“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.”
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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 unquiet heart –
wellspring of desire –
I kiss –
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.
a chalk cave – trembling
gold – cave stretched out
in brilliance – white over red –
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.