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship given annually by Poetry magazine. Dancing In Odessa was also named Best Poetry Book of the Year 2004 by ForeWord Magazine. In 2008, Kaminsky was awarded Lannan Foundation’s Literary Fellowship
Poems from his new manuscript, Deaf Republic, were awarded Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize and the Pushcart Prize.
His anthology of 20th century poetry in translation, Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, was published by Harper Collins in March, 2010.
His poems have been translated into numerous langauges and his books have been published in Holland, Russia, France, Spain. Another translation is forthcoming in China, where his poetry was awarded the Yinchuan International Poetry Prize.
Kaminsky has worked as a law clerk for San Francisco Legal Aid and the National Immigration Law Center.
Currently, he teaches English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.
For more information about Ilya and his work, please visit his website.
About Jean Valentine
Jean Valentine was born in Chicago, earned her B.A. from Radcliffe College, and has lived most of her life in New York City. She won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book, Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry, Break the Glass (2010) from Copper Canyon Press, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965 – 2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. Her latest chapbook is [The ship] from Red Glass Books.
Valentine was the State Poet of New York for two years, starting in the spring of 2008. She received the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, a $100,000 prize which recognizes outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. Valentine has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the NEA, The Bunting Institute, The Rockefeller Foundation, The New York Council for the Arts, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as the Maurice English Prize, the Teasdale Poetry Prize, and The Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize in 2000. She has also been awarded residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Ucross, and the Lannan Foundation.
Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Graduate Writing Program of New York University, Columbia University, and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
Her lyric poems delve into dream lives with glimpses of the personal and political. In the New York Times Book Review, David Kalstone said of her work, “Valentine has a gift for tough strangeness, but also a dreamlike syntax and manner of arranging the lines of . . . short poems so as to draw us into the doubleness and fluency of feelings.” In a 2002 interview with Eve Grubin, Valentine commented about her work, “I am going towards the spiritual rather than away from it.” In addition to writing her own poems, she has translated work by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva.
For more information about Jean Valentine and her work, please visit her website.
An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive
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All poems © Ilya Kaminsky, Jean Valentine, and Marina Tsvetaeva. These poems were published with express permission from the authors and Alice James Books. All Rights Reserved.