Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) was a Russian and Soviet poet who is often considered one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets,” Russian Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky once said. “Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva—and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman.”
The following new translations, by Mary Jane White, are from Marina Tsvetaeva’s final published collection, AFTER RUSSIA (Paris 1926). The poems are witty and lush, and are part of White’s long project of Tsvetaeva translations. White has recently compiled her translations into a 288-page manuscript, which is awaiting publication. White’s previous Tsvetaeva translations include the collections Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).
— Benjamin Woodard
On a pleasing Atlantic
Breath of spring —
Like a stupendous butterfly
My curtain — and — I
Like a Hindu widow
Enter the gold-lipped crater,
Like a listless Naiad
Enter the sea beyond a window . . .
5 May 1923
TO HONOR TIME
for Vera Arenskaya
On the refugee-road!
It whooped — and bolted
Headlong on its wheels.
Time! I don’t have time.
Caught up in chronicles
And kisses . . . like sands
In rustling streams . . .
Time, you let me down!
Of clock-hands and wrinkles’
Furrows — of American
Innovations . . . — Empty jar! —
Time, you give me short measure!
Time, you hand me over!
Like a debauched wife — a “new toy”
You drop . . . — “One hour, but it’s ours!”
— Your train leaves on a different
Track! . . —
Since I was born past
Time! To no purpose and in vain
You resist! Caliph of an hour:
Time! I will pass you by!
10 May 1923
Hell’s too small, heaven too small to contain you:
Everyone’s already at the point of dying for you.
But to follow your brother, sadly, into the fire —
Really, is that customary? It’s not a sister’s
Place, to radiate passion!
Really, is it customary to lie in his barrow . . .
With your brother? . . .
………………………………— “He was and is mine! Even if he’s rotten!”
— And that’s the order of precedence with graves!!!
11 May 1923
Time the upper reaches are laid bare,
Time you gaze into our souls — as into our eyes.
These — open sluices of blood!
These — open sluices of night!
Our blood surged, like the night
Our blood surged, — like our blood
The night surged! (Upper regions of the ear
Time: a world poured into our ears — as into our eyes!)
The screen of the visible pulled back!
On time’s distinct calm!
Time of the ear opening, like an eyelid,
No longer do we have weight, or breathe: we hear.
A world channeled into our endless ear’s
Helix: sucking down sounds,
Helix, — our endless soul! . .
(Time, you enter our souls — as you would our arms!)
12 May 1923
TO STEAL . . .
And perhaps, the finest victory
Over time and gravity —
Is to pass, without leaving a trace,
Is to pass, without leaving a shadow
On the walls . . .
…………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By refusal? To erase myself from mirrors?
Like: Lermontov moving through the Caucuses
To steal, without disturbing the rock-faces.
And perhaps — the finest amusement
Given the finger of Sebastian Bach
Would be not to trouble the organ’s echo?
To collapse, leaving no dust
For the urn . . .
…………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By fraud? To write myself out of the latitudes?
Like: Time moving through an ocean
To steal, without disturbing the waters . . .
14 May 1923
— Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian by Mary Jane White
Marina Tsvetaeva is considered by many to be one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. Born in 1892, she published many volumes of poetry during her lifetime and was greatly admired by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova. She committed suicide in 1941, and since then, her poetry has been widely translated.
Mary Jane White is a poet and translator who earned an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the recipient of NEA Fellowships in both poetry and translation. She has published numerous books of her own poetry, as well as Tsvetaeva translations, which include Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).