It always seemed to me that it would be impossible to translate many poems by Tsvetaeva. The musical qualities, the lyricism, technicality, the extreme and distinctive voice, as if language were a white hot metal rod, sizzling on the tongue, ready to be wrought into hitherto unimaginable shapes. And the fierce sincerity of her poems. Any good translation would be a rare as a real poem. No mechanical translation would do: mechanical verse would be anti-Tsvetaevan.
And yet she has been well received in English-speaking countries. At a recent poetry reading dedicated to Tsvetaeva I heard the famous English poet Wendy Cope say that Elaine Feinstein’s translations had been an inspiration to her in the dark days when poetry was a man’s world and women poets wrote like male poets in order to succeed. Tsvetaeva’s strident individualism, her eccentricity, her lack of inhibition permitted English women poets to write about their own concerns, in their own voices. Tsvetaeva’s biography has also been a matter of great interest outside Russia. The Tsvetaeva translator and poet Elaine Feinstein spoke at length about Tsvetaeva’s tragic life and her suicide and the audience were clearly much moved.
I had been invited to the event to comment on the way that Tsvetaeva was viewed by contemporary Russian poets, particularly women. And I reflected that Tsvetaeva was received very differently in Russian. Her technical skills, her musicality, the range of her poetic resources inspired the Russian poets I had talked to. The poet Elena Fanailova said, half in jest, that if she had one ‘rival’, someone she would like to surpass technically, it was Marina Tsvetaeva. Maria Galina wrote about the dangerous influence Tsvetaeva had on adolescent would-be poets, dazzled by the strength of voice and unable to see the technical rigour. Many of the poets admitted to returning to her at a later stage in their poetic careers, better able to recognise her formal brilliance.
An audience member asked me how Russian poets felt about the tragedy of her life. I paused. None of the Russian poets had mentioned her biography, perhaps because the strength of her poetry puts her beyond pity. After all we were not talking about a tragedy, but about one of the great poetical flowerings in the Russian language.
Three poems by Marina Tsvetaeva
Night in my own vast town – night
I slip the sleeping house – take flight
Others take me for daughter, bride
Yet I know only – night.
The July wind brushes my path before
A song from someone’s window – hardly at all
And now the wind will blow – till dawn
Through the breast’s thin wall – and on.
There’s a poplar – black, and a window – lit
And ringing from a tower and a flower in the fist
And this step I take in nobody’s tread
And this shadow I throw, although I am shed.
Lights, like threads of golden beads
Mouth holds taste of night-leaves
Friends, unpick these daylight seams –
For you must know: I am made of your dreams.
Another window high
Where no one’s sleeping yet
Perhaps they’re drinking wine
Perhaps they’re sitting yet
Or two hands are clasped
That will not be undone
There’s a window like that
In every single home.
Cries of meeting, parting –
You, window in the night!
Perhaps a sea of candles burning
Perhaps three tapers alight...
My mind wants rest
But finds none.
A window just like that
And in my own home.
Pray, friend, for the sleepless home
Pray for the window and its flame.
Caught on a bayonet, the point of a fang, in a drift, frozen, a burst of fire –
Eternity’s train – every hour – departing!
Here I am – a station, I’m sure.
And where’s the point in unpacking?
At everyone, everything – with the indifferent gaze
Of eyes, for whom End is the single truth –
How natural it seems on the third class bench
After the stifling ladies’ waiting room.
Reheated chops, red-raw cheeks...
O soul, may we not pass from this place –
I’d rather stop in the gutter, on the street –
Than hear the shrill falseness of fate:
Curling rags, posset cloths
Tongs – are they hot enough? –
Curls, singed and kinking
And bonnets and stinking
And the pleasures of sewing,
And of family (klein wenig!)
And did we bring any...
Crackers and coffee, and nannies and nappies
And the fragrance of bonnes and babbies.
I won’t wait out my mortal hour
In this crate of female flesh!
I want the train to drink and sing:
No more classes in death!
For valour and stupor, the accordion, the forging forward, the spent in vain!
– How those godless men do pester!
And some wanderer who will say:
‘The life beyond...’ - and I’ll add: ‘better!’
The carriage step. The rails. A last fist
Of leaves. I let them go. Too late to grasp
Tight. The rails. So many talking lips
Tire me. I look at the stars.
I look at the planets, the lost planets
Through a rainbow – was anyone ever counting?
I look and I see the End, only this,
And where’s the point in atoning?
Translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale
© Copyright Sasha Dugdale, intoruction, translation from Russian