Thursday, September 17, 2009

Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva

The first part of the 20th century was the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the time of many of Russia's greatest poets both inside and outside the Soviet system: Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, and lots of other folks that we, as Americans have never heard of (except for Pasternak, and that's for his novel, after all). Marina Tsvetaeva was one of these poets. Born into a well-to-do but very unstable family, and coming of age just as the Russian revolution came to fruition, married to a man who was first a white Russian officer and later a Soviet spy, friends with Red and White Russians and distrusted by both sides because of it, Marina Tsvetaeva had a very tumultuous life.

This omnipresent feeling of pain in Tsvetaeva's life is inescapable in her poetry. BUT. So a sort 'I burn my candle on both ends' lust for living. It's this tension, between love and hopelessness, between life and death, that gives her best poems power:

A kiss on the head--wipes away misery
I kiss your head.

A kiss on the eyes--takes away sleeplessness.
I kiss your eyes.

A kiss on the lips--quenches the deepest thirst.
I kiss your lips.

A kiss on the head--wipes away memory.
I kiss your head.


It crawls, the underground snake,
crawls, with its load of people.
And each one has his
newspaper, his skin
disease; a twitch of chewing;
newspaper caries.
Masticators of gum,
readers of newspapers.

And who are the readers? old men? athletes?
soldiers? No face, no features,
no age. Skeletons--there's no
face, only the newspaper page.

All Paris is dressed
this way from forehead to navel.
Give it up, girl, or
you'll give birth to
a reader of newspapers.

Tsvetaeva's poetry (as you can see in the first one above, particularly) is inextricably tied up with the idea of love, which to her is always forbidden (partly this is because she was bisexual, partly because she never seemed to find someone willing to burn as bright and fast as she did). To her, the world is a great, grey place, dotted with the beautiful streaks of color, and life - the poet's life particularly - is a struggle to bathe in that color as long as possible.

Tsvetaeva despite her intensely political surroundings was not a politician - which, in a sense made her the best political writer possible. Her best friends were poets, and she loved them whatever their political stripe. Her politics, such as they were, were based in a love for beautiful things, for a world that makes beauty sacred. Thus, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, a nation that she had been happy in and loved deeply during her exile from Russia, her voice woke up to the world and spoke outside her deeply introspective daily life:

They took quickly, they took hugely,
took the mountains and their entrails.
They took our coal and took our stell
from us, lead they took also and crystal...
Bullets they took from us, they took our rifles
minerals they took, and comrades too.
But while our mouths have spittle in them
the whole country is still armed.

This poem is from 1938. A year later, she and her family returned to Russia. Her daughter Alya was seduced by a man she did not know was an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agent, who married her in order to spy on the family. Alya and Tsvetaeva's husband were executed for espionage shortly thereafter. Tsvetaeva was forced to leave her home during the German invasion and subsequent migration in World War II. Two years later, deprived of a living by the government who suspected her poetry of being disloyal, forced into an unfamiliar town in the middle of nowhere, completely alone, living in a broken down hovel (which one can still visit, apparently), Tsvetaeva hung herself from the rafters of her house.


Amanda said...

Does your copy of this book have any information about her life?

Unknown said...

A little bit in the introduction, though not a great deal. I'm TOTALLY adding a biography of her to my list of stuff to read.

hamilcar barca said...

great review, Jason. i especially like the excerpts you chose of her poetry. very powerful words, and it gives readers an opportunity to see whether they'd like her poems. the verse about the German occupation of Czechoslovakia is quite moving.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mr. Barca - I'm glad you enjoyed it. I've been putting off writing it for a week, because I relaly loved it - I'm glad it came out alright :).