I glimpse my heart reflected in the water.
Am I following the stream, or is it following me?
We must both make our own way
rippling over the unfeeling stones, singing their praises.
We have no power on earth to shift them.
I flow with the current –
or is the stream hurrying to keep up with me,
its wave curving like a swimmer’s shoulder?
Wherever we find a stream
a poet is nearby!
Lucky people shedding tears
pouring them into us both
so they can feel better.
Then rinsing their tear-stained faces.
All the smeary water
from their past sorrows!
We carry them forever
so they are able to forget.
A Poet’s Fate
How blessed they are,
those who are unable to sing!
Their tears flow – what a relief it must be
for grief to pour down like rain.
There’s a shuddering
under the heart’s stone.
Commanded to sing among the graves,
to be born a poet is my cruel fate.
David sang a lament for Jonathan
even though he was broken in two.
If Orpheus hadn’t descended into hell
he could have sent his voice,
his voice alone gone down into the dark
while he stood at the threshold
allowing Eurydice to walk right out
on the tightrope of his song.
A rope-walk into the day.
Blinded by light – she couldn’t look back.
I know if you’re given a poet’s voice
all the rest will be taken from you.
[“the churn of stale words in the heart again”]
from ‘Cascando’ – Samuel Beckett
Nostalgia. That cliché!
It doesn’t matter to me where I am,
where I’m solitary, on what pavement
I heave my shopping back
to a home that doesn’t know it’s mine,
no more than a hospital, or barracks.
No difference to me, captive lion,
whose faces stare at my tormented self,
what crowd hurls me back, predictably
to the loneliness of my heart – I’m
like a polar bear without an ice-floe.
Precisely where I don’t fit in (don’t try to)
or where I’m humiliated,
it’s all the same – I won’t be seduced
by my mother-tongue, it’s milky lure.
It doesn’t matter in what language
I’m misunderstood by everyone,
(those readers gorging on newsprint,
hungry for a scandal). They all
belong to the twentieth century.
Born before time, I’m stunned
like the last remaining log when
the whole avenue’s been felled.
People are undistinguishable.
Nothing alters – and what’s most stale
are those reminders of my past,
of what was once so dear to me.
My dates have been erased –
I’m just someone born somewhere.
My country has such scant regard for me
that even the sharpest detective
could search my entire soul
and find no clue to where I’m from.
Everywhere is alien, every church is empty.
All is stagnant. But if I should glimpse
a rowan tree by the roadside…
into yourself, as our ancestors
fell into their feuds.
You will seek out freedom
and discover it – in solitude.
Not a soul in sight.
There is no such peaceful garden –
so search for it inside yourself,
find coolness, shade.
Don’t think of those
who win over the populace
in the town squares.
Celebrate victory and mourn it –
in the loneliness of your heart.
Loneliness: leave me,
My eyes flooded with tears!
I cry out of anger and love!
Oh, weeping Czechoslovakia!
Oh, Spanish bloodshed!
A black mountain –
overshadows the world!
It’s time – time – time
to return this journey’s ticket
to our Creator!
I refuse to exist!
I refuse to live
in this Bedlam of nonhumans.
With the wolves of the city squares
I refuse to bay.
I refuse to swim
over all the human bodies
with the sharks of dry valleys.
I don’t need sharp
ears or a poet’s prophetic eyes.
I have only one response
to your mad world – reject it.
By Marina Tsvetaeva
Translated by Moniza Alvi and Veronika Krasnova
Some of these poems were previously published in Modern Poetry in Translation. Thanks to Veronika Bowker for making this special selection for The Russian Riveter.
The poetry of Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892–1941) is considered among some of the greatest in twentieth-century Russian literature. She lived through, and wrote of, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed it. Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 returning to Moscow in 1939. She committed suicide in 1941. As a lyrical poet, her passion and daring linguistic experimentation mark her as a striking chronicler of her times and the depths of the human condition.
Translator Moniza Alvi is a poet, author of nine poetry collections, and a tutor for the Poetry School. In 2002 she received a Cholmondeley Award for her poetry.
Translator Veronika Krasnova lectures at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.