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Alive, it’s not dead,
This demon in me!
In my body as in a cargo-hold,
In myself as in a prison.
All the world’s—walls.
The exit’s—an axe.
(“All the world’s—a stage,”
An actor prattles).
And he wasn’t cunning,
That lame fool.
In the body—as in a rumor,
In the body—as in a toga!
May you live many years!
(As only poets do
To the bone—by some lie!)
No, it’s not for us to step out,
My singing brethren,
In the body as in the quilted
Smocks of our father.
Better is what we deserve.
We wither in this warmth.
In the body—as in a close room,
In ourselves—as in a caldera.
We can’t keep the transitory
In the body—as in a swamp,
In the body—as in a vault,
In the body—as in farthest
In the body—as in the dark,
In my temples—as in the vise
Of an iron mask.
6 January 1925
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Squeezed into this basin of my
Existence, in this stupor of slackness,
Buried alive under this avalanche
Of days—as if in penal servitude, I let go of life.
These are my winter-quarters, deathly and sealed.
Death: a hoarfrost on my beautiful lips—
I have no wish for better health
From God or come the spring.
11 January 1925
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What, my Muse? Is she still alive?
Like one captive taps her comrade
On the ear, the little pit, gouged by a finger
--What my Muse? Will she be here long?
Neighbors, entangled by their hearts.
Prisoners tapping out their exchanges.
What my Muse? Is she still alive?
Impossible to tell from the eyes of desire,
What’s true or covered by a smile,
Or by the neighbors, one rack to the right
--What, dear boy? Did we manage a brief hour?
A wink passed through a sick ward.
Eh, my affairs! Eh, transparent, if somewhat gauzy!
Like those aerial battles above the Armies,
All scribbled over with summer-lightning slants,
Eyebrows passing flashes.
In a funnel of dissipated haze—
Soldiers passing trash-talking.
Come, my Muse! A rhyme at least!
Of cheek—like Ilium flaring up—
To cheek: “No regrets! Hammering flat
All my connections—Death! Later, then?”
My sweet death-bed’s—
Last exchange of embraces.
15 January 1925
* * *
Into grey—my temples,
Into a ditch—my soldier,
--Sky!—like the sea I bleed into you.
So with every syllable—
At your secret glance
Into a skirmish—my Scythian,
Into flagellation—my Kh’yst,
--Sea!—like the sky I enter you.
So with every line—
At your secret signal
I listen up.
At every line: stop!
At every turn—treasure.
--Eye!—like light I settle into you.
I melt. As longing
On a guitar fret
I retune myself,
I restring myself.
Marriage lies—not in the down
But in the quills—of swans!
Marriages that are divisive, and diverse!
So at the mark of my dash—
As at a secret sign
Your eyebrows rise—
Do you even trust me?
Not in this weak tea
Of rumor—with my breath so strong.
And my stock—so considerable!
Under your thumb
Like the Lord’s wafer
I am ground,
Broken in two.
22 January 1925
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* * *
"Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow in 1892, and began to publish in her teens, to multiple good reviews by Russian literary critics. She was a working contemporary of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke, all of whom were important to her as rivals, lovers, correspondents and mentors, from time to time.
"Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union in 1922 to reunite with her husband after a four year wartime separation, and lived as an exile in Berlin, Prague and Paris through 1939. The period of exile in Prague, lasting from August of 1922 to May of 1925, was a very productive period, with new poems arriving every other day or so, or sometimes two poems a day, until her son, Georgy (nicknamed Mur) was born in 1924, when the poems slow to a relative trickle.
"These particular poems were written in Prague between January 6, 1925 and January 22, 1925. In these four poems, her spirit struggles after a difficult final winter living in the small villages surrounding Prague in considerable poverty with her young daughter, infant son, and dependent-student-war-veteran husband. While living in and around Prague, the family was supported by Tsvetaeva's writing, small refugee pensions from the Czech government supplemented by direct gifts from Czech literary friends like Anna Teskova. By spring of 1925, Tsvetaeva moved on to Paris, where, in 1928, these poems were collected into her final published book of shorter lyrics, After Russia.
"Russian critic Simon Karlinsky, also her biographer, offers this judgment of her work of this period: "if we were to select the verse collection by Tsvetaeva in which her poetic craft reaches its highest peak, and her human and poetic stature its more awesome dimension and sweep, we would have to choose Posle Rossii [After Russia]."
"During this time of exile, and continuing on as she moved to Paris, Tsvetaeva was writing very frequently to Pasternak; for example, the 2nd and 3rd stanzas of "Into grey--my temples" were included in one of these letters to him.
"In 1939, Tsvetaeva and her son chose to follow her husband and daughter back to the Soviet Union. Her husband, Sergei Efron, was executed shortly afterward; her daughter, Ariadna (Alya), was also arrested and committed to a labor camp; her teen-aged son was unsettled and unhappy in the USSR, and later died as a soldier in World War II, all too shortly after Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941, in Elabuga, where she and her son had been evacuated to the safety of dire poverty. At the time of her death, she was 48.
I began translating Tsvetaeva in about 1978, upon the recommendation of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:
"Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I'll give you a list of poets. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (and she is the greatest one in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman." Joseph Brodsky, "Questions and Answers after Brodsy's Reading, 21 February 1978," Iowa Review 9(4): 4-5.
Translations and text by Mary Jane White, MFA, Iowa Writers' Workshop, NEA Fellow in Poetry and Translation.
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