Writing Tsvetaeva into our American Canon

As I reflect upon my relationship as a reader-translator of Tsvetaeva, I find that as a contemporary American woman who began reading, writing and translating poetry in the early 1970’s, I share a generational point of view with my American contemporary Tess Gallagher as expressed in her introductory essay “Translating the fine excess of spirit in Marina Tsvetaeva”1:

Marina Tsvetaeva holds a very special place in my memory of the search for women writers who might offer examples of what to admire and to which we might aspire.

The early 1970s female models for young women poets like myself, as we began to form our poetic voices, were either hermetic such as Emily Dickinson — who was shuttered away, with her bounty hidden in mason jars because her genius had been thwarted by male publishing predilections — or at the other end of the scale, the explosive cauldron of pent up righteous anger and truth-telling of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton — for which one was grateful, while feeling guiltily that one had perhaps been ritually saved by their suicides from similar psychic trauma.

My own first early 1970’s introduction to Marina Tsvetaeva came as I was beginning to read and struggling to write poetry in English while also beginning and struggling to learn the rudiments of inflected Russian grammar at Reed College. Tsvetaeva was introduced by a brief selection of en face translations in an anthology edited by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks, Modern Russian Poetry, one of a number of textbooks for a Russian literature course taught by Elena Sokol.

I remember that the particular Tsvetaeva poem that struck me as memorable was “An Attempt at Jealousy.” Where I had ever heard a voice like that? Never!

This, now, is my new translation:

An Attempt at Jealousy

How is your life with another, —
Simpler, is it? — One stroke of an oar!—
And as easily as some coastline
Your memory of me 

Recedes, like a floating island
(In the sky — not the water!)
Souls, souls! should be your sisters,
Not your mistress—es! 

How is your life with a simple
Woman? Without your goddess?
Your Majesty dethroned, over—
Thrown (by a single slip-up), 

How is your life — keeping busy —
Holed up? How do you even — get up?
With the customs of undying banality
How do you manage, poor man?

 “Enough of these eruptions —
And scenes! I’ll get my own house.”
How is life with just anyone —
My chosen one!

With more appropriate, more edible —
Food? Fed up — not your fault . . .
How is your life with a molehill —
You, who trampled Sinai! 

How is your life with a foreigner,
A local? Close to your rib — a dear?
Doesn’t shame lash your head
Like the reins of Zeus? 

How is your life — are you well —
Able? Do you sing ever — how?
With the curse of undying conscience
How do you manage, poor man? 

How is your life with a commodity
Of the market? Finding her rent — steep?
After the marble of Carrara
How is life with the dust 

Of plaster? (A God—hewn from
Blocks — and now utterly shattered!)
How is your life with the hundredth-thousandth —
You, who knew Lilith! 

Does your novelty of the market
Satisfy? Grown cool to enchantment,
How is your life with an earthly
Woman, with no sixth 

         Well, I declare: are you happy?

No? In a shallow draining whirl —
How is your life, darling? Is it harder,
As it is for me, with another?
                                 19 November 19242

Here was, as Tess Gallagher describes her, “the Tsvetaeva who really wants to love like the gods, not like a mere human being,” for whom “it was not easy to find lovers who could soar with her,”3 the Tsvetaeva who “uses her poetry to regain her emotional balance. Instead of cutting a lover off for leaving her, or becoming the victim, she turns the tables on them and lets them feel what they have lost in abandoning their love of her. This was a newly articulated paradigm for women poets all over the world trying to do more than lick wounds in the stance of a victim.”4

Later, in the mid-1970’s, as I was writing toward my MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and finishing my law degree, I had the opportunity to work a couple of seasons for the International Writing Program as an assistant to Directors Paul and Hualing Engle; each week I was handed literal “trots” from various world languages to translate writers’ presentations (on deadline!) into English.

During those rich and busy years at Iowa, I also studied with Russian translators, John Glad and Daniel Weissbort (who with Ted Hughes founded and edited Modern Poetry in Translation), and was able to contribute my own first translations of Russian poems by Nikolay Gumilyov, Vladislav Khodasevich, Vyacheslav Ivanov, and Edward Limonov to the anthology they co-edited, Russian Poetry: The Modern Period (1978, University of Iowa Press), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Then, in February of 1978, I turned my attention to translating Tsvetaeva because:

...as an anonymous member of an Iowa City audience I had the opportunity to ask Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky several questions about Anna Akhmatova — whose reputation remains wider than Tsvetaeva’s. Akhmatova and Brodsky were acquainted in Moscow when she was a very old woman and he a young man. He confessed that they had gossiped, as poets will do, about other poets, but that Akhmatova then ‘was awfully humble. She used to say that ‘in comparison with [Pushkin] and Tsvetaeva I am just a little cow. I am a cow,’ that’s what she used to say.’5

I think now of what Tsvetaeva6 might have given to have been eavesdropping then! Or later, as Brodsky gave his 1978 recommendation for reading:

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).7

This exchange is in curious accord with Tess Gallagher’s own recent comparative description of the differing appeals of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva:

In placing Tsvetaeva’s appeal to American contemporary poetry of the present and myself in the 1970’s, I believe she has been the more dangerous and unwieldy model when compared to Akhmatova, who became so important to us as a sign of stature under political and emotional duress, attracting translators such as Jane Kenyon whose own work was greatly emboldened by Akhmatova.8

Brodsky’s direct answers to my questions-from-the-floor raised in me an early ambition to write a Tsvetaeva in English that would serve my own and the next generation of American poets, a translation that would let Tsvetaeva “wear fully the stature of the English she might have given us, had she written in English.”9

Since 1978, I’ve continued to work on reading and translating Tsvetaeva, taking Brodsky’s answers as a sort of assignment, for nearly forty years ... with one long unsteady break of 15 years between 1991-2006 to raise my son out of his childhood autism. What an emotional day it was in the late fall of 2005 when my son’s recovery from autism seemed secure, when I brought my large poetry library, my little red notebooks, and my dictionaries up from the basement where I had banished them into tightly-taped boxes, so they would not present any competing temptation to the attention my son’s recovery and special education had required.

The hospitable Benedictine monks of St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, who provided my son’s rigorously academic high school education, kindly opened their monastery there to me each weekend, giving me a vacant monk’s cell—a place to begin to write again.

On weekdays and court days I resumed dragging my thrice–re-bound Oxford Russian-English Dictionary and little red moleskin notebooks from courthouse to courthouse throughout five counties of Northeast Iowa, working in fits and starts while waiting for my assigned legal hearings and cases to be called—trial law being like war: hurry up, and wait. What you do during the wait is another life...

Publication of the translations of the three longer poemas included in this collection followed quickly in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2013 in the New England Review (ed. C. Dale Young), The Hudson Review (ed. Paula Dietz), and in chapbook publication by Adastra Press (ed. Gary Metras).

The translation of “Poem of the End” first appeared in The Hudson Review’s 60th Anniversary edition (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), and was then included in The Hudson Review’s recently-published anthology drawing upon sixty years of their translation publications, Poets Translate Poets (Syracuse: 2013) in most-distinguished company—of poets, and translators alike.

Then Stephan Delbos, editor of BODY online magazine, who lives and works in Prague, called me one day out of the blue to ask if I was “the Mary Jane White who translates Tsvetaeva” and his call eventually led to the Hudson Review allowing Delbos to include my translation of “Poem of the End” in his anthology, From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Univerzita Karlova v Praze: 2011), and to my travelling to Prague to give a reading of “Poem of the End,” sponsored by BODY and the small and lovely Tsvetaeva Centre there.

Prague, in winter, was just as I imagined—well, you bring your own eyes and expectations to any travel experience—but I was able to walk the neighborhoods and bridges of Prague, and spend a day in Tsvetaeva’s favorite Café Slavia at the foot of the Charles Bridge talking to Russian-born students, and listening to Tsvetaeva read to me in Russian.

What a great privilege is has been to try to translate Tsvetaeva!

Beginning with her early cycles, “Miles I and II”:10

[m]y approach to translating Tsvetaeva has been to produce an accurate literal version that is not painful or awkward for an American speaker to read. Early in the process, I looked up each word in the Oxford Russian-English dictionary and noted each meaning of the work and every idiom in which it is reported to be used. This part of translating has the same attraction for me as crossword puzzles do for other people; it like knitting, or doing tax returns. It produces the calm high of word or number intoxication. My purpose in doing this is to obtain, by osmosis, a sure feeling for the texture of the particular language Tsvetaeva has chosen, the texture, if you will, of her diction. This slow acquaintance and the notes—to which I refer back—aid me in making a sure choice among the various meanings for each individual word.

I make an effort to keep the material of a single line confined to a single line of translation — this, to preserve the pace of the original as much as possible. This is not an original idea at all. While a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, I traveled often to Vancouver, Washington to visit Mary Barnard, the wonderful translator of Sappho. It was she who convinced me of the value of this general rule of fidelity and pointed out to me how preserving the pace of the original was useful in reproducing its tone. Think of how speeding up or slowing down a film introduces an overall comic or lyrical effect. In the interest of maintain this fidelity to pace and tone I try not to omit, or to pad. Tsvetaeva can be very abbreviated and abrupt in the original. She would suffer from “explanation added.”

I did not attempt to translate in rhyme or meter, although Tsvetaeva’s poems are rhymed and metered with the same fresh and surprising closeness of, say, Ezra Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. It has been observed that rhyming at least is much easier to do in Russian than in English. In part this is due to the fact that Russian is an inflected language. This inflection also results in a greater variety and syllable depth of rhyme and of assonance than in English — a rhyme might extend through as many as three syllables, and an assonance might be found upon a stressed vowel or vowel sound three syllables deep into the rhyming words. So, as you read, you must think of all this as missing.11

Here is how Tsvetaeva’s Russian critic, Karlinsky describes what-remains-missing from these translations:

Already in 1922, Andrei Bely, in his brief review of Tsvetaeva’s [earlier] collection Separation, pointed out the central importance of the choriamb for the haunting effect of her metrical patterns: ‘The [impulse forward] is astounding in the plasticity of its gestures ...; and the choriamb (-- U U --), which Tsvetaeva wields magnificently, is the obedient expression of this [impulse forward]. Just as in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony the heart beats in choriambic measures, so here a choriambic leitmotif arises, which becomes a palpable melodic gesture, integrated into various rhythms.’ A choriamb is a four-syllable metrical unit in which the first and fourth syllables are stressed and the second and third are not. In traditional Russian versification, this sequence occurred on the infrequent occasions of trochaic substitution in iambic lines and vice versa. It never had an independent existence. In After Russia ..., Tsvetaeva made the choriamb her basic metrical building block, using it either unadulterated or in various logaoedic mixtures with iambic or trochai patterns.... [T]he sheer prevalence of such meters in After Russia is what gives the poems of this collection an unprecedented sonority.”12

And here is how Tsvetaeva’s Russian reader, Brodsky describes what-remains-missing from these translations:

Oversaturated with stresses, the harmony of Tsvetaeva’s verse line is unpredictable; she leans more toward trochees and dactyls than toward the certitude of the iamb.13 The beginnings of her lines tend to be trochaic rather than stressed, the endings mournful, dactylic. It’s hard to find another poet who has made such skillful and abundant use of caesura and truncated feet. In terms of form, Tsvetaeva is significantly more interesting than any of her contemporaries, including the Futurists, and her rhymes are more inventive than Pasternak’s. Most importantly, however, her technical achievements have not been dictated by formal explorations but are by-products—that is, natural effects—of speech, for which the most significant thing is its subject.14

Despite what-remains-missing, I’ve tried to preserve Tsvetaeva’s speech, her voice, and her subjects. And, with the very rarest exceptions, these translations preserve Tsvetaeva’s “more eccentric punctuation used to express her poetry’s hyperbole, and functioning within her work as an active formal marker to gauge her emotion accurately.”15 As poet Tess Gallagher has observed, “The plenitude of dashes and exclamations are important musical scorings” for Tsvetaeva,16 “Tsvetaeva’s sign of equality (or inequality) — the dash — separates [words] more than a comma would” (17)

At times, Tsvetaeva uses considerable enjambment (as did Rilke in German in his early work with which she was thoroughly familiar before 1926) so despite her use of rhyme and meter “the thought tends to muscle past the end-line to complete itself in a restless pause at mid-line, and then plunge onward.”18 As Joseph Brodsky has observed: “We needn’t look very far” for “her signature, her fingerprint” of “enjambment extending through the second, third, and fourth lines of ‘Novogodnee’ [‘New Year’s’]”.19

He adds:

But perhaps, precisely because of the frequency of [her use of enjambment], this device did not satisfy her enough, and she felt the need to ‘animate’ it with parentheses — that minimalized form of lyrical digressing. (In general, Tsvetaeva, like no one else, indulged in the use of typographic means of expressing subordinate aspects of speech).20

Another Tsvetaeva signature of note to Brodsky is “the Russian subordinate clause put at the service of Calvinism.... Calvinism in the embrace of this subordinate clause ... [so] it seems there is no more absorbing, more capacious, and more natural form for self-analysis than the one that is built into the multi-stage syntax of the Russian complex sentence.”21

In making these translations it was impossible to escape an awareness of Tsvetaeva’s frequent use of polysemy: “Her virtuosic manipulation of context and the associative capacity of language enable her to engage a panoply of meanings in her texts in very specific ways.”22 For one notable example, see Tsvetaeva’s masterful use of telegraph wires or “lines,” whose sagging from pole to pole are “sighs” along the railway “easements” in her much-admired early-Prague cycle of poems to Pasternak, or her use of “trumpets” and “smokestacks” (one and the same word in Russian) in “About Factories.”

And, there is everywhere and always her sheer joy in sound—her particular melopoeia—which sometimes flashes through (with luck) as in this little bit of early incantation coaxed out of her comb:

Run a finger lightly — a clicking glissando

About me alone, and all about me.23

In these translations, like Stephen Mitchell’s of Rilke24, by working as nearly as possible to maintain the content-integrity of her lines, her enjambments, parentheses, dashes, and being sensitive to her models of polysemy, and sound patterning, I’ve tried to “render exactly” Tsvetaeva’s “own sculptural articulation so that it becomes possible for English readers to sense” her “inner stylistic development” and her ways of using the poetic line and “the “the infinite subordinate clause”.25 As I worked through the final drafts, this arose as the principal difficulty in wrestling with Tsvetaeva’s angel, and steadily resolved, and came to rest producing what are, hopefully, faithfully-structured, consistent translations that in effect, preserve Tsvetaeva’s logopoeia.

What appear on the surface to be contradictions and incongruities drive in fact from her highly controlled use of contrasts, paradoxes, and oppositions. In her essentially Hegelian approach, oppositions are not simply synthesized but are shown instead to be products of a circumscribed perspective, which is escaped when the opposition is pressed far enough to reveal its limitations.”26

The general philosophical notions that inform Tsvetaeva’s poetry find precise, concrete expression in the material of her art — from minute detail and textual devices of individual poems to the ordering of entire collections. We must not let her Dionysian surface dazzle us. The emotional intensity Tsvetaeva achieves in her verse is the product of highly consistent translations of large poetic concerns into the technical resources of poetry. To appreciate this consistency in her art is to recognize Tsvetaeva as a serious, intellectually responsible thinker whose avant-garde writings document a systematic and sustained engagement with fundamental questions of poetic discourse.27

The definition of poet and poetry that emerges ... is applied systematically and with impeccable consistency in an impressive demonstration of the potential afforded by analogical thinking, which in Tsvetaeva’s system displaces the logical.28

Early on in translating Tsvetaeva, I was fortunate to have the help of Tsvetaeva’s devoted variorum edition editor, the late Alexander “Sasha” Sumerkin. In working on these newer translations, Sumerkin’s scholarly notes written for each of the these lyrics and poemas as included in the Russica edition of Tsvetaeva’s collected poetry and prose were helpful aids to me, but not nearly as helpful as Sasha himself when he was alive, on the phone frequently, writing letters and notes of explanation and support in advance of our phone appointments, as he and I worked together on “Miles I and II,” and on my collection of notes for the eventual translation of “New Year’s” as included here.

For these recent translations from After Russia, and the three long poemas “Poem of the Hill,” “Poem of the End,” and “New Year’s,” I’ve followed the same preparation procedures as before, with the same aims, as foundational work to reading Tsvetaeva’s poems—as one poet reading another. In these later translations, I have felt a bit more secure in adding obvious possessives and pronouns (not always explicitly needed in Russian) to support my reading of any given poem as a whole. So, these translations arise, are thrown off, as the residue of my reading. I trust that the residue of my reading—as one poet hoping to read another—is the gift to my readers in English, who might otherwise have no opportunity of coming to hear anything of Tsvetaeva’s own (still hidden) Russian voice. 

1. “Translating the fine excess of spirit in Marina Tsvetaeva,” Naydan, op. cit., 9-13.
2. Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks, Modern Russian Poetry, An Anthology With Verse Translations (New York: The Bobbs-Merill Company, Inc., 1966), 429-449.
3. “Translating the fine excess of spirit in Marina Tsvetaeva,” Naydan, op. cit., 11.
4. Ibid.
5. The Iowa Review 9 (4): 4-5.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. “Translating the fine excess of spirit in Marina Tsvetaeva,” Naydan, op. cit., 11.
9. Ibid., 13.
10. Mary Jane White, Starry Sky to Starry Sky, Poems by Mary Jane White with Translations of Marina Tsvetaeva (Stevens Point, Wisconsin: Holy Cow! Press, 1988), 49-92.
11. From “Translator’s Afterward,” Willow Springs, No. 20, Spring 1987, to my translation of Tsvetaeva’s
cycle “Mileposts II.”
12. Simon Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, her World and her Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 185-186.
13. Joseph Brodsky describes Tsvetaeva’s use of her ‘signature’ meters in the context of “the glut of iambic trimester and tetrameter common to the works of authors belonging both to the ‘Harmonic School’ and to the Russian Symbolists.” Brodsky, op. cit., 209.
14. Brodsky, op. cit., 201.
15. Hasty, op. cit., ____.
16. “Translating the fine excess of spirit in Marina Tsvetaeva,” Naydan, op. cit., 13.
17. Brodsky, op. cit., 206.
18. “Looking For Rilke, Introduction by Robert Hass,” Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Vintage International, 1989), ___.
19. Brodsky, op. cit., 212, 214.
20. Brodsky, op. cit., 214-215.
21. Brodsky, op. cit., 232-233.
22. Hasty, op. cit., 23.
23. White, op. cit., 65.
24. Ibid.
25. Brodsky, op. cit., 213.
26. Hasty, op. cit., 171.
27. “Preface,” Hasty, op. cit., xiv.
28. Hasty, op. cit., 2.