Moscow in the Plague Year (2014)

Moscow in the Plague Year
Looking back, Tsvetaeva wrote that ‘from 1912 to 1920, while writing uninterruptedly, I did not appear in print, No fewer than three big, very big verse collections failed to materialise’.
The tragic years ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution were paradoxically the most productive period for Tsvetaeva as a poet. Moscow in the Plague Year features all the shorter poems she wrote between November 1918 and May 1920, including some outstanding items where a missing adjective she never found in order to complete a line is replaced by a dash. A cycle of 25 poems is dedicated to theatre director Yury Zavadsky, then involved in a a gay relationship with Pavol Antokolsky, another of 27 to the painter Nikolay Nikolayevich Vysheslavtsev, and a third to Sonya Holliday, the subject of a later extended prose piece called The Tale of Sonechka.
To you, who should be born one hundred years
from now, so I get time to catch my breath,
out of my guts, like one condemned to die,
I write, with my own fist:
Don’t waste time looking for me! Fashions change!
Even the old men have forgotten me.
Our lips can’t touch! Across Lethe’s dark waters
I stretch out both my hands.
I can see your eyes, a pair of bonfires,
blazing at me in the grave, in Hell,
fixed on a woman who can’t lift an arm,
dead for a century.
Clutched in my palm like a fistful of dust,
I see my poems! Meanwhile, you are scouring
the four winds for the house where I was born,
or else in which I’ll die.
How you look at the living, happy women
that cross your path fills me with pride – I catch
your words: ‘Pack of impostors! You’re all dead!
She alone is alive!
I served her with a volunteer’s devotion!
Knew all her secrets, where she hid each ring!
You’re nothing but graverobbers! All the rings
you wear you stole from her!’
I had a hundred! My whole body aches,
never before have I regretted handing
them out to right and left unthinkingly –
couldn’t I wait for you?
I’m saddened, too, that I spent a whole evening –
today’s – in ceaseless pursuit of the setting
sun, in the hope of bumping into you
across one hundred years.
I’d lay a wager you’ll be hurling curses
upon my friends, hidden in the grave’s gloom:
‘Much as you praised her, nobody would buy
her the rose-coloured dress!
Was anyone less selfish?’ No, I was
selfish. You cannot kill me, I won’t hide
what I did – begged everyone for your letters
to kiss them after dark.
Shall I say it? Here goes! No longer living’s
a turn of phrase. You’re my impassioned guest,
and you’ll refuse the pearl among all women
for the sake of my bones.

August 1919

Sooner or later, creature of enchantment,
I shall become a memory for you,
lost amidst everything your pale blue eyes
have contemplated – continents apart.
You will forget the hooked nose of my profile,
my forehead with its cigarette smoke haloes,
my constant laughter, which fooled everyone,
the myriad rings upon my working woman’s
fingers, and our attic like a cockpit,
the heavenly subversion of my papers…
the fearsome year when Want raised us aloft,
in which you were a child, and I was young.

November 1919

If stanzas cannot help, nor constellations,
then this must be what’s known as retribution
because, time and again,
straightening up over an awkward line,
above my forehead’s spaciousness I looked
for stars only, not eyes;
because, acknowledging your suzerainty,
not for a single moment, gorgeous Eros,
did I regret your absence
when, in the ritual darknesses of night,
my booty, from a crimson, yielding mouth
was rhymes only, not lips;
because, though harshly judged, white as the snowy
skin beneath this left breast, I attained
the status of a god
and, face to face with the young Orient
in person, sought, above my forehead’s breadth
daybreak, and not a rose!

May 20th 1920

buy a copy
Moscow in the Plague Year

‘Readers who know no Russian should feel grateful to Christopher Whyte for his resourceful effort to get across the feel of Tsvetaeva’s lyric poetry at its most packed.’
– G. S. Smith, Modern Poetry in Translation

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