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Angela Livingstone

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Angela Livingstone


From “The Ratcatcher. A Lyrical Satire”.

In her own new version of the medieval tale of the Ratcatcher (cp. Browning’s “Pied Piper”), who rids Hamlin town first of its rats and then of its children, Tsvetaeva mocks both the materialistic citizens and the fickle revolutionaries (the rats), her flute-playing ratcatcher representing music and spirituality. I give here (a) the opening section (part of “Hamlin Town”) and (b) part of “The Abduction”, where the rats approach the moment of drowning.


          Very old the town of Hamlin. 
          Meek in speech and strict in act.
                    Staunch in big as well as small things.
                    Splendid little town in fact.

                    When the Comet was predicted 
                    Hamlin slept throughout the night.
                    Stoutly built, so clean and perfect:
                    Touchingly, it’s rather like

                    (I wouldn’t touch him with a barge-pole!)
                      Him - the mayor, the Burgomaster.

                    Tailoring isn’t expensive in Hamlin: 
                    There’s only one manner of dressing.
                    Living isn’t expensive in Hamlin, 
                    And everyone dies with a blessing.

                    Tenpence a carcase; a jugful of cream - 
                    Five; and cheeses, mostly,
                    Go for a penny. Just one, it would seem,
                    Of Hamlin’s wares is costly:

                    Of some old sire:
                                ‘Dear means rare’.

                    No pretty girls letting down their hair, 
                    No one in debt, and thirst
                    Never means more than a mug of beer.
                    Take gold or blood from your purse

                    If it’s sin you’re purchasing. Those who’ve slept 
                    Five decades - fifty years! -
                    Together upon one bed (the dears)
                    Carry on sleeping. ‘Sweat,

                    Decay: we’ve shared it.’ Grass or mattress - 
                    What’s the difference?

                    (Lord preserve me from sleeping even 
                    Five years on one bed – I’d as soon
                    Hire myself out as a pet dog’s groom!)
                    Well, their souls are in Heaven.

                              A thought, an epiphany: 
                    What if 
                              They haven’t any?

                    Hands - to squeeze sixpences out of pence, 
                    Feet - just in case of a debtor.
                    But why have a soul? In what possible sense
                    Would a soul be anything better

                    Than futile things like a clarinet, 
                    Or hammock, or basket of mignonette?
          There isn’t a single (write this down) 
                    Clarinet in Hamlin. 
          There isn’t a single soul to be found
                    There - but what bodies, upstanding

                    Solid ones! A concrete post 
          Is worth any amount of ghost. 


‘I see pagoda domes!’
          ‘I see a blue-blue shine!’
          ‘I see rice-paddies.’
          ‘We’re going to drink palm wine!’ 

Since the primaeval thunder, 
          Since the primaeval slumber,
          Rats and children have craved 
          Candy and sugar-cane.

          How many years is the world?
          How many moments old?
          Capsicum blooms in the winds.
          In the winds, sugar resounds.

          Shagreen - not virgin soil!
          In the blue light a trawl
          Of plum. It’s the fourth day
          And no countable year at all.


          No canvas, but a carnage
            Of colours. Primal silt.
          Proto-creative scrawl 
          Of genius. First trial

          Of demon strength. Flint
          Struck by the first tool.
          Fourth hour of the world,
          And no countable day at all.


          Indigo ! First tint. 
          India! First plaint 
          Of animal. Look - the world,
          Poet, is four moments old!

          Foretasting when I’ll fold
          Time like a rough draft...
          A flash of the eye, the last,
          And the world’s not a moment old...


From “Poem of the Air”.

Having been silently summoned by an unnamed guest (one surmises that it is the dead Rilke), the poet leaves her house and rises through seven levels of ever lighter and sparser air to reach a final ecstatic condition beyond breathing. This passage is from part seven, which describes the third level.

Lighter - no skiff lighter
lying on littoral mica. 
O how light the air is:
rarer, ever rarer...
Slide of ludic fishes –
tail-of-trout elusive...
O the air is streamy!
Streamier than speeding 
hound through oats – and slippery!
Soft as hair – and wafty! – 
of just-crawling infants –
watering-cans aren't streamier!
More: it's streamier, even,
than a lime-bark lining
freshly stripped, or onion.
Through pagoda-music
born of beads and bamboo -
through pagoda-veilings...
shshshsh! we'd move for ever...
Why is Hermes winged, then?
Fins would be more (floating)
fitting! See, a downpour!
Rainbow-Iris! Shall we
move through your shower of Cashmere,
Shemakhàn... A dancing


From “New Year’s Letter”.

In this poem-letter to Rilke, who has recently died, the poet seeks to learn from him what it is like in the other world.

How many times I wondered, from my school bench:
what are the mountains like, there? And the rivers?
Are the landscapes nice without the tourists?
Am I right, Rainer, that Heaven is mountainous,
thunderous? Not the widow-claimants’ paradise -
must be more than one Heaven? Maybe terraced? 
One above the other? Heaven cannot be
(judging by the Tatras) not an amphi - 
-theatre. (With the curtain down on someone...)
Rainer, am I right that God’s a growing
Baobab? He’s not a roi soleil – there’s
more than one God? With, above him, further
  up, another? 
How’s the writing so far?
Anyway if you are, verse is, you are
verse! How’s writing going in the good life,
where you’ve got no desk for elbows, brow for
cupped palm...?
A note, please - usual cipher! 
Rainer, are you enjoying the new rhyming?
  For, to explicate the word correctly:
‘rhyme’ - what else – conceivably - can – Death be
but a set of new rhymes? 


From “Attempt at a Room”

In this extremely difficult poem, the poet seeks to create a room in which to meet another poet (known from her letters to be Pasternak – who can’t leave Soviet Russia, and she lives in France). I give (a) the opening lines: three walls ready but not the fourth; (b) part 4: the room is imagined but has no physicality; (c) the final lines: the room disintegrates.


Walls of stagnance were counted up 
long before. But - a leap? Fortuity? 
Three walls have I memorised. 
Fourth – I can’t give a guarantee.

  Who can tell, with their back to the wall?
May be there, but it also may
not. And wasn’t. A draught blew. But 
if not wall at one’s back, then what?
. . . .


Tryst house. The other houses
all - parting-houses, even if
south-southern. Is it hands that 
serve? No, it’s something else,

much quieter, lighter, cleaner.
Junk, renovated, plus 
all services? Abandoned,
gaunt, starving penury!

Yes, here we’re touch-me-nots, and
  quite rightly. Slaves of hands,
hands’ - thoughts, and hands’- conclusions,
tips, ends, the ends of hands...

No fervid cries “where are you?” 
I’m waiting. Gestures take 
over all the serving, silent,
in the palace of the mind.
. . . . .


Was it because the walls were gone -
undeniably the ceiling leaned 

down, and only the vocative case
flowered in mouths. And the floor – sheer gap. 
Through the gap, and green as the Nile,
ceiling undeniably floated. 

As for floor, what else can one say
to floor but “Be damned!” Whoever cares 
about dirt on floors? No chalk? – Look up! 
The whole poet, by a single dash,

holds on...
               Over two bodies’ nothing
the ceiling undeniably sang - 
like all the angels.


From “Phaedra”.

A servant narrates to Hippolytus the death in battle of his mother Antiope, a Queen of the Amazons (legendary nation of women-fighters, said to have cut off one of their breasts so as to use weapons more easily); abducted by the Athenian king Theseus, Antiope fought at his side when her own nation of Amazons made war against him.

I have finished
wanting, living. But I see this
through a cloud of twice seven years:
how she fought beside your father,
Amazon against her tribe,
flesh warring with kindred flesh,
daughter of a host of man-haters.
Just as though a ring-finger
fought the middle finger, or a
middle finger fought the palm!
After three years in the valley of women, 
that fierce-fleshed throng, the daughter
clad herself in martial armour,
dazzling every eye [that saw her]. 
And each one’s chest was cleft for war,
and a sigh was sighed of more than love,
a single sigh through both the camps.

What a furnace! What a battle!
To this day, I tell you, down my
spine there goes an icy shiver:
how she fought beside your father -
tautening her bow – with her own sinew? –
with her own womanly will – so wondrous
was her bow its upsurge seemed, to
gods and humans both, a doubled
female breast, an airy outline,
like a wave against a galleon! – 
Taking aim not just with eye and
elbow, but with every vein
that beat within her, taking aim
with all her body, man-equal - god-equal! 
with her never-used-up quiver 
fuller than a horn of plenty, 
radiant under the hostile downpour
  there she stood, afraid of nothing! - 
bowstring taunting tauter bowstrings, 
fleshless bosom turned aside and
merging with the chest-tight bow so
closely the arrows seemed to fly
not from the string but from the heart! those
arrows passionate for destruction,
fast, so fast, in endless sequence,
it could be (but was it war she 
waged or thread she span?) a single
arrow flying from the string.
Was a lion beside the ferocious 
woman? – no, for even a god in
such cruel fight would seem more timorous. 
Thus she fought beside your father,
facing darts, refusing pleasures.


Translations of Tsvetaeva’s verse: The Ratcatcher [Krysolov] (c.2000 lines), publ. as book by Angel Classics, 1999, and Northwestern Univ.Press, 2009; Poem of the Air [Poema vozdukha] (c.350 lines) publ. in Modern Poetry in Translation, 21,’03; New Year’s Letter, [Novogodnee] (217 lines), MPT, 22, ’03; Attempt at a Room [Popytka komnaty] (190 lines), first draft completed; Phaedra [Fedra] (c.1850 lines), in progress. 

© Copyright Angela Livingstone
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