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Sibelan Forrester

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Translator's Note

Sibelan Forrester

Marina Tsvetaeva published her cycle “Razluka” in a slender volume with the same title in Berlin in 1922. The strong musical qualities of the verse inspired Andrej Belyj, who had been suffering a writer’s block, to write a number of poems later published as Posle Razluki (Berlin, 1922). The last poem in that volume is dedicated to Tsvetaeva. She describes their Berlin friendship in her memoir of Belyj, “Plennyj dukh” (‘The Captive Spirit,’ which gave its title to J. Marin King’s fine 1980 translation of Tsvetaeva’s prose into English), so the connection between the poets is not a secret connection. Perhaps Belyj’s title, Posle Razluki, even glimmers in the title of the last volume of poetry Tsvetaeva published in her lifetime, Posle Rossii (1928).

I meant to include the final poem from Posle Razluki, the one dedicated to Tsvetavea, after my translation of “Razluka,” but the poem simply isn’t as good as hers are, and I couldn’t compel any music from it. Perhaps he was hearing an inner music as he wrote it that was not conveyed in the poem itself? His whole collection, though it picks up many of the traits of “Razluka,” is still strongly Symbolist in its thematic. (Many readers of Russian poetry find Belyj better as a reader and a theorist, or as an autobiographer, than as a poet.)

The cycle “Razluka” also appeared in Tsvetaeva’s 1923 collection Remeslo. It has always been one of my favorites, for the same things Belyj saw: musicality and a wonderful, “invincible” rhythm. The broken lines might invite comparison to that master of tonic verse Vladimir Mayakovsky (in his pre-lesenka period). The triumphant rhythm perfectly bodies forth the tumbling chains of associations, the feeling that the speaker’s words are pouring out in unmeditated haste, though in fact everything is very carefully chosen and arranged. Tsvetaeva’s intensity is precisely aimed (to borrow the military vocabulary of parts of the cycle). Multiple meanings of words like “boj” [‘striking,’ but also ‘battle’] and “val” [‘wave’ or ‘billow’ but also ‘rampart’] connect to the plight of Tsvetaeva’s husband, Sergei Efron, who was fighting in the White Army, while suggesting that the poet is a kind of warrior – as indeed emerges as we move through the cycle. These words of rich meaning also pack intensity into single syllables (the average word length in Russian is longer, more like two and a half syllables – if a half syllable counts in a poem).

The cycle moves in several directions at once: it dwells on the poet’s fear of losing Efron, from whom she had heard nothing for a worryingly long time. I feel it return to the 1920 death of Tsvetaeva’s younger daughter, Irina, of starvation; the little hands (ruchenki) would be less appropriate her older daughter Alya, who was nine in 1921. It binds the loss of Irina to the fear of losing Efron: their love is a tiny lamb and he is like Ganymede in the beak of Zeus’s eagle, another child she fears losing to death (or abandoning): she let him go to join the army, and look what happened! (He similarly shapes the miniature, pre-pubescent St. George of the cycle “Georgii,” which follows “Razluka” in the book Remeslo.) Tsvetaeva wrote that she feared Efron would no longer want her without Irina, since she had not managed to preserve both of her children. The cycle edges into imagining suicide (to join Sergei, if he is gone?), stressing her desire to leap from a tower (like Joan of Arc, one of Tsvetaeva’s favorite role models); the move “rhymes” with the poet’s hooked leap from a bell-tower in the cycle “Poet” (Joseph Brodsky connected it to Otto Lilienthal, the “glider king,” who died after a fall in 1896). Like many Tsvetaeva poems, especially from the early 1920s, the cycle treats the departure to write or even to become a poet, a mother who gives up familial connections and obligations with anguish but perhaps without regret, in order to accept inspiration. The “winged one” who stamps and neighs in the cycle’s fifth poem is Pegasus, and the poet is an Amazon. (By tradition, the Amazons had one breast cut off, to make them better archers but also as if to suggest a chosen or culturally imposed inability to nurture her children enough – again tied to the starvation of little Irina). The horse appears in an illuminated flyway; he is a fiery horse like the one in “Na Krasnom kone,” a longer poem from the same time in Tsvetaeva’s like. It also addresses the woman poet’s anxiety and fear over what the choice to be a poet might cost her and her nearest and dearest, though there it is phrased as having a cruel (male) Muse. The cycle presents a dense node of Tsvetaevan concerns and images: the Amazon and Pegasus! – which might remind us that Pegasus was born of the blood of the Medusa: woman’s blood underlies her poetics as a deep but tragic source of creativity, as of human life. Like Joan of Arc (who leapt from a tower after she was captured), the woman poet hears voices but risks a fiery death. We may consider Remeslo an especially feminist volume of poetry, given that its title was taken from a poem by Karolina Pavlova: “Moja napast’, moe blazhenstvo,/ Moe svjatoe remeslo!”

(I end this little piece with gratitude to Dr. Ol’ga Lang (1898-1992): she was a graduate of the Bestuzhev courses, a leftist, translator, teacher, scholar, and connoisseur of literature, fascinating enough to deserve a whole article of her own. From the library of books she left to Swarthmore College, I inherited the volume from which I made this translation: the 1923 Gelikon" edition of Remeslo, hard signs and all. There are secret underground connections not just between poets, but between Slavists as well.)

Sibelan Forrester             



Tower-bell striking
There in the Kremlin.
Where on the earth is,
Where –

Fortress of mine,
Meekness of mine,
Valor of mine,
Holy of mine.

Tower-bell striking,
Left-behind striking.
Where on the earth is –
My – dream,
My – laugh,
My – light,
Of narrow soles – a print.

As if a hand
Cast down the striking –
Into the night.

- My downcast one!

                         May 1921


I lift the hands that I let fall
So long ago.
Into a black and empty window
Empty hands
I fling into mid-nocturnal striking
Clocks – I want
To go home! – Like this: head first
– From the tower! – Homeward!

Not onto the cobbled square:
Into rustle and whisper…
Some youthful Warrior will spread
His wing beneath me.

                                       May 1921


Harder and harder
Start wringing my hands!
Between us not earthly
Versts – but divisive
Celestial rivers, azure nations,
Where my friend is forever already –

The high road races
In silvery harness.
I don’t wring my hands!
I only extend them
– In silence! –
Like a tree-(waving)-rowan
To parting,
The wake of a crane-wedge flying.

The crane train is racing,
Racing, no backward glances.
I’ll not desert haughtiness!
In death – I’ll abide
Elegant – to your gold-fledged quickness
The very last buttress
To the losses of space!



Cover the bedstead
In swarthy olive.
The gods are jealous
Toward mortal love.

Each rustle to them
Is distinct, each swish.
Know, this young man is dear
Not to you alone.

Some one is incensed
With his luscious May-day.
Mind you, be wary
Of sharp-eyed heaven.

You think – it’s the cliffs
That attract, the crags,
You think, it’s the many-voiced
Summons of glory

Calling him – to the crush,
Chest-first at the spears?
As a rising billow
– You think – it buries?

A nether sting
– You think – penetrated?
Harsher than exile
Is this tsar’s favor!

You weep that it’s too late
To wander the valleys.
Don’t fear the earthborn
– Fear the invisible!

To them, each hair
Is known on the comb.
Thousand-eyed are
The gods, as of old

Fear not the mire –
But the heavenly firmament!
The heart of Zeus is

                                        June 12


Ever so softly
With a hand slim and careful
I loosen the trammels:
Little hands – and obedient
To the neighing, the Amazon rustles
Off on the ringing, empty steps of parting.

In the radiant flyway
The winged one tramples
And neighs. – Dawn’s flare in the eyes.
Little hands, little hands!
You call to no purpose:
Between us there flows Lethe’s streaming staircase.

                                                             June 14


You won’t see me – grey.
I won’t see you – grown.
From immobilized eyes
You can’t squeeze a tear.

To all of your torment,
Dawn’s explosion – lament:
– Lower your arm!
Shed your raincoat!

In the dispassion
Of a stone-eyed cameo,
I won’t linger in the door,
As mothers linger:

(All the gravity of blood,
Of knees, of eyes –
For the very last earthly

Not as a sneaking broken beast –
No, as a stone massif
I’ll go out of the door –
From life. For what then
Should tears flow,
As long as – I’m a stone off your

Not a stone! – Already
In aquiline wideness –
A cloak! – and already on the azure rapids
Into that radiant city,
Whither – no mother
Dares to bring
Her child.

                                                              June 15


Like a silvery sapling
He darted upward.
That Zeus not
Espy him –

At the first rustle
Take fear and alarm.
They are jealous of
Masculine charm.

More dreadful than the jaws
Of a beast – is their call.
The nest of the gods
Is jealous of charm.

With blossoms, with laurels
They’ll lure him aloft.
That Zeus not
Elect him –

The whole sky in a thunder
Of eagles’ wings.
Crash down with your whole breast –
That they not conceal him.

In the aquiline thunder
– Oh beak! Oh blood! –
A miniscule lamb
Is dangling – Love…

With your hair unbound,
With your whole breast – prone!
That Zeus not
Exalt him –

                                                             June 16


I know, I know
That earthly charm,
That this incised
And charming cup –
Is no more ours
Than the air,
Than the stars,
Than the nests
That hang in dawn’s glow.

I know, I know
Who is the cup’s – owner!
But set a light foot forward – tower-like
To aquiline heights!
And with a wing – strike
That cup from the terrible
Lips of God!

                                                             June 17

© Copyright  Sibelan Forrester, intoruction, translation from Russian
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