By Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
Moscow in the Plague Year, Poems
Translated by Christopher Whyte
Archipelago Books, 2014
The only thing on my bucket list is to put flowers on Marina Tsvetaeva’s grave in the snow. Something she hoped future admirers would do. Unfortunately, her gravesite is unknown — a sad testament to her tragic end.
All the poems in this volume were written between 1918 and 1920 during a time when Moscow’s population was decimated by famine. The 20-something author, ever full of spirit and spunk, begins with romance and ends with an appeal.
Born into privilege, Tsvetaeva was on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution, losing everything, even one of her two children (to starvation). Yet she maintained a solid core of determination, defiance and self-reliance. Her trials of deprivation such as solitude, cold and hunger are met with humor and confidence. Her physical imagery is matched by an inviolate persona.
“… The wind itself is in a hurry.
Here’s one more little gift to remember me by.”
Throughout, her voice beckons with telling details and captivating metaphors. She sings to an absent lover, “with youth’s last gasp, beneath the shade of the dry fig tree.” She compares herself to a “proverbial black diamond” and a “black sheep.” Her affections range from her “prince, her refugee,” to actors to a stagecoach driver with a guitar. With typically reckless momentum she proceeds in a poem that begins: “Raise glasses to the Ace of Spades.”
“I sing the praises of the lying
blood flowing through my faithless veins,
the faithless lovers peopling
the future I’ve ahead of me!
Drink to the playactor, to the
red band in my precious locks!”
The translator, Christopher Whyte, did a super job — making the verses breathe. He also provided an informative afterword that illuminates much of Tsvetaeva’s overriding concerns and subjects, such as family, friends, lovers, circumstances and history. While he notes that some of her later work could be characterized as “gushing and hopelessly romantic,” the effect here is bewitching. There is steel in these gem-like verses, muscle and grit to go with the quixotic enchantment.
Tsvetaeva remains sassy and passionate, even when she doesn’t “own a stick.” She never gives up. The human spirit thrives in playful counterpart to the harsh setting.
“Pardon Love! Begging through the streets,
she wears shoes that are caked in dirt,
that is, if she has shoes at all!”
While unconventional in her life, Tsvetaeva’s poems themselves are classic. The best ones will bowl you over like a cannon ball. This entreaty is as timeless as it is intimate, compelling and doomed: “Maybe all I can do’s aspire to stray/ hand in hand with you from place to place.”
Heartbreaking and uplifting at once, the best of these hundred plus poems is astonishing. Though her final resting place is unmarked, these poems are monumental.