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Review of Moscow in the Plauge Year, Stand, Volume 13 (1) 2015

Marina Tsvetaeva, Moscow in the Plague Year, translated from the Russian by Christopher Whyte. Archipelago Books, 2014. ISBN 9781935744962. By Avril Pyman.


Marina Tsvetaeva, a displaced, dissonant poet whose 20th century sensibility is rooted in the European cultural tradition and whose cosmopolitan experience is often expressed in the idiom of Russian folklore, has proved and is still proving an artist of enduring international appeal and a challenge to translators.


Christopher Whyte, in Moscow in the Plague Year, has given us a colloquial, witty and most welcome complete English version of poems from the Revolution/Civil War period – the amazingly robust reaction of a young, Silver Age Moscow poet, daughter of a concert pianist and the curator of the Russian capital’s greatest museum of Western Art, grass widow of a White Officer and mother of two little girls … to the Bolshevik Revolution. Tsvetaeva’s ‘Plague Year’ in fact stretches from the autumn of 1918 to the spring of 1920, with one poignant reprise to herald the onset of further catastrophe in 1939:

A noise. I can’t make out a word.
Something draws close…

The book is attractively presented, light and portable as poetry books should be, generously set out so that each four-liner has its own page. The cover is in suitable black, dull gold and warm brown – though I would not have used the droopy Modigliani portrait of ‘Jeanne Hébuterne with hat and necklace’ for the feisty, unkempt, iconic Marina. It was Anna Akhmatova Modigliani painted in Paris pre-1917 (not yet, as that poet noted in Requiem, the real 20th century), and painted as Muse and femme fatale, not, as Tsvetaeva saw herself, as fallen woman, homeless vagrant, gallant drummer-boy ‘with God’s thunder on my chest…’ The one persona these two very different women poets shared and shouldered together was that of Intercessor for the land of Russia.


It is brave of Whyte to take on a poet Elaine Feinstein has made so much her own through both biography and translation; whose poems from the same period, a smaller selection entitled The Demesne of Swans (Ardis, 1980), have been melodiously rendered into English by Robin Kemball and, in a collection from a wider period, less euphonically but still in rhyme, by David McDuff (Bloodaxe, 1987); a poet, who figures in various translations of various merit, in a number of bilingual anthologies from Obolensky’s classic The Heritage of Russian Verse with irreproachable ‘plain prose translations of each poem’ (Indiana University Press, 1962) to Olga Carlisle’s Poets on Street Corners (Random House inc. 1968) with ‘adaptations’ by Rose Styron and Denise Lefertov, and Donald Rayfield’s The Garnet Book of Russian Verse (The Garnet Press, 2000), which, once again, offers prose versions. The list is far from exhaustive and will, of course, grow.


Such a challenge as Marina Tsvetaeva represents is irresistible to the translator in love with two languages. In every attempt to present a poem in another language, something is sacrificed: either the order of ideas and images, or strict adherence to form, or colloquial fluency. Many 20th century Russian poets, contemporaries of their contemporaries in content, adhered to a prosody already discarded, or half-discarded, by their English- speaking counterparts. I recall one dear friend and translator of Anna Akhmatova exclaiming in indignation at one reviewer’s snide comment: ‘But Akhmatova does sound like Hymns Ancient and Modern’. Form, as Blok says of his own poetry, is, after all, an inalienable part of content. Tsvetaeva, like most of the great Russians, is a musical poet, but her orchestration is bold, unexpected, full of syncopation and dissonance … more Shostakovich than Tchaikovsky, more Mayakovsky than Blok. Nevertheless, the close association of music and words is still there … and Whyte does not concern himself with the attempt to echo this. He eschews rhyme and, for the most part, such poetic conceits as onomatopoeia (in which Tsvetaeva’s poetry is rich), assonance and alliteration. Occasionally, too, as in the first part of the delightful ‘To Alya’, a poem dedicated to the elder child with whom Marina cohabitated in indigent camaraderie, he missed out on word-play or the exact, intimate warmth of the Russian: ‘creature of enchantment’ is stilted; Tsvetaeva’s short, high- bridged nose was anything but ‘hooked’ and the poet and her daughter were ‘small’ or ‘little’ together: not one a ‘child’ and the other ‘young’ … In the wonderful evocation of the poet’s two grandmothers the play on ‘white’ (soft, perhaps, or tender in our idiom), and ‘black’ (or horny, calloused) hands, is lost … But this is to pick nits from a fine body of resonant and witty blank verse.


Whyte’s contribution to the ‘English’ Tsvetaeva, apart from the focus of the selection which gives the reader the opportunity really to get to know the poet as a young woman caught up by the tornado of war and revolution, is, to my feeling, at least, the way he reflects her edgy humour:

While your eyes follow me into the grave,
write up the whole caboodle on my cross!
“Her days began with songs, ended in tears,
but when she died, she split her sides with laughter!”

her pithy self-characterisations:

The year nineteen nineteen’s forgotten I’m
a woman … I’ve forgotten it myself.


You tell me I’m a whore – and but
for one small detail, you are right!
I only accept handsome clients –
moreover, I don’t let them pay.

or, again, a summary of this whole book:

My rings upon so many hands,
My songs upon so many lips,
My tears wetting so many eyes …
paraded through the squares – my youth …

Tsvetaeva’s visual imagery is superbly conveyed:

… a ballroom dress empty foaming
In a dusty mirror …

As are her sustained, ephemeral metaphors:

I wrote it on a blackboard of dark slate,
along the tiny folds of faded fans,
along a river’s sands, on the seashore
with skates on ice, using my ring on glass …
on treetrunks, so everyone can know
how constantly, unfailingly, I love you,
adding my name, a rainbow, on the sky.

What a fine feeling for language to say ‘on’, not ‘in’ the sky, so that we see not just the rainbow name MARINA, but the industrious adolescent stretching up to spell it out. For the sake of this name, Whyte allows the Russian music to break through his own, more sober idiom:

Masks and music? What’s the third thing he loves? […]
Moscow, magnets, merriment, Mayhem and mazurkas.
The first letter is “M”.
Could it be Maypole, mandarins?

Alliteration and repetition, even rhyme, struggle to surface, all the more effective for the seemingly involuntary character of their eruptions.

Free until now, my hands can’t get
Past their surprise, holding a saw.
Our Lady of the snowstorms sets
Snowstorm on snowstorm hurtling past.

The Englishman is totally in sympathy with his anarchic, female, Russian poetic persona:

My way doesn’t lead past your house.
My way leads past nobody’s house.
I burst out laughing at the pointless
hoards you amass, merchants!
I raise up palaces and bridges
in a single night.

(Pay no attention to my words!
They’re woman’s babbling!)
When morning dawns, with my own hands
I tear down what I built.
Like scattering straw, the mansion’s gone!
My way doesn’t lead past your house.

Jauntily, he flings down her defiance:

I take the blame, I’ll pay the price.

My heart is stalwart – after all,
not everyone dies in his bed!

Yet also, most tenderly, he conveys her capacity for hero-worship:

Burying my head in your indulgent knees, I ask myself
if all the roses in the garden
have been gathered for your sake?

This I swear to: every single
heir to the throne lost his chance
of sitting on the little crimson
bench that’s placed next to your feet.

She sees herself as the herald of God – ‘a grumpy old man’:

Rely on me! My forehead meets the storms,
I am your armies’ drummer-boy […]
I’m God’s own volunteer.

Here, to conclude, is the man’s rendering of the mother’s lament for the younger of her two daughters. Anastasia died of malnutrition after she was entrusted to a nursing home where, Marina had hoped, she might survive the rigours of war Communism better than in her own poet’s attic. Reading it in this English version, I understood, for the first time, precisely why Tsvetaeva killed herself in the Evacuation during the Second World War in Russia, fearing she would be unable to get work and in the belief that the State would feed her orphaned son:

Two hands lowered gently
onto a young child’s head!
I was given two of them,
One beneath each hand.

Using both, clenched tight
and fiercely as I could,
I snatched the older from the dark
but lost the younger one.

Two hands to fondle and caress
those fluffy, tender heads.
Two hands – within a single night
I had no use for one.

Bright, upon its slender neck,
a dandelion stalk!
It’s still impossible to grasp
my child lies in the earth.

Easter Monday, 1920

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