THE EUROPE OF MODERN RUSSIAN POETS

“In retranslating Tsvetaeva’s Lorca translations, I have tried to keep in mind who Lorca was for readers in the Soviet Union. In 1936 near the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, he had been murdered by nationalists though probably not Falangists. In the struggle with fascism, he became a martyr, and Stalinism for all its own fascism became an ally in that struggle.”

Osip Mandelshtam

Notre-Dame

 A basilica is standing where a Roman judged
 an alien people. Glad and primary –
 like Adam once – the arch exalts, stretching
 nerves and muscles in a light-crossed vault.
 But the outside holds the secret,
 power arches anxiously – enormous mass
 does not collapse the walls – the daring vault
 holds motionless the quiet of an idle battering.
 The elemental maze, an obscure forest, Gothic
 spirit’s rational precipice, Egyptian power and
 a Christian reticence, with intervals of rush and oak
 and everywhere, as tsar, a plumb-line’s measuring
 alignment. But as I mastered more attentively this
 permanence, Notre-Dame, your monstrous ribs,
 the more I thought one day I too would make
 beauty out of evil from cruel weight. 

(1912)

Boris Pasternak

In Holy Week

 Night-haze still encircles,
 still so early in the world –
 stars, innumerable, light-
 worlds, each like daylight –
 if only earth could sleep
 through Easter, dreaming
 to the psalms.
 Still encircling, night-haze,
 and so early in the world
 the city-square is an eternity
 that stretches to the cross-roads,
 warmth and daybreak
 a millennium from here.
 Earth, naked, unadorned,
 nothing to dress the nights,
 bells swinging freely
 echoing choral music.
 From Holy Thursday
 to Holy Saturday –
 water erodes its banks
 and drills with whirlpools.
 Naked forests, stripped –
 unadorned for the Passion.
 Like quietude in prayer,
 pine trees pause in multitudes.
 But crowded in the city,
 naked, unadorned,
 other trees assemble
 at the church’s railing,
 gazing, fearful with good
 reason – gardens flood
 their fences and the ground’s
 foundations vibrate:
 they are burying God.
 And the light-worlds shining
 through the tsar’s entrance –
 black veils, rows of candles,
 tear-stained faces. And
 suddenly, face-to-face with
 the procession, cross, the shroud,
 two birch trees at the gate,
 the reverence due a stranger.
 Circling the churchyard, from
 its pavement the procession
 brings the semblances of spring,
 spring fire, vernal air with aftertastes
 of sacramental bread and ecstasy.
 Cripples crowd the portico
 where March scatters snow
 as if a servant with the ark
 were scattering its relics.
 And singing until dawn,
 until the mourning fades
 into an inner quiet, lamplit
 vacancy and silences
 of psalms and the apostles.
 And at midnight, flesh
 and creature listen
 spell-bound by spring
 rumours that with clearing
 weather death will face
 the Resurrection’s power.

Five Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca1

Marina Tsvetaeva

TRANSLATOR’S INTRODUCTION

When Grigory Zinoviev was about to be shot in 1936, he said that Stalin was a fascist and that “this is what Mussolini did”. Lev Kamanev who was with him at the time asked him to be quiet. Kamanev wanted to die in silence. Mussolini thought Stalin might have become a fascist (he meant this as a compliment); Mandelshtam told his OGPU interrogator in 1934 that he wrote his Stalin Epigraph – the gorets’ cockroach mustache (the Russian for “cockroach”, tarakan, is a near homonym for “tyrant”, tiran) – because “more than anything else he hated fascism”. To call Stalin a fascist tyrant could lead to a death sentence that in Mandelshtam’s case was only delayed, but to write poems about fascism offered a safer Aesopian way to write about Stalinism. Mandelshtam’s Voronezh poem, “Rome”, offers an eloquent instance (Moscow traditionally was the Third Rome): “The Forum-pit has been unearthed, / the Herod gates reopened. / Over the city – a heavy chin. / The degenerate dictator hovers.”

When Marina Tsvetaeva returned to Moscow in 1939, she learned how unimaginable returning could be. Her sister Anastasia had been arrested, her husband Sergei Efron (a Cheka operative) would soon be arrested then shot, her daughter Ariadne would be arrested and sent to the Gulag. Tsvetaeva herself was under constant surveillance (Ariadne’s fiancé turned out to be another Cheka operative assigned to spy on her, her mother and father), and her poetry was unpublishable. Tsvetaeva survived by becoming a translator, and like Pasternak but unlike Mandelshtam, her translations became her poetry. Much of what she was asked to translate was mediocre. She hoped to improve them in Russian. In at least two occasions the poems to be translated were remarkable (Baudelaire’s Le Voyage and a sequence of Lorca’s lyrics), and her translations became what may well have been her last major poems in Russian.

In retranslating Tsvetaeva’s Lorca translations, I have tried to keep in mind who Lorca was for readers in the Soviet Union. In 1936 near the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, he had been murdered by nationalists though probably not Falangists. In the struggle with fascism, he became a martyr, and Stalinism for all its own fascism became an ally in that struggle. Tsvetaeva’s translations were publishable in these circumstances, and Lorca’s murder implicitly offered a way to evoke the fascism that was murdering Russians, in particular Mandelshtam, I think, who had once been Tsvetaeva’s lover. In retranslating the Lorca translations, I have thought of them also as Tsvetaeva’s poems, composed in the shadow of Stalin’s fascism.

The Guitar

 The guitar begins
 to cry,
 the shattered
 cup of morning.
 Beginning
 mourning – the guitar.
 Do not expect her
 silence –
 do not ask her
 to be mute!
 Crying, the guitar,
 like water – down a gully – mourning,
 like a wind across the snowfall – mourning.
 Do not plead with her
 for quiet.
 Sunset cries for sunrise,
 the arrow for a target –
 as burning sand is crying
 for a cold camellia-radiance –
 like a bird’s life that is
 threatened by the snake’s denunciation.
 Dear guitar – my poor, bare victim –
 five brisk daggers.

The Landscape

 A field of olive trees –
 an opening fan –
 over the young branches,
 heaven lowers meanly –
 raining a dark downpour
 of cold luminaries –
 frigid heaven’s bodies.
 On a canal-edge –
 the twilight – grasses – shudder,
 and a third – a leaden breeze.
 Birds’ outcries
 fill the trees –
 poor captive troops of actors –
 long tail-feathers
 trailing darkness.

The Village

 On a sorrow-mountain –
 a chapel –
 on the bare crown of a sorrow –
 milky water
 penetrating centuries of olives –
 a cloaked people,
 a bell-tower –
 a weathervane is
 turning – day, is
 turning – night,
 eternally –
 somewhere – a lost village,
 my Andalusia,
 tearfully… 

The Desert

Time’s broken
mazes –
vanished.
Desert –
abandoned.

The unquiet heart –
wellspring of desire –
dessicated.
Desert –
abandoned.

Sunset haze
I kiss –
abyss.
Desert –
abandoned.

Stalled, cooling
dessicated –
vanished.
Desert –
abandoned.

The Cave

From a cave – moan after murmur.
Hundreds of murmurs, throngs of sighs.
Over red – violet.

From the gypsy’s throat,
countries sunk into oblivion –
resurrected. Towers slice the heavens.
Strangers full of mysteries…

Broken moan of the punctuated
voice under the arched eyebrow –
black over crimson.

Shivered through
a chalk cave – trembling
gold – cave stretched out
in brilliance – white over red –
a she-bird…
from a cave
stream tears: white over scarlet.

1 As translated from Marina Tsvetaeva’s 1940 Russian translations of five lyrics from Poema del cante jondo (composed in 1921, published by Lorca in 1931), by Tony Brinkley.

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