Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva
8 October [O.S. 26 September] 1892 – 31 August 1941)

Verses Translated by Becca Menon

Russian Poetry, Verse, Symbolist Movement, Soviet Art & Politics

Let JUMBO teach you Russian – Джамбо: он слон, он лучший.  (Dzhambo: on slon, on luchshiy.)

Marina Tsvetaeva, like older contemporary Symbolist, W.B.Yeats, wove the canny and the uncanny in audacious poetry of love, mysticism and politics.  These translations try to bring forward formal and spiritual concerns difficult to find elsewhere.


I’m happy to live the standard, simply:
Like a calendar – a pendulum – like the sun.
A worldly, scrawny pilgrim who never whimpers,
Wise – like all things God has begun.

Understand:  Spirit goes with me – Spirit, my guide! –
Enters without a trace, like a flash or a ray.
I live the way I write:  spare as a cord.
As the Lord commanded but friends never sway.

     – November 22, 1918


Я счастлива жить образцово и просто:
Как солнце — как маятник — как календарь.
Быть светской пустынницей стройного роста,
Премудрой — как всякая Божия тварь.

Знать: Дух — мой сподвижник, и Дух — мой вожатый!
Входить без доклада, как луч и как взгляд.
Жить так, как пишу: образцово и сжато, —
Как Бог повелел и друзья не велят.

     – 22 ноября 1918

Available translations appear to me to have overlooked Tsvetaeva’s formal and spiritual concerns.  So I take the liberty of interpolating a title from a word in this untitled poem from November 22, 1918.

Gustavs Klucis

To A Stranger

They aren’t mine, your banners of warriorship!
Our minds won’t come close, never verging.
But think!  Don’t transform by the serpent’s grip
The Dove of Peace in her surging.

I won’t be joining the lively red dance
’Round your May-Day pole with its hoping —
Above this globe lives our one true chance:
It shall be when Heaven’s gates open.

Your ascendant ambitions are not mine!
I dream, too — of life’s consolations!
Our world’s not divided from poles with a ball of twine —
We each stand in diverse constellations!

We’re zealots, each from a different star.
And what do you see me doing —
Me?  Tossing this guy-line that far
With my pen, the doughty and true!

My icons sit beside me as I write,
The only treasures I seek.
Listen:  there’s a law of Wrong and Right,
Not yours, but dispensed by one meek.

Before Him knees bend without command,
All lights in His seem less glowing.
His law is to extend His hand —
That the soul unfurl, grow knowing.

And we shall be judged by a single measure —
One for both, you may trust this.
We’ll be summoned forth from the ledger
In Paradise, where there’s Justice.

     – November 28, 1920. Moscow


Твои знамена — не мои!
Врозь наши головы.
Не изменить в тисках змеи
Мне Духу-Голубю.

Не ринусь в красный хоровод
Вкруг древа майского.
Превыше всех земных ворот —
Врата мне — райские.

Твои победы — не мои!
Иные грезились!
Мы не на двух концах земли, —
На двух созвездиях!

Ревнители двух разных звезд —
Так что же делаю —
Я, перекидывая мост
Рукою смелою?!

Есть у меня моих икон
Ценней — сокровище.
Послушай: есть другой закон,
Законы — кроющий.

Пред ним — все́ клонятся клинки,
Все́ меркнут — яхонты.
Закон протянутой руки,
Души распахнутой.

И будем мы судимы — знай —
Одною мерою.
И будет нам обоим — Рай,
В который — верую.

     – Москва, 28 ноября 1920

The writer’s preoccupations with the political and the sacred are treated to an unexpected synthesis here.
History alone lets us understand.
Bolsheviks, that is, the
Communists, taken power in October 1917.  Russia and its empire, involved in Europe’s Great War since 1914, would fight on till what became known as World War I ended in 1918.
Lenin’s government had followed world peace by articulating a Soviet policy of War Communism – an economic parallel to the political Red Terror.
The “Stranger,” Tsvetaeva is writing to is Peoples Commissar, playwright
Anatoly Lunacharsky, one of the lethal plan’s chief proponents.

Marina Tsvetaeva married poet-soldier Sergei Efron in 1912.


Gone — I can’t eat:
Empty — bread, tasteless.
Everything — chalk.
Whatever I touch, wasted.

…My bread was gotten.
And snow had fallen.
And the snow had been trodden.
And the bread was rotten.

   – January 23, 1940


Ушёл — не ем

Ушёл — не ем:
Пуст — хлеба вкус.
Всё — мел.
За чем ни потянусь.

…Мне хлебом был,
И снегом был.
И снег не бел,
И хлеб не мил.

  – 23 января 1940

Sergei Efron fought with the White Armies who had battled the Bolsheviks.  He fled to Europe in the early 1920’s, and took the couple’s eldest daughter, Ariadna, with him.
Did Tsvetaeva’s husband become, in his latter days abroad, an agent of the Soviets?  The course-reversal grew common among nationalist fighters in the face of new economic and political pressures.  Hitler’s threat was only one of the developments to consider
Did Efron participate in the execution of other Communist operatives?  “His trust might have been abused — my trust in him remains unchanged.”  His wife gave the French police the impression she was deranged, yet never waivered.
The Soviets took and tortured Sergei and Ariadna on charges of espionage.
Marina followed from Paris with the remaining children in 1939, at once herself in imperiled.
In an epistle dated December 23, she pleads for him with
Stalin’s Chief of Security.
“Gone” is a poem of January 1940.
Sergei Efron was shot October 17, 1941.



You Left Me Out

The verse goes ’round in my head
That first line keeps circling back:
 — “Here’s our table for six that I spread….
But one, the seventh – you lack.

But your party looks less than vivacious.
You gave your table six places, then quit it –
What made six, six, six so tenacious?
You left out the seventh — the seventh:  omitted…

Appetite too’s not vivacious.
No one sips Dionysus’ relief.
Grief alone is voracious,
Nameless sorrow – greedy grief.

No vivacity, no vivacity…
Oh!  Don’t eat, and Oh, no drinking!
— How could you have counted wrong, where was pity?
Six, only six places – what were you thinking?

Can you misunderstand – can you dare?
Count with me:  you brothers-three, plus your wife,
Your father and mother make six:  it’s unfair —
There’re seven!  Seven while I still taste life!

Here is the table for six that you spread,
But death doesn’t swallow the world by six.
Instead of un-living among the non-dead,
Let me come as a real ghost, no tricks.

(Just your own)….
‎          — Shy as a thief in retreat.
Oh so polite, and not hurting a soul!
Just making your set complete:
The seventh:  the Uninvited’s role.

Time!  It knocked over the glass, which shattered! —
And every thing that thirsted to pour,
All the salt from the tears, and blood that spattered,
Left the tablecloth — knew the floor.

No coffin!  All parting, ceased!
The table, the house cast off spells as if shaken.
Like death at a wedding feast,
My presence awakens, me, the forsaken.

Father, Mother, you both had your roles,
All relatives supping here:  I allege
Setting the table for only six souls
You left me out – beyond the edge.

  – March 6, 1941


Всё повторяю первый стих…

Арсению Александровичу Тарковскому
«Я стол накрыл на шестерых…»

Всё повторяю первый стих
И всё переправляю слово:
— «Я стол накрыл на шестерых»…
Ты одного забыл — седьмого.

Невесело вам вшестером.
На лицах — дождевые струи…
Как мог ты за таким столом
Седьмого позабыть — седьмую…

Невесело твоим гостям,
Бездействует графин хрустальный.
Печально — им, печален — сам,
Непозванная — всех печальней.

Невесело и несветло.
Ах! не едите и не пьёте.
— Как мог ты позабыть число?
Как мог ты ошибиться в счёте?

Как мог, как смел ты не понять,
Что шестеро (два брата, третий —
Ты сам — с женой, отец и мать)
Есть семеро — раз я́ на свете!

Ты стол накрыл на шестерых,
Но шестерыми мир не вымер.
Чем пугалом среди живых —
Быть призраком хочу — с твоими,

‎Робкая как вор,
О — ни души не задевая! —
За непоставленный прибор
Сажусь незваная, седьмая.

Раз! — опрокинула стакан!
И всё, что жаждало пролиться, —
Вся соль из глаз, вся кровь из ран —
Со скатерти — на половицы.

И — гроба нет! Разлуки — нет!
Стол расколдован, дом разбужен.
Как смерть — на свадебный обед,
Я — жизнь, пришедшая на ужин.

…Никто: не брат, не сын, не муж,
Не друг — и всё же укоряю:
— Ты, стол накрывший на шесть — душ,
Меня не посадивший — с краю.

     – 6 марта 1941

Marina Tsvetaeva’s untitled last poem stands frequently (to my mind erroneously,) as something like “All repeat the first line.”  I lay the title “You Left Me Out” on these highly regular verses because it’s the single-mindedtheme – which other versions overlook.  The poet-haunt builds on Here’s our table for six that I spread,” a verse by Arseny Tarnovsky, whom she had just encountered again on a Soviet prison-line.