The Last Bridge.

Working my way through Tsvetaeva’s collected poems, I’ve gotten to 1924 and the astonishing sequence Поэма конца [Poem of the end] she wrote for Konstantin Rodzevich, an unremarkable young man “with strikingly pink cheeks” (according to a fellow émigré). They had three passion-filled months together, then she broke it off — according to her biographer, Viktoria Schweitzer, “so as not to allow love to become debased, so as not to allow the mountain to be transformed into a suburb.” She wrote to her former lover and involuntary confidant Alexandr Bakhrakh:

Dear friend, I am very unhappy. I have parted with him, still loving and still beloved, at the height of love; no, I haven’t parted from him, I’ve torn myself away from him! . . . With him I would have been happy . . . I should have liked a son from him . . .

It’s a long sequence; I liked section 8 so much I thought I’d try a translation, which I present below (followed by the Russian). You can compare a translation by Elaine Feinstein here (scroll down); I think it’s awful, but Feinstein is well regarded, and tastes differ.

It’s the last bridge
(I won’t give my hand, or pull it back!)
It’s the last bridge,
the bridge’s last plank.

Water and earth.
I lay out the coins.
Money for death,
for Lethe: Charon’s pay.

The shadow of a coin
in a shadowy hand. Soundless
these coins. So,
into a hand of shadow —

the shadow of a coin.
With no reflection, no ring.
The coins — to them.
Poppies suffice for the dead.


The original:

По – следний мост.
(Руки не отдам, не выну!)
Последний мост,
Последняя мостовина.

Во – да и твердь.
Выкладываю монеты.
День – га за смерть,
Харонова мзда за Лету.

Мо – неты тень.
В руке теневой. Без звука
Мо – неты те.
Итак, в теневую руку

Мо – неты тень.
Без отсвета и без звяка.
Мо – неты — тем.
С умерших довольно маков.


(Tsvetaeva uses dashes as liberally as but differently from Emily Dickinson, frequently putting them between the syllables of a word, as here.)


  1. I like your translation. At the very least, I like it more than Feinstein’s. She invents things that Tzvetaeva didn’t write. One thing in your translation is unclear. What does “The dead have poppies enough” means ( btw, Feinstein also wrote something strange for the last line)? Tzvetaeva’s line means that the dead do not need money, because poppies are enough for them, but not that they have poppies in abandance. I would be well out of my range to judge English poetry, but in the original the next to last line is a very strong one. Nothing in the first 15 lines suggests that parting with money as a ritual of death has anything to do with them being useless on the other side of the bridge. So the next line sends quite a message (banal in general, but unexpected in the context) and it should not be muddied.

  2. The near-rhymes are really striking: твердь-монеты-смерть-Лету, звука-руку, etc. Usually near-rhymes are a compromise, not something to flaunt. Is that characteristic of her? Do you know any other poets, in any language, who utilize them so willfully?

  3. звяк = ring
    My immediate association was chink / clink.

  4. “Usually near-rhymes are a compromise, not something to flaunt.” Not in 20th century Russian poetry, especially if the near-rhymes are “rich.” It’s also worth looking at the sonic interaction among whole lines, not just the endings – assonances, internal rhymes and half-rhymes, alliterations and so on.

    Also, in this particular case, твердь-смерть is an exact rhyme and монеты-Лету is almost exact. Звяка-маков is approximate, but by the standards of its time, perfectly acceptable.

  5. Tzvetaeva’s line means that the dead do not need money, because poppies are enough for them, but not that they have poppies in abundance.

    You’re right, of course, and my version was sloppy; I’ll improve it. Thanks!

    My immediate association was chink / clink.

    Yeah, the problem is that those both sound a little silly to me, detracting from the solemnity of the poem. That may just be my personal sensibility, but that’s why translations differ…

  6. I’ve been thinking about твердь as used in this poem: “Вода и твердь.” LH translates it as “Water and earth” and Feinstein as “water and firm land.” That’s pretty much how the average Russian would hear it: hard, firm earth or ground or land – or, possibly, a fortress.

    There’s another, older meaning, “др.-русск. твьрдь ж. небосвод, небесная твердь, укрепление, темница” (Vasmer). Небесная твердь, “firmament,” is a cliche in modern Russian. (“Здесь, на небесной тверди, слышать музыку Верди?” – Mayakovsky.) In other words, “firmament” would be as valid as “earth”: paradoxically perhaps, “water and earth” becomes indistinguishable from “water and heaven(s).”

  7. Trond Engen says:

    I was going to ask if this is a another instance of the IE stone/sky duality, but it’s rather about calquing the concept of firmness: terra ferma, firmament. And then I realized that “firmness” is a trivial semantic bridge for IE as well. The firmament is the firm sky of the fixed stars.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    *lightbulb moment*

    That would also explain why the meaning managed to specialize to “anvil” in, what was it, Avestan? Calling an anvil simply a “stone”/”rock”, even if it is one, seems too ambiguous to work for me.

  9. “anvil” is Greek. Iranian is a case of the development to “sky, heaven”.

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