Marina Tsvetaeva and The Poem of the Mountain

Too much rubbish? Little sweeping? –
Grieving mountains! Poets coupled by a single dash –

over nothingness – the no one of our bodies.
(Marina Tsvetaeva, An Attempt at a Room)

“What is writing poetry but translating?” Tsvetaeva asked in a 1926 letter to Rilke. Is not it always a question of translating “from a native tongue to a foreign one”?1This native tongue lives so deeply and unspeakably within that it can never be worded as such but only as an impulse in the words I actually can say – words in Russian or German, in French or, in my case as a translator, in an American idiom. So Russian receives the impulse of Tsvetaeva’s native tongue, what in 1940, not long before her death, she called “my difficulty in writing poems and maybe for others – in understanding them”: “with words… to translate a moan”. So English receives an impulse from Russian that translates what exceeds semiosis. Perhaps there is an inherent erotics involved, like the passage between tongues of two lovers, the impulse felt by one of the other, the translation of this impulse of yours in me.

In translating Tsvetaeva, one of my touchstones has been Luce Irigaray’s revision of Emmanuel Levinas’s Torah readings. For Levinas’s ethical understanding of my responsibility to a stranger’s gaze ( “the other… who is a stranger”, whose “face… summons me… concerns me… puts me into question”), Irigaray offers the lover’s touch, the impulse each lover receives from the other by sensing in me how you feel, this shared othering where “the mystery of the other” becomes the blessing of more life because “we are not interchangeable”, because “the most subtly necessary guardian of my life”is “the other’s flesh” that “give[s] me back the borders of my body”. The “gesture [in turn] that is radically unethical” is a kind of idol worship “without respect for the one who gave me my body”, whom I reduce to an image in place of an impulse and reify into someone I will then feel free to project my feeling on. As I have translated Tsvetaeva, it has seemed to me that her poetics is deeply ethical in Irigaray’s sense, as a poetry of impulse rather than of image, as an insistence on the mystery of the other.

For Tsvetaeva’s poetry, the pragmatics of translation can be exuberantly demanding. In no other poetics I can think of is the erotic less representational or more insistently iconic, by which I mean after the fashion of Russia’s religious icons where, as the 20th century visionary Pavel Florensky wrote, every image is a likeness for the energy of which it is the leading wave and into which within me images dissolve. The iconic impulse approaches as recognizable image but then carries me far beyond recognitions, transmembered into imageless gnosis. It is only representational at first. Just as I receive the world visually although the world is not what I see – is only available to me as sight – so I receive the iconic image through a likeness that the impulse exceeds as I am touched – recreated – not in a likeness to the divine but in the nothingness of spirit. Perhaps, all of this is analogous to the lovers’ caress that transmembers sight into touch and where, as Shelley says, “the dark truth is imageless”. Working from the visionary aesthetic of the icon, Tsvetaeva’s images change into imageless energies at once sacred and erotic. This is not of course ever once-in-for-all.

Florensky was Tsvetaeva’s contemporary and influenced among others Bulgakov, Mandelshtam and Bakhtin as well. He was an art historian, engineer, mathematician, and theologian as well as one of Stalin’s martyred orthodox priests, a prisoner who did not survive the Solovetski labour camp. Florensky believed that time and eternity are not in opposition but of one continuum – like what could be mistaken as two-sides of a one-sided Moebius strip. If I fi nd myself walking such a surface, there is no need to cross over from either side to its opposite. If I only keep walking, what I mistook as one of two sides will turn out to also be the other. There may be a moment, however, when I find I am walking upside down. Now I am in time; now I am in eternity; now I am once again in time (Florensky thought that the typology of Dante’s Divine Comedy was best mapped in this way and not as the unchanging realms of Earth, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise as so often diagrammed in prefaces for the poem). Like lovers who are always losing sight of each other and seeing each other again. By analogy in Tsvetaeva’s poetry, at first I read image, then impulse, then image… as I keep reading. There will not be an end to it, but for Tsvetaeva’s poetry to translate into English, the English must also carry beyond recognitions (image, word, and meaning). It too will be representational, but only at times. Its dark truth will be imageless. Otherwise the translation will be restricted to semantics, it will only paraphrase Tsvetaeva’s Russian, and, as Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva’s lover once wrote, the sheets will not have been rumpled and poetry will not have spent the night.

When does poetry spend the night? The Poem of the Mountain is a poem of erotic parting and separation. To translate its force, it may be helpful, however, to juxtapose it with a poem of erotic anticipation. Here is a short lyric that Tsvetaeva wrote for Mandelshtam when they were lovers, in 1916. The poem presents him with a tour of Moscow, her city, and the spirit housed in Moscow’s religious places is also the impulse Tsvetaeva feels for her lover. The eroticism emerges from a Russian homonym where pol is both a word for “floor” and also a word for “sex”:

From my hands, take my city – like a torrent–
that was not made by hands, my beautiful,
strange brother

in my country where the pigeons circle – halos
over Moscow (her forty churches multiplied by
forty) –

and the Saviour’s Gate (not shaped by hands) –
tsvetaevas in flower – where orthodox
remove their caps and banners –

and the Virgin’s Chapel of the Stars –

an orphanage from evil –

its floor my sex threadbare from kissing –

and the Five Cathedrals –

ringed incomparably, in council –

take my city from my hands, inspired friend with your old testaments,

my visitor – my alien guest – the stranger I am leading to the Unexpected Gladness – to the Virgin of the Joy We Did Not Hope For – through a garden, the convulsions

of a radiant, crimson dome of hearts and worms,
unsleeping – without dreams – a bell’s insomnia,

and above with crimson clouds, the Virgin
shedding her protective covering – Mary –

and you – rising and performing miracles of
“Confess, then you will not regret that we
were lovers.”

Poryv in Russian means “impulse”, also “thrust”, “spirit”, even pneuma. In the interplay between pol (fl oor) and pol (sex) – in “the Virgin’s Chapel of the Stars” – image and meaning give way to and return from erotic and religious intensities. (In a later poem, An Attempt at a Room, Tsvetaeva’s “floor” in a Moebian movement will become her “ceiling” (potolok): “my floor – my sex – its fissure… And the reliable ceiling crowed / to all the angels”. Given the sexuality of fl oors, left unnamed are the erotics that ceilings crow.

What impulse moves from Tsvetaeva’s native tongue through her Russian and into English in The Poem of the Mountain, where the ostensible subject is parting and the image is “mountain”, gora, a Russian word that so easily turns by changing from nominative to genitive case into a homonym for gore (grief, sorrow, lamentation)? “Flinching – the mountain / from my shoulders, soul – / a sorrow-mountain”, The Poem of the Mountain begins. Is “soul” (dusha, spirit, inspiration, feeling) a “sorrow-mountain” – this mountain, as the poem also says, that “throws and [that] gathers us in bed”? In autumn 1923, as an exile from Soviet Russia, Marina Tsvetaeva lived in an apartment on Petrshin Hill in Prague, the poem’s mountain. The mountain’s sorrow has its source in Tsvetaeva’s 1923 love affair with an exiled Russian offi cer, Konstantin Rodzevich, which had ended unhappily in December (Tsvetaeva began the poem in January 1924). While Petrshin Hill can still be identified as the mountain in the poem, however, the word gora as it turns to gore, as it moves between “mountain” and “grief”, also turns grieving into a volcanic energy that dwarfs any urban hill with its verbal immensity. At the same time, while the “you” to whom the poem is addressed may still be identified with Rodzevich, here too the energy that moves between gora and gore exceeds biography and becomes the transmembering that lovers discover in each other to be anything but a false eternity: “Not deception – passion – not a fantasy / or lie – simply because it does not last!” But,

When was the blessing simple:

simply – a hill; simply – a rise…

(say that you measure the sorrow-

mountain by the fall its precipice


Words carry this eternity into existence, where it translates onto the tongue without equivalence to any translated word in Russian or in English. The tongue feels imageless in its verbal transmemberments:

As in this, suddenly inparadise – its caustics! –the mountain cast beneath us whirling sorceries.

Tsvetaeva’s poetry, like Mandelshtam’s or Celan’s, always addresses an unknown, future reader. Ostensibly the addressee for The Poem of the Mountain is Rodzevich, but inevitably the “you” the poem addresses becomes the reader who, for Tsvetaeva, is also a translator and displaces Rodzevich. “A poem”, Celan writes,

being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in

a bottle thrown out to sea with the – surely not always strong – hope that

it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on the shoreline of the heart.

In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed toward.

Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you,

perhaps, an approachable reality. (Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop.)

Perhaps for Tsvetaeva, a reality her poem might find its way to would include “an approachable you” who would not prefer domestic comforts to a naked soul (in January 1924, she wrote of herself and Rodzevich, “he asks for a home, while all she can offer is her soul”. And in 1923: “I am a person skinned alive, while all of you have armour.” From me “it all falls off like the skin and under the skin – living flesh or fire: me”.)

The future reader, certainly Tsvetaeva’s translator, can feel responsible to this nakedness in ways that recall what Levinas says about my ethical responsibility to the stranger, for Irigaray the lover – always a stranger – who brings me into being by offering me your feeling in my response. At the same time any reader, certainly any translator, must engage what has happened over time. As a close friend said to me once, “To understand this history, first think about a lover who has been confronted by an absence”. My friend referred me to Barthes, to his Lover’s Discourse. “Endlessly”, Barthes says, “I sustain the discourse of the… absence; … [that] the other is absent as referent, present as someone I address”. This “singular distortion generates a kind of insupportable present; I am wedged between two tenses, that of the reference and that of the allocution: you have gone (which I lament), you are here (since I am addressing you). Whereupon I know what the present, this difficult tense, is: a pure portion of anxiety.” If this describes the present tense in The Poem of the Mountain – and for me it does – then the poem’s erotic impulse begins to seem like the Gnostic pneuma trapped as a stranger in an alienated existence but with an uncompromised knowledge of her reality.

One of the burdens for Tsvetaeva’s future reader and translator is a knowledge of what happened next – not only to her, fi rst in exile, then in the fi nal destitutions of Stalinist realities – but to the future of the word gora as it verbalized those destitutions for the soul. Stalin’s Georgian birthplace was named Gori, and in 1933 in the epigram that would lead to Mandelshtam’s death, Stalin became the Kremlin gorets (mountain-man) who was the source of so much sorrow (gore).

Still later in Mandelshtam’s Voronezh poems, Stalin is also the idol (kumir) in the mountain, who almost remembers his humanity:

The idol in the mountain dozes quietly, in storage, in a mountain chamber. Oozing from his neck, grease necklaces protect the ebb-tint and the flow of dreams.

As a boy, he played with peacocks, fed on Indian rainbows, milk in rose-clay, dyed unsparingly in red from dried, crushed insects.

Sleep ossified, knotted in a bundle – knees, hands and shoulders – like a man who smiles broadly, conceiving bone by feeling for his forehead – recalling if he can – he too seemed human.

As Tsvetaeva’s future reader and translator, I find it hard now to think of her “sorrow-mountain” without also thinking of this “sorrow-mountain” and the gorets-idol within that has taken the place of her soul. For me the experience of these two mountains can be like walking Florensky’s Moebius strip. They are not the same mountains, of course, but I keep moving from one to the other as they turn me on my head. I wonder if Mandelshtam could write of the Kremlin’s gorets or of the idol in the mountain without recalling how prophetically Tsvetaeva’s poem still countered inhumanities by which she and Mandelshtam would not be completely consumed. In retrospect the poem seems to know more than its poet could and certainly more than its translator. I would like to call this unknowing the “mountain”, the soul (dusha, spirit) for which Tsvetaeva framed the mountain image. A history embraces the image, but “the mountain” withstands its violations. After Tsvetaeva’s mountain, I may come to the gorets, but after Stalin’s mountain, I come to Tsvetaeva’s again – to “soul – / a sorrow mountain”. I would like to think that Mandelshtam found the blessing that is more life because he knew, in the face of Stalin’s mountain, that he might come to Tsvetaeva’s again. “[Y]ou measure the sorrow- / mountain by the fall its precipice attracts”, but

the dissolute should not forget, a sorrow-mountain has its tenses – mountains of time.

In 1931 Mandelshtam wrote that the poetic word is “on the road [v doroge, in route] forever”.

Marina Tsvetaeva: The Poem of the Mountain

Liebster, Dich wundert die Rede? Alle Scheidenden reden wie Trunkene und nehmen gerne sich festlich . . .



Flinching – the mountain from my shoulders, soul – a sorrow-mountain. May I sing a ripened sorrow on my


Not today, tomorrow – black will not stop the holes – may I sing a sorrow-mountain ripened on a mountain summit.


A mountain like the chest of a recruit – shell-mown. A mountain-wish – the virgin lip, a wedding ritual for

the sorrow-mountain. Then suddenly an ocean burst the ear-shell. The mountain tossed and struggled.

The sorrow-mountain like the Titans’ thunder – useless! Do you remember now the last house near the city on the mountain?

The mountain was so many worlds! And God made one world costly. The mountain was our sorrow’s spring, the mountain rose above

 our city.


It was not Sinai, not Parnassus –
the mountain was a naked barracks
hill, bare – line! and
fire! Then why in my eyes
(not in May, but in October)
was this mountain paradise?


As in this, suddenly in paradise – its caustics! – the mountain cast beneath us whirling sorceries.

As if a titan fi ngered firs and bushes – the mountain caught my slip and ordered being!

A paradise so far from children’s letters – winds wind! The mountain throws and gathers us in bed!

Staggered from the onslaught like what? Unrealized daylight! The mountain – like a pimp –

a sanctuary arch – points – here, at this, to this…


Persephone’s pomegranate

 semen – grenades! Drowsiness in winter on the Styx? Recall the lips, the bivalve shell –

 remember mine.

Persephone who squandered

 seed! Stubborn marooned lips persist, your eyelashes are teething, the serrations of a golden star…


Not deception – passion – not a fantasy or lie – simply because it does not last! When may we live like people in this world – simply, openly – in love!

When was the blessing simple: simply – a hill; simply – a rise… (say that you measure the sorrow-mountain by the fall its precipice


Spirit-watch in gorse thickets, islands of strangled pine… (pitches of delirium, raving over living).

For me then! You!

But now this quiet, this familial kindness –
nestling murmurs, sadly – because
we enter this village-world,
the sky’s inhabitants in love!


The sorrow-mountain grieved (and mountains mourn the bitter ground at times of leaving) – the sorrow-mountain sorrowed for the tender pigeon-blue of obscure mornings.

The mountain mourned our friendship: lips – unchanging kinship! The sorrow-mountain grieved that everyone receives according to his tears.

The mountain said again that life is like the gypsy camp where hearts are marketed for ages? Once again the sorrow-mountain said, Set Hagar free! if only for her child!

The mountain said, This is, the demon-twist – with no thought in the gamble. The mountain said – and we were mute

– accept the mountain’s judgment.


The mountain grieved that only grieving can survive what blood and heat become. The mountain mourned what does not free and does not tolerate your friend!

The mountain grieved that only smoky haze remains tomorrow of the world and Rome today. The mountain grieved because tomorrow we will be with others (and I

do not envy any of your friends!).

The mountain sorrowed for the dreadful weight of words too late to swear – the mountain mourned the knot of debts and passions – arrogant remainders.

The mountain mourned our mourning – not today! Tomorrow! When over-head, now – no memento – simply ocean! realized when… tomorrow!

Sound… as if it simply – well then… nearby, someone crying? The mountain sorrowed for our separate descent in mud, into

a life we know is nothing: rabble – markets – barracks… the mountain said that poems of the mountains are only written in this fashion.


The mountain hunched back like a Titan – Atlas, moaning. And the city where we lived the day and night as if at cards

– here in the sorrow-mountain’s city – passionately persisting not to be – the bear-pit and the tower clock – with twelve apostles

– honoured my sullen grotto (where waves entered!) – playing your last gambit – do you remember?

– where the city ended?

The mountain was – so many worlds! and gods take vengeance on their likeness! the mountain resting on my coffi n, grief beginning with a mountain.


Years will pass and for my marker a stone’s trivial cancellations – dachas on our mountain and constraints of gardens.

They say that on the city’s borders, air is purer, life is milder, so they shred the out

skirts into rags, scaffolding our mountain,

my crossings cleared, my gulleys swallowed – because,

 you see it must be someone’s home – good fortune – happiness in

the house.

Happiness – in a house, love without fabrication, without stretching the veined stitching! be a woman – and endure it!

(When you came to me

I knew there was good fortune in

 the house!) Love, edged, without the severing – or a knife. On the ruins of our happiness, a city rises for

its wives and husbands.

Now in the simple-minded air

– bliss – sin while you can! In the future shopkeepers on holidays will gnaw our profi ts.

Floors and passages that they imagine thread the house because, you see, it must be someone’s – on its roof,

a stork is nesting.


Under the weight of these foundations, the sorrow-mountain plays its hands and

does not sleep. The dissolute should not forget, a sorrow-mountain has its tenses – mountains of time.

Families in their summer houses, building
on the fissures, recognize too late the hill
they overgrow is a volcano – cratered
and about to free its revolutions!

Vineyards do not bind Vesuvius!Our giant is not bound with fl ax!On my lips insanity stirsvineyards – my lions –

the lava-hatred streams:
your daughters will
be whored!
your poets – children!

Your daughters will raise
bastards! – off to the gypsies!
And you – for leeching my blood
stream, no fertile country!

Harsher than a corner-stone,
my death-curse on your future:
for ants upon my mountain,
wretchedness and misery!

For every human family,
at an unknown hour –
vast and inordinate –
adultery’s commandment!


A gap corrodes my memory – cataracts in the eyes: seven veils – I do not recollect distinctly, your face – a white blank.

Without a mark. A white lacuna –

 blank, always. (Soul in the wound complete, the wound – completely). Chalking the detail white – a tailor’s business.

Firmament – my honest basis. Ocean – massing spray?! Without a mark. I suppose for all of you. Love – coupling, not

 the inquest.

Your black or light-brown hair
if coloured – let a neighbour say: he saw.
Passion really – the affair of details?
Am I a watchmaker? A doctor?

You are like a circle – complete integral: Integral whirlwind, complete

 stupor. I cannot remember you apart from love – it signals our equality.

(Sleeping down amasses: cataracts – hills of spume – novelty – strange hearing – instead: I – enthroned: us…)

Or – cramped, destitute life: “life, as it is” (corrosive)

– I do not see you coupled now with anyone:

– my memory’s

Prague, January 1924.


1 I am indebted throughout to Nina Kossman, to her wonderful translations, preface and notes in Poem of the End, her edition of Tsvetaeva’s poetry.

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