Tsvetaeva on Death.

As I wrote here, I’ve taken a break from Pasternak to read Marina Tsvetaeva, and I’ve run across an amazing poem from 1936 (she had only another five years to live) that shows off her late style at its most impressive. It’s only two stanzas; here‘s the Russian:

В мыслях об ином, инаком,
И ненайденном, как клад,
Шаг за шагом, мак за маком —
Обезглавила весь сад.

Так, когда-нибудь, в сухое
Лето, поля на краю,
Смерть рассеянной рукою
Снимет голову — мою.

Most of the vocabulary is fairly basic, with the startling exception of the fifth word, инаком, a declined form of инакий, which is so rare it’s not in any of my Russian-English dictionaries. It is, however, in Dahl (s.v. иной) and Vasmer; it’s an archaic synonym of иной ‘other,’ and here is found directly after it, serving as a mysterious almost-repetition. I’m going to render it as the Scots “ither” in the rough-and-ready translation below, just to convey the almost-repetition and synonymy:

Thinking of something other, ither,
And undiscovered, like a treasure,
Step by step, poppy by poppy,
I beheaded the entire garden.

Thus, at some future time, in a dry
Summer, on a field’s edge,
Death, with an absent-minded hand
Will take off a head — mine.

That gives you the general idea, anyway. The basic idea is a cliche: humans are like unto the flowers of the field; golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust. But see how a great poet can make it new! It opens with a magic triplet, complete with a magic obscure word: “ином, инаком, И ненайденном” [inóm, inákom, i nenáidennom]. Notice how the three terms grow from the cell of inóm, using the i-n-m matrix to build longer words? Then we get the thudding, ominous “Шаг за шагом, мак за маком” [Shag za shagom, mak za makom], again using near-repetition, capped by the killer: “I beheaded the entire garden.”

The second stanza opens with the basic poetic hinge так ‘thus, in the same way,’ followed by another ingeniously constructed triplet: “когда-нибудь, в сухое Лето, поля на краю” [kogdá-nibud’, v sukhoe leto, polya na krayú], this time varied rhythmically: da-DA-dada, da-DA-da-DA-da, DA-dadada-DA; with the last phrase (as Viktoria Schweitzer, whose biography of Tsvetaeva I’m reading, points out), she’s alluding to the Russian proverb “Жизнь прожить — не поле перейти” ‘to live life is not the same as to cross a field’ (and this, as Schweitzer neglects to mention, was famously used by Pasternak as the last line of Гамлет [Hamlet]). And then the kicker: death will behead me as I beheaded the flowers.

What occurred to me as I was rereading it was that it reminded me strongly of Emily Dickinson, who even used dashes similarly, and I wished Tsvetaeva could have translated Dickinson. It wouldn’t have been faithful, but it sure would have been worth reading.

Comments

  1. Oh! So иначе must be a comparative form of инакий?

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Sure.

  3. Is that use of the dash common in everyday Russian, like the one standing for the elided verb in а clauses?

  4. Ukrainian has the slightly-more-transparent інакше, so that was my best clue.

  5. @Y: “Is that use of the dash common in everyday Russian…?”

    The first dash (missing in LH’s English version) has no syntactic value as far as I can see, probably indicating a pause.

    The second makes a difference to meaning. Without the dash, it would merely be a case of a (generically poetic) postpositive possessive. “Death… will take off my head,” simply put. With the dash, the meaning changes to “Death… will take off a head. My head.” When the poem gets read aloud, the reader should make a pause after “голову” keeping all options open (thanks to the absence of an article) for a moment or two, before hammering in “мою”.

    @LH: “The basic idea is a cliche: humans are like unto the flowers of the field; golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” It’s not that simple. True, the poppies would have shed their flower-heads some day, as such is the way of all grass-flesh. But it’s not Nature, nor the fall season beheading them – it’s a poet thinking of a world beyond this one. Without much thought, on a semi-automatic whim. The parallel would be death taking the poet at some random point before her natural term expires.

  6. Sir JCass says:

    Wonderful poem.

    Maybe поля на краю is an echo of prati ultimi flos in Catullus 11 (although Catullus is talking about his love dying from Lesbia’s indifference):

    cecidit velut prati
    ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
    tactus aratro est.

    Catullus does not specify which flower but the footnotes to my edition say poppy is the most likely.

  7. It’s not that simple.

    I just meant the basic idea of comparing the death of humans to the death of flowers. Of course it’s not that simple; if it were, there wouldn’t have been a poem.

  8. About the first dash. Tsvetaeva is known for idiosyncratic use of punctuation, but in this case it is probable that she dropped explicit subject from the first stanza/sentence and this is what the dash is marking. Rules of Russian orthography, AFAIK, do not contemplate a dash here, but Tsvetaeva might have felt it is worth emphasizing. It is interesting that if we pretend for a moment that after the first stanza we still don’t know who is doing the “beheadings” (Russian grammar does not require us to think of I as the only answer) then the final line creates a real coup, but I guess it would be very strange if it were anything rather than I.

    Here’s another Tsvetaeva’s poem about death that I (and at least half of all Russians who at one point or another were teenagers) like very much Идешь, на меня похожий…. It is an early poem, with a good part of pretense and standard symbolistic tropes, but it’s still very good.

  9. It is interesting that if we pretend for a moment that after the first stanza we still don’t know who is doing the “beheadings” (Russian grammar does not require us to think of I as the only answer) then the final line creates a real coup

    Yes, that’s one of the things that’s inevitably lost in translation.

  10. Thanks, Alexei. I suppose if I was translating it into English I might be using a period instead of a dash; or not. I don’t know which better conveys the feel of the Russian.

    I also wonder if that pause is meant to be a prosodic shadow of the line’s content, i.e. a decapitation, something like Virgil’s prōcumbit humī bōs.

  11. Terrific poem and discussion. Thanks.

  12. Beth! It’s a delight to see you around these parts again. Glad you liked it!

  13. Yes, that’s one of the things that’s inevitably lost in translation.

    I didn’t mean to criticize….

  14. Dickinson rendered by Tsvetaeva would have indeed been a marvel.

  15. I didn’t mean to criticize….

    I know you didn’t, I was agreeing with you.

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