where to start with his literature — The Calvert Journal


“No more passionate voice has ever sounded in Russian poetry of the 20th century,” Joseph Brodsky said of writer Marina Tsvetaeva. The American author Susan Sontag was also a fervent admirer: “Is there prose more intimate, more piercing, more heroic, more astonishing than that of Tsvetaeva? (…) Voice of the gut and the front, she is incomparable. His carelessness commands, his nudity ignites. However, Tsvetaeva, poet and essayist both marked and inspired by the calamitous 20th century Russia, remains little known outside her native country. Long overshadowed by other modernist giants – including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, to whom she was once a friend and confidante – Tsvetaeva is sometimes considered Akhmatova’s dark twin. His feverish intensity and dazzling linguistic invention match the measured elegance of his contemporary; where Akhmatova sees herself as the guardian of Russian poetic tradition, Tsvetaeva sets fire to centuries of conventional imagery and verse. Brimming with puns and carried by a propulsive rhythm, his lyrics strive to upset the frozen habits of mind and speech, promising readers a dizzying renewal of vision.

Tsvetaeva was equally uncompromising in her personal life. Much of his best work was inspired by a series of stormy relationships with men and women. Her lyrical love poems addressed to Russian poet Sofia Parnok, along with a whimsical short story documenting their romance, cemented her status as a pioneer of Russian queer literature. His whole biography is emblematic of the triumphs and tragedies of Russian poetry of the “Silver Age”. Married young to Sergey Efron, an army cadet who continued to fight against the Bolsheviks, she endured years of poverty and deprivation in Moscow during the Civil War. She then followed Efron into exile in Prague and Paris, where they found no respite: Tsvetaeva’s apolitical stance and her admiration for Soviet poets left her largely isolated in émigré circles. After Efron was implicated in the murder of a dissident, the entire family was forced to flee to the USSR, only to be engulfed in Stalin’s Terror. Embittered and friendless as her husband and daughter disappeared into the gulags, Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941, in the small Tatar town of Yelabuga.

It took another two decades before Tsvetaeva’s poetry – championed by such literary luminaries as Akhmatova and Brodsky in the West – was rediscovered. His tragic fate and his remarkable sensitivity have since made him a cult figure in Russia. His poems have been set to music by composers such as Dmitry Shostakovich and Sofia Gubaidulina; the eternal favorite of Russian cinema, irony of fate, features Alla Pugacheva’s interpretation of her Mne nravitsya (“I like that you don’t burn for me…”) His homes in Moscow and Yelabuga have both been turned into museums; Fans of Russian literature come en masse to affix sheets of verse to the walls, as the poetess herself did.

If his work has not experienced a similar revival abroad, it is largely due to the language barrier. His famous multi-layered, polyphonic, heightened style – evidenced in such epic poems as “Mountain Poem” and “End Poem” – has led many seasoned translators astray. But below is a subjective guide to some of Tsvetaeva’s best writings accessible in English.

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