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
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
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
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
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
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
in mine, for instance, (out of bounds)
wives dream of Byrons.
But what can
dream of at
night - Say what?
where Livingstone has:
towns (my kind of
Men dream of
Babies - of
Now come on,
What do they
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
Judases of all faiths.
Let's go to
anywhere only not
life which puts up with
those who are sheep to butchers!
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
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
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
Because the poet goes
The way of
comets, he doesn't warm,
He burns, he
doesn't nurture - he's violence and storm.
trajectory of your fiery path
plotted by the curve of a graph!
heat, without farming
What they are is: blown-up,
as song is
graph of their path
is a storm
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.
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
* In Modern Poetry in Translation #20
** At The American Poetry review web site.