‘Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva’
Translated by Belinda Cooke
The skilful and evocative translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems and the insightful introduction to her life and work by Belinda Cooke reveal to the reader the power and richness of the Russian poet’s oeuvre. Tsvetaeva faced the First World War, the Russian Revolution and died in 1941 at the beginning of the Second World War. She came from a middle-class family where art and music were central, and therefore she felt marginalised in the proletarian culture that followed the fall of the tzar. Her husband fought with the White army, and when they were defeated in 1920 the family was forced into exile. The long period of displacement and dispossession that followed caused moments of depression that eventually led her to kill herself but also fuelled her creativity.
Exile is the common thread of the poems. It is an inner exile, an alienation that isolates the poet from the world around her, which is considered hostile, dangerous and sometimes inexplicable. It is also an alienation from her own self that desperately wishes to carry on living despite despair and hopelessness. She witnesses and records the dire time of the First World War and of the Russian Revolution when famine and destruction spread. The poet portrays the peculiar experience of women and, at the same time, her work is also a political commentary, in a wider perspective, on the social changes occurring in Russia and in Europe during the ‘terrible years’ that eventually led to the Second World War. Her lyrical poetry reflects the poverty she endured and the loneliness of her life after the exile and her profound emotional involvement at a personal and human level. Critics often speak of her passion in the sense that she pushes the boundaries of poetry, creating fresh images and metaphors and unexpected shifts that surprise the reader and challenge ordinariness. Unusual interpretations propose an uncommon angle on topics such as love and death or figures of literature such as Ophelia and Phaedra. This shifting quality that reflects a sense of displacement is therefore not only revealed in the diaristic record of the events of Tsvetaeva’s life, it is also reflected in the syntax, the form and the view that she conveys in her poems.
The collection follows a loose chronological order starting from the time when the revolution exploded in Moscow, then to the exile in Berlin, Prague and Paris and finally the return to Russia, now the Soviet Union, in 1939. She followed her husband’s destiny ‘like a dog’, maintaining nevertheless her poetical freedom, which is also testified to in the affairs with women and men she had throughout her life and her intellectual relations with writers such as Mayakovski, Rilke and Pasternak.
The poems chosen by Cooke show the ‘wide-ranging subject matter, and shifting voices’ that characterise Tsvetaeva’s poetry that is included in this ‘lyric diary’ that effectively portrays her life and the development of her poetry. She is considered a modernist who belongs to the silver age of the Russian poetical scenario and one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Though the exile years were devastating for her family, they triggered dense verses, the exploration of topical themes and a prolific production of work.
‘Over the churches, blue clouds
and the call of crows …
revolutionary troops march by,
the colour of ash and sand …
O how luxurious this longing of mine –
coming deep from some aristocratic past.’
(‘Over the churches, blue clouds’)
‘I welcomed in the New Year alone –
I who was rich – was poor.
I who was winged – was cursed.’
(‘I welcome in the New Year alone’)
The effects of the revolt evoke images of death. The body is reduced to dust and the ‘crows’ of the revolution turn the social structures upside down. The dispossessed and exploited classes become the rulers. Therefore, the past is obliterated – it survives only in the poet’s memories. Eventually, the revenge of the lower classes would be ruthless and brutal; the effects on Tsvetaeva’s family would be tragic as well, as happened to many aristocratic and middle-class people at the time. In the 1930s, her husband eventually supported the Soviet Union’s policies, becoming a spy for the NKVD, then the KGB, but he was considered a suspect when he went back to his own country.
Tsvetaeva depicts herself as an orphan, with no place to dwell and no country to return to:
‘ for the path of comets
is the path of poets: burning without warming,
he reaps before he sows – an explosion and a bursting forth –
your pathway is long-maned and crooked,
not predicted by the calendar.’
‘conspirators: versts, far off places –
they didn’t untune us, but made us lose in different places
in slums and earthly latitudes,
treated us like orphans.’
(‘Distance, verst, miles’)
‘Dish drained to the last drop,
shining and clean,
demolished house –
No sign of that Russia.
No sign of me.’
The poet experiences loss and absence but this also triggers a wider view, a desire for an unlimited imagination, a ‘measurelessness/ in a world of measure’. This is an almost impossible achievement, the poet suggests in a lyrical dreamlike dimension that is opposed to the dreadful reality she is living. Therefore, decay and death linger in many of her poems in a paradoxical view where destruction and creative vitality coexist:
‘Surrender. Face it – this isn’t a fairytale.
Surrender. The arrow has come full circle …
Surrender – you’ve no chance of escaping’
(‘From Wires’ 3)
‘Yes, for this battle with love
wild and wild-hearted
to make granite eyebrows dart upwards –
to breathe out into death!’
‘Death, little one is not to sleep, but to rise,
not to sleep but to return.
Swim my little one. You’ve already
left the step …
Resurrection into day.’
In her parable about moving from being privileged to unprivileged, the poet looks for a transcendence that is inevitably lost in an ironic discourse that proposes resilience and eternity of sorts in a world that has changed and where nothing is stable any more:
‘That mountain was worlds! God
revenges those who aspire to his heights.
Grief began with the mountain,
a gravestone weighing me down.’
(‘Poem of the Mountain’ 8)
Her husband and children wanted to go back to Russia and she followed them even though she was worried. It was a final mistake that destroyed the family. Her husband was arrested and executed and her daughter Alya was deported to a gulag. Tsvetaeva and her son were forced to live in Elabuga without any financial support or any possibility of having a job. She hanged herself in a moment of extreme depression:
‘I refuse to swim
with the sharks of the plains,
below with their backs to the current –
I refuse to be.
I need neither hearing
nor prophetic eyes.
To your mad world, there’s only
one response – refusal.’
(‘What tears in our eyes now’)
She opposes her refusal both to the latest political events, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Hitler’s army, and to her doomed destiny in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where she was condemned to isolation and starvation.
The poems chosen for inclusion in Forms of Exile are good representations of Marina Tsvestaeva’s work, giving an exhaustive perspective on her work and life; they testify to the multiple layers of meaning in her poetry and her awareness of the social and political changes of the time. The passion and clarity conveyed by Tsvetaeva’s verses reveal the daring and terrible aspects of her living in emotional lines that always intimately interrogate the reader.