Slippery Stuff


Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems
, Marina Tsvetaeva,
translated by Elaine Feinstein (166 pp, 14.95, Carcanet)


This book could be reviewed by saying simply it's a reprint of previous editions (OUP 1981, enlarged from an edition 10 years earlier, then Hutchinson 1986) with the addition of these poems: Girlfriend, On a red horse, a section from Wires, Poem of the End lyric 11, and New Year's Greeting) and to leave at that. There is so much autobiography in the poems, so much to be guessed at, and such variation in available other translations, it seems too much to unravel - and because she overwhelms me.
    
On her life there has been Elaine Feinstein's own biography ('A Captive Lion, 1987) and amongst others a big one by Viktoria Schweitzer, called simply 'Tsvetaeva', translated 1992. There have been letters (Pasternak, Rilke), diaries, other prose - and what I want is to hear her voice
, as one expects nowadays, on YouTube. Sadly no.
    
The word 'translation' is slippery. So far as I can see, David McDuff (Bloodaxe 1987) worked directly from her Russian, whereas (not unusually in the translation field or forest) Elaine Feinstein thanks other people - ten of them - for their initial translations, from which this book has then been constructed. No objection to this (I would like to have spent years of my life at it and only this second way would have been open to me). But whose poems are they now?
   
There is an Appendix (1971) by Angela Livingstone, the principal co-worker, which made me want the whole book to be of this kind - for DIY translation - detailing as it does part of one section (the opening of lyric 6 of 'Poem of the End') minus (I'm sorry to say) 'notes on diction, connotations, etc.' So we have the Russian or some of it (transliterated) along with note-form translations.
   
Starting from these I made a chart, putting them alongside Feinstein, McDuff and a web version by Mary Jane White, 2005, as dramatisation between Tsvetaeva and Konstantin Rodzevich: the poem explodes as an imagined walk across the bridges of Prague after the ending of a brief and passionate few months together. This (14 lyrics, 24 pages in Feinstein's version) is the poem's context.
   
My chart can't be reproduced here, I can say only that as an exercise it could, for me, enable discovery of Tsvetaeva or it could lose her: her voice and her art. This whole poem is a species of letter not to be sent, and it seems the task of the translator is to deal adequately with the fragmentation, the stops and starts, and of course with the root anguish.
   
To take one instance, a parenthesis. At stanza 4, Angela Livingstone offers for part of it: (Like a-handkerchief / At the-hour of-voluptuous recklessness
[into stanza 5] / Dropped...). For which Feinstein has: '(as sweetly casual/ as a handkerchief dropped without / thought.' McDuff had: '(Like a handkerchief's square/ In the hour of sweet outrage, oblivion, / Dropped...)'. And Mary Jane White: '(As it were some handkerchief/ Let drop at a point of sweet / Excess...)'.
   
I return to wanting Angela Livingstone's notes whole, her 'note' version seeming to me the most vivid and alive. None of the bona fide
published versions at this point seems alive to me, I hear no voice and, from what is presented, am caught up in no poem, except that - in a hazy sort of trick of the imagination - I hear voice-poem somewhere prior to it, Marina Tsvetaeva (with the help of a biography) becoming (for me anyway) in some significant way present.
   
Probably it's a small point, whether capitalisation of the beginnings of lines carries of itself any meaning, whether with or without it matters. Angela Livingstone seems to tell me Tsvetaeva did it; McDuff and White do it, Feinstein has consistently used our contemporary mode of lower case. I think she is right, bringing the original to us where we are. It might be said otherwise: Tsvetaeva was early 20thC Russian (died by hanging herself 1941) and this needs conveying.
   
It is possible to compare Feinstein with Livingstone, where the latter has published a translation of  'The Ratcatcher' (1999), a book-length Tsvetaeva poem (the Pied Piper story), and Feinstein has included a few sections of it, with crib translation by someone else, Vera Traill. The latter version has:

     In all other cities,
        in mine, for instance, (out of bounds)
     husbands are mermaids, and
        wives dream of Byrons.

     Children see devils,
     and servants see horsemen.
     But what can these, Morpheus,
     citizens so sinless

     dream of at night - Say what
?

where Livingstone has:

     In other towns (my kind of
     Over-the-top-towns) -
     Men dream of sirens,
     Wives dream of Byrons,

     Babies - of bogeys,
     Housemaids - of horsemen...
     Now come on, Morpheus,
     In virtuous Hamlin -

     What do they dream of?

There is a significant difference, isn't there, in tone, in conveyance? (Morpheus in Greek mythology is the god of dreams.)
    
There is so much to try to catch in translation: tone of voice, this poet's breaking-point  emotions, the shaping - and sound (I suppose impossible) -of the poem. Four stanzas from elsewhere in 'Poem of the End' (in lyric 12, Feinstein) show the complexity:

     Life is for converts only
        Judases of all faiths.
     Let's go to leprous islands
        or hell      anywhere       only not

     life     which puts up with traitors, with
        those who are sheep     to butchers!
     This paper which gives me the
        right to live - I stamp. With my feet.

     Stamp! for the shield of David.
       Vengeance! for heaps of bodies
     and they say after all (delicious) the
       Jews didn't want to live!

     Ghetto of the chosen. Beyond this
       ditch. No mercy
     In this     most Christian of worlds
        all poets      are Jews.

By any standards, 'bringing this poem over' looks forbiddingly tricky. Tsvetaeva's husband was Jewish, she wrote the poem in Prague in the early 1920s, whether in an accepted mode for the time or not, I don't know. It seems erratic, which must be an attempt to follow it as closely as possible . (In the book, after 'No mercy' there is no full stop, followed by capitalised 'In' on the next line.)
   
There are subsidiary questions, which I suppose have no bearing on the translation. Or perhaps they do. For example, did Tsvetaeva make one or many drafts of this poem, of these stanzas, or was this there and then it? It seems like IT.
   
What it means to be - to find yourself - a poet is pitched as intensely as it can be for Tsvetaeva. Her poem 'The Poet' (1923) clings to and curses such a fate. Here is a fragment of it from the end of the first section (of 3) by three translators:

     ........................... for the path of comets
     is the path of poets: they burn without warning,
     pick without cultivating. They are: an explosion, a breaking in -
     and the mane of their path makes the     curve of a
     graph   cannot be foretold by the calendar.          [Feinstein]

                         Because the poet goes
     The way of comets, he doesn't warm,
     He burns, he doesn't nurture - he's violence and storm.
     Poet, the trajectory of your fiery path
     Can't be plotted by the curve of a graph!             [Stephen Capus]*
                                                                                 
     ................... Because poets
     and comets catch
     fire without heat, without farming
     they harvest. What they are is: blown-up,
     as song is broken
     into. The graph of their path
     is a storm
     without warning.                                       [Christine Davis]**

Why did Tsvetaeva write here of the poet as a man? Very puzzling, isn't it?
   
Is it a minor point to wonder why the cover of the book under review has what is clearly a portrait, but not of her? It is 'Seated Woman with Bent Knee
(detail)', 1917, by Egon Schiele. The portrait has been trimmed to a close-up of the face, which (I suppose) we are invited to see as representing Tsvetaeva in some essential way. Most usually an actual photo of her has been used on book covers. Perhaps, although she has intense eyes, those pictures were thought not dramatic enough. But it's a species of PR trickery, isn't it. melodramatic?
   
Much more could be said of this book: poems from all stages of her life, not much fun but a steady intensity rare in any poet. Why did she have to write? Never answerable but always worth asking. Sad that she seemed not to have had much fun and that her loves, emotional upheavals - with women and men - commitments that didn't last (though Schweitzer's biography says her husband had a consistent, strong place in her life, painfully for both of them: a letter of his to a friend, in the biography, is as painful as you could wish not to have to read) - but now I am presuming to know and to make it simple. How really to hear her?
  
There's a cultural thing, deeper and more mysterious than any book can bridge, that makes the divide (I speak only for myself) between me and her a chasm: in consciousness, in fatefulness, and she's a woman. Passionate, it is clear, often on a roll of creating, politically out of sync with the powers-that-were. While, at the same time, her biography and poems are of love, passion, loss, the fate of her children, altogether a kind of mismatch about living at all: stuff that - thankyou! - carries anywhere, and artfully
, will do.

     David Hart 2009

*  In Modern Poetry in Translation #20
** At The American Poetry
review web site.