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.