Marina Tsvetaeva: From "Swans' Encampment"

Marina Tsvetayeva (1892–1941) was one of the four great poets of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. Her long poem of the Civil War, 'Swans' Encampment', was finished in Moscow in 1921, though it remained unpublished until 1957. It is composed in the form of a journal, beginning on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917 and ending late in 1920 with the final surrender of the White Army. The poem intends to honour those who fought against the Communists – the 'swans' of the title refers to the men of the White Army, in which the poet's husband was an officer – but its sympathies are extensive, as this extract suggests.

Elaine Feinstein is the foremost translator of Tsvetayeva's poems into English. The version below was published in the TLS of October 10, 1980.

From "Swans' Encampment"

Little mushroom, white Bolitus,
my own favourite.
The field sways, a chant of Rus’
rises over it.
Help me, I’m unsteady on my feet.
This blood-red is making my eyes foggy.

On either side, mouths lie
open and bleeding, and from
each wound rises a cry:

One word is all I hear, as
I stand, dazed. From someone
else’s womb into my own:
– Mother!

They all lie in a row,
no line between them,
I recognise that each one was a soldier,
But which is mine? Which one is another’s?

This man was White now he’s become Red.
Blood has reddened him.
This one was Red now he’s become White.
Death has whitened him.

– What are you? – Can’t understand.
– Lean on your arm.
Have you been with the Reds?
– Ry-azan.

And so from right and left
behind ahead
together. White and Red, one cry of
– Mother!

Without choice. Without anger.
One long moan. Stubbornly.
A cry that reaches up to heaven,
– Mother!

MARINA TSVETAYEVA; translated by Elaine Feinstein


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