Marina Tsvetaeva: Rails

Marina Tsvetaeva came of age in Moscow during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Famine that followed. She published her first collection of poems, Vechemy Albom (Evening Album) in 1910, at the age of eighteen; her Selected Poems were translated into English, by Elaine Feinstein, in 1971, followed by translations of A Captive Spirit (1994), and Earthly Signs: The Moscow diaries, 1917–1922, which appeared last year. Throughout her career, Tsvetayeva drew on the work of Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke and Anna Akhmatova, among others, but she bore more than her share of grief, too. During the Moscow famine in 1919, she attempted to save her younger daughter, Irina, from starvation by placing her in a state orphanage; the child died soon after. Her husband, Sergei Efron, who had worked for the Soviet secret police, was executed in 1939, while her surviving daughter, Ariadna, was sent to a labour camp. On August 31, 1941, not long after the German army invaded the Soviet Union, Tsveteva hanged herself.

Her poetry, verse plays and collected prose still speak for the voiceless of that time, particularly the young women and mothers driven to desperate measures. “Rails”, as translated by Feinstein, quietly captures the chaos of those “departing, deserting” a country they had once called home. In the first lines of the poem, Tsvetayeva compares the railroad tracks to a bed with “tidy sheets”, a place of comfort, before switching to a metaphor in which “parallel tracks ruled out / as neatly as staves” resemble sheets of music instead. One imagines how the musical qualities of verse often soothed the poet’s sorrows. Yet “Rails” asserts that that no amount of hope can muffle “the note of pain always rising / higher than love”; only acceptance of pain might help us to transcend our suffering. “Despair”, which she compares to an “arranged marriage”, may come, but may also lead to transformations. Even as the speaker becomes “Sappho with her voice gone” – perhaps contemplating the loss of her own muse – she seems to rejoice. She becomes “a simple seamstress”, then “a marsh heron”, able to rise above the scene, to contemplate it from a distance. She will see the train move along the tracks “and slice through them like scissors”. The last lines of the poem are cutting, too, with their allusions to both suicide and marriage at once. “Rails” shows us a poet at the height of her creative powers, yet powerless to halt the division and destruction that shaped her life and the lives of so many others.

The bed of a railway cutting
has tidy sheets. The steel-blue 
parallel tracks ruled out
as neatly as staves of music.
And over them people are driven
like possessed creatures from Pushkin 
whose piteous song has been silenced.
Look, they’re departing, deserting.
And yet lag behind and linger,
the note of pain always rising 
higher than love, as the poles freeze
to the bank, like Lot’s wife, forever.
Despair has appointed an hour for me
(as someone arranges a marriage): then 
Sappho with her voice gone
I shall weep like a simple seamstress,
with a cry of passive lament –
a marsh heron! The moving train
will hoot its way over the sleepers
and slice through them like scissors.
Colours blur in my eye,
their glow a meaningless red.
All young women at times
are tempted by such a bed!


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