“So to reach his lips and bed…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 49/?

We return to Marina Tsvetaeva today, as well as giving readers perhaps a pleasant break from the eight-line ABAB CDCD rhyme schemes that have been the form of the last few poems I’ve translated. This one is a very unusual structure: three-line verses, with two longer lines and a short one, but contrary to usual appearances of this form, the third line of each verse doesn’t rhyme. I flipped the mentions of “threshold” and “door” to make the rhymes work. It may have been a quick sketch, writing down the strange sensations of going to her lover past a church. 

I can understand. 

* * *

So to reach his lips and bed,
Past God’s Church all great and dread
I must go.

Past the black funeral hearses,
Wedding coach-and-fours.
Angels set a seal forbidden
Laid across his doors.

So in dark of moon night, past
Guardians of iron cast,
Keen-eyed gates —

To a threshold singing loud
Through the haze of incense cloud
I must rush

As from age, all ages seeing,
Human beings to human beings
Rush past God.

Marina Tsvetaeva, August 15, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 10, 2019.

“I like it that your fever isn’t me…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 32/?

So it has been over a month of these, and this will be the last one for a while. I am not replacing the question mark with a number, as I will certainly keep doing them — I feel that permanently quitting translating poetry would be as difficult at this point as forgetting the languages I use every day. But they will be an occasional thing rather than a daily thing. Even though actually pulling together eight lines of verse generally takes me about ten minutes and can be done late in the evening, I’ve found that they still use up my creativity for the day, and in this month, I haven’t made any significant progress on my fiction or other artistic pursuits.

For some stats: there are 32 poems, counting this one, representing 15 poets. Five of the poets are women (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gippius, Kuzmina-Karavaeva, Lokhvitskaya), with 11 poems by them. I wish I had more, but five women poets is still more than the average Russian can name from the Silver Age. The most poems are by Blok and Tsvetaeva, each with four. Gumilev and Akhmatova each have three. There are two Futurists (Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov), one Imaginist (Esenin), five Acmeists (Gumilev, Gorodetsky, Akhmatova, Kuzmina-Karavaeva, Mandelstam), six Symbolists (Blok, Balmont, Voloshin, Lokhvitskaya, Gippius, Merezhkovsky) and Tsvetaeva who didn’t really adhere herself to a movement to my knowledge.

For a fitting finale to this stage of the project, I decided to go for what is almost certainly Marina Tsvetaeva’s best-known poem. This is mainly because its first and third verses were set to music by M. Tariverdiev and performed in the 1976 film “The Irony of Fate (or, Enjoy Your Bath)” directed by Eldar Ryazanov, that has been a New Year’s tradition for Russian and Soviet citizens for nearly forty years now.

There were many years when I deeply related to the sentiment in the verses. When I first tried translating it in 2006, it was as a loose translation of just the song. To fit it into this project, I took in the second verse, and polished and tweaked the others, taking a few more liberties with the translation than I normally do. Doubtless people have translated the poem/song before. This version is mine.

* * *

I like it that your fever isn’t me.
I like it that my fever isn’t you.
That all this heavy earth spins suddenly
Beneath the feet of — not us two.
I like that I can be open and free,
Not play with words, and not avoid what’s true,
And that I do not blush with crimson hue
When your sleeve touches mine unexpectedly.

I also like that right before my eyes
Another one you’d calmly be embracing,
And you don’t wish for hellfire to rise
On me if it’s not you I kiss the face of.
That my sweet name, my sweet, not night nor day,
You call in vain or whisper to me, “Do you…”
That in church silence they will never say
Above our joining hands a hallelujah…

With all my heart and hand I’m thanking you
That you, if to yourself unknowingly,
Love me so much; for peace the whole night through,
For trysts at dusk being a rarity,
For not-walks in not-moonlight by us two,
That not beyond our heads the sun we’ll see…
Because my fever is, alas, not you,
Because your fever is, alas, not me.

Marina Tsvetaeva, May 3, 1915;
translation by me, March 2006-August 2016

“Leaves fall on your grave…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 18/?

This poem by Marina Tsvetaeva is part of a cycle addressed to Peter Efron, her husband’s brother, who had died of tuberculosis.

She uses the you-formal form throughout in addressing him, a distinction I tried to preserve by using “sir.” In my effort to keep to the rhythm (and make the poem somewhat singable to the numerous musical settings that Russian composers have made of it) I changed the last lines from the letter of the original to a call, although since she does vary the meter of the last line of each verse, I felt I could relax my constraints on this. “To take you home” has more syllables than the original, but there was no shorter way I could do it in English.  


Leaves fall on your grave with the end of the year.
The air wafts winter’s chill.
Listen, my dead sir, listen, my dear,
You are mine still.

You laugh! From the blessed travel cart heading out!
The moon’s overhead.
Mine — as inalienably, with no doubt,
As this hand I spread.

With my bag I’ll go at dawn without fail
To the hospital door.
You’ve just gone away for a holiday, to sail,
To the great ocean shore.

I kissed you! Bespelled you! I laugh at the notion
That dark is the graveyard loam.
I don’t believe death! I await at the station
To take you home.

Let leaves crumble down, what mourning crepe said
Gilt words now erase clear through.
And if the whole world believes you are dead,
Then I am dead too.

I see you, I feel you — all around I scent you!
What matter the wreaths mourners send!
I haven’t forgotten you, I won’t forget you
To eternity’s end!

Of such vows I know the pointless vanity,
Worthless, destroyed.
A call to the endless – A call to infinity –
A call to the void.

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“Tonight in all the nights I am alone” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 11/?

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow, and all her life she had a passionate love for that city. She wrote a poetic cycle about her love of Moscow, but this poem is part of her cycle “Insomnia,” written mostly in 1916 (with one poem dated from 1921).

Tonight in all the night I am alone,
A sleepless, homeless wandering black nun!
Tonight a key to every door I own,
Of this fair city that is only one!

The road is calling me from my vain rest.
– My fog-dull Kremlin, beautiful you are!
Tonight I kneel and kiss the burning breast
Of all the earth, all round and all at war.

Not hair but fur arises with the mist
As sultry breezes blow into my soul.
Those who are pitied, and those who are kissed –
Tonight I have but pity for them all.

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

In Paradise – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 5/?

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) is still considered one of Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets, although the Soviet Union and Russia heavily downplayed the fact that she had multiple same-sex attachments. She was very erudite; she studied in France, Switzerland and Italy at a time when even the Tsar’s children only dreamed of doing so, and she spent some later years of her life translating poetry including that of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Her life was one full of tragedy: she had to place both of her daughters in an orphanage and one of them starved to death there; she spent a miserable time in emigration in Paris; after her family’s return to Russia both her husband and her remaining daughter were arrested for espionage and her husband was shot while her daughter was imprisoned; and she herself finally committed suicide in 1941.

This poem dates from her first collection of poems, published when she was just eighteen, but it has the passion that sings through all of her work.

In Paradise

Memories weigh too much upon the shoulders.
Even in heaven for earthly things I’ll weep.
At our new meeting, silent words much older
I will not keep.

Where flights of angels in formation soar,
Where a child harp choir mid lilies plays,
Still, restless in the rest forevermore,
I’ll seek your gaze.

Alone among the solemn innocent maidens,
Passing heavenly sights with bitter mirth,
I’ll sing, with earth and alienness laden,
A song of earth.

Memories weigh more than my back can bear.
That hour, I won’t hide my tearing eyes.
Our meetings I don’t need, nor here nor there —
Not for meeting will we wake in Paradise!

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016