MARINA TSVETAEVA (1892-1941) is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the Modernist period in Russia’s Silver Age of poetry, ranking alongside poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. Coming initially from a privileged background, the disruption of the Revolution, her marital situation and her own uncompromising nature led her into a life of hardship and ultimately to suicide. Yet throughout she managed to write powerfully and prolifically in a highly original style. It is difficult to convey the ‘gutsiness’ of her harsh masculine rhymes and use of monosyllables, though one can get some sense of the defiant hyperbole that conceals an inner vulnerability. The nearest comparison in English would be Sylvia Plath’s late poetry, such as ‘Daddy’, ‘The Applicant’ or ‘Lady Lazarus’. Ultimately, though, her voice is like no one else’s.
In the years before the Revolution her mother’s insistence that she pursue a career as a pianist was counterproductive to her poetry. After her death in 1906 Tsvetaeva was free to write and in 1910 she published her first book of poems, which was well received. A year later she married Sergey Efron, an event that was instrumental in the tragic path her life was to take. Due in part to Efron’s varied artistic and political pursuits they had many years apart and Tsvetaeva had numerous affairs. However her first loyalty was always to him. The revolution in 1917 brought tremendous financial hardship and she was always the main breadwinner. They had three children together, (one of whom died through malnutrition). She left Russia for the émigré life in 1922. Towards the end of her life Tsvestaeva was rejected by the émigré community due to Efron being exposed as a Soviet agent and, pressurised by her family, she went back to Russia in 1939. Efron and her daughter were immediately captured. Suffering extreme depression and financial hardship she committed suicide in Elabuga on 31 August 1941.
Tsvetaeva‘s poetry reflects a desire to devour life: ‘I will sin—as I sin—as I sinned: with passion!/ The Lord has given me senses—all five!’ Every emotion is on a knife edge, whether it be for a person or a locale. Such intensity is what led her perhaps to write these lines expressing female solidarity, ‘No doubt we’ll meet in hell, my passionate sisters.’ Indeed Tsvetaeva seemed to need to have an object to transfer her emotions on in order to function as a poet. One outcome of this was an intense, possessive, at times even claustrophobic obsession with the loved one. Such passion may be a reflection of admiration for a poet or of romantic love—notably such love affairs were often in absentia. In her early sequence to Moscow she combines her love of this city with her passion for Mandelstam with whom she had a brief affair. She begins by offering the city to him as a gift: ‘Take from me—my strange and beautiful brother—this town not built by human hands,’ and then goes on to describe her love for him as insecure yet also generous and undemanding, admiring some childlike innocence he retains:
I don’t ask whose hands carefully touched
your eyelashes, my beautiful one,
or when, and how, and with
whom, and how many times
your lips were kissed. My hungry spirit
has subdued that dream.
I honour that part of you which is
a god-like ten-year old boy.
She similarly idolises Blok and Akhmatova. For her, the Symbolist Alexander Blok was the supreme poet and she wrote numerous poems to him before and after his death. Here she verges on idolatry: ‘I shall sink down on my knees in the snow,/and in your sacred name I shall kiss the evening snow’. Akhmatova is given similar treatment:
Oh weeping muse, finest of muses!
Oh you crazy offspring of the white night!
You inflict a black storm on Rus
and the arrows of your cries pierce our ears
and deafen us: we shy away, yet still—a hundred
thousand times we swear an oath to you—Anna
Akhmatova!—This name—one enormous sigh,
tumbling into the nameless depths.
She had numerous affairs throughout her life but often the object of the passion seemed almost irrelevant to the power of the emotion. They were all grist to the mill in producing poetry. Not surprisingly therefore her poems about failed, or unrequited, or lost love are dynamic, entertaining, and capture the cynical power of one who is going to be bitter and move on. ‘An Attempt at Jealousy’ provides one of the best examples of such cynicism. Here the speaker questions her exlover on the experience of living with some everyday person compared to herself whom she likens to ‘Lilith’. There is a wonderful sarcasm in ‘What’s it like living with an ordinary/ woman, one who lacks the divine,’ but ultimately she turns the joke on herself with, ‘Is it worse/or the same as my life with someone else?’ A final example to highlight Tsvetaeva as a poet of the extreme is her willingness to touch on topics that are taboo. In another poem to an ex-lover she captures the mutual destruction lovers cause by describing herself as one ‘accused of infanticide’, a phrase all the more shocking in that it was written shortly after the death of her second child whom many considered she actually mistreated:
I stand accused of infanticide
unkind and weak.
And in hell I ask you,
‘My dear one what did I do to you?’
Thus Tsvetaeva’s poetry takes us to the edge—and then some.