21 May 2019

The Europe of Modern Russian Poets

"In retranslating Tsvetaeva’s Lorca translations, I have tried to keep in mind who Lorca was for readers in the Soviet Union. In 1936 near the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, he had been murdered by nationalists though probably not Falangists. In the struggle with fascism, he became a martyr, and Stalinism for all its own fascism became an ally in that struggle."


Osip Mandelshtam




A basilica is standing where a Roman judged

an alien people. Glad and primary –

like Adam once – the arch exalts, stretching

nerves and muscles in a light-crossed vault.

But the outside holds the secret,

power arches anxiously – enormous mass

does not collapse the walls – the daring vault

holds motionless the quiet of an idle battering.

The elemental maze, an obscure forest, Gothic

spirit’s rational precipice, Egyptian power and

a Christian reticence, with intervals of rush and oak

and everywhere, as tsar, a plumb-line’s measuring

alignment. But as I mastered more attentively this

permanence, Notre-Dame, your monstrous ribs,

the more I thought one day I too would make

beauty out of evil from cruel weight.




Boris Pasternak


In Holy Week


Night-haze still encircles,

still so early in the world –

stars, innumerable, light-

worlds, each like daylight –

if only earth could sleep

through Easter, dreaming

to the psalms.

Still encircling, night-haze,

and so early in the world

the city-square is an eternity

that stretches to the cross-roads,

warmth and daybreak

a millennium from here.

Earth, naked, unadorned,

nothing to dress the nights,

bells swinging freely

echoing choral music.

From Holy Thursday

to Holy Saturday –

water erodes its banks

and drills with whirlpools.

Naked forests, stripped –

unadorned for the Passion.

Like quietude in prayer,

pine trees pause in multitudes.

But crowded in the city,

naked, unadorned,

other trees assemble

at the church’s railing,

gazing, fearful with good

reason – gardens flood

their fences and the ground’s

foundations vibrate:

they are burying God.

And the light-worlds shining

through the tsar’s entrance –

black veils, rows of candles,

tear-stained faces. And

suddenly, face-to-face with

the procession, cross, the shroud,

two birch trees at the gate,

the reverence due a stranger.

Circling the churchyard, from

its pavement the procession

brings the semblances of spring,

spring fire, vernal air with aftertastes

of sacramental bread and ecstasy.

Cripples crowd the portico

where March scatters snow

as if a servant with the ark

were scattering its relics.

And singing until dawn,

until the mourning fades

into an inner quiet, lamplit

vacancy and silences

of psalms and the apostles.

And at midnight, flesh

and creature listen

spell-bound by spring

rumours that with clearing

weather death will face

the Resurrection’s power.




Five Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca1


Marina Tsvetaeva




When Grigory Zinoviev was about to be shot in 1936, he said that Stalin was a fascist and that “this is what Mussolini did”. Lev Kamanev who was with him at the time asked him to be quiet. Kamanev wanted to die in silence. Mussolini thought Stalin might have become a fascist (he meant this as a compliment); Mandelshtam told his OGPU interrogator in 1934 that he wrote his Stalin Epigraph – the gorets’ cockroach mustache (the Russian for “cockroach”, tarakan, is a near homonym for “tyrant”, tiran) – because “more than anything else he hated fascism”. To call Stalin a fascist tyrant could lead to a death sentence that in Mandelshtam’s case was only delayed, but to write poems about fascism offered a safer Aesopian way to write about Stalinism. Mandelshtam’s Voronezh poem, “Rome”, offers an eloquent instance (Moscow traditionally was the Third Rome): “The Forum-pit has been unearthed, / the Herod gates reopened. / Over the city – a heavy chin. / The degenerate dictator hovers.”

When Marina Tsvetaeva returned to Moscow in 1939, she learned how unimaginable returning could be. Her sister Anastasia had been arrested, her husband Sergei Efron (a Cheka operative) would soon be arrested then shot, her daughter Ariadne would be arrested and sent to the Gulag. Tsvetaeva herself was under constant surveillance (Ariadne’s fiancé turned out to be another Cheka operative assigned to spy on her, her mother and father), and her poetry was unpublishable. Tsvetaeva survived by becoming a translator, and like Pasternak but unlike Mandelshtam, her translations became her poetry. Much of what she was asked to translate was mediocre. She hoped to improve them in Russian. In at least two occasions the poems to be translated were remarkable (Baudelaire’s Le Voyage and a sequence of Lorca’s lyrics), and her translations became what may well have been her last major poems in Russian.

In retranslating Tsvetaeva’s Lorca translations, I have tried to keep in mind who Lorca was for readers in the Soviet Union. In 1936 near the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, he had been murdered by nationalists though probably not Falangists. In the struggle with fascism, he became a martyr, and Stalinism for all its own fascism became an ally in that struggle. Tsvetaeva’s translations were publishable in these circumstances, and Lorca’s murder implicitly offered a way to evoke the fascism that was murdering Russians, in particular Mandelshtam, I think, who had once been Tsvetaeva’s lover. In retranslating the Lorca translations, I have thought of them also as Tsvetaeva’s poems, composed in the shadow of Stalin’s fascism.



The Guitar


The guitar begins

to cry,

the shattered

cup of morning.


mourning – the guitar.

Do not expect her

silence –

do not ask her

to be mute!

Crying, the guitar,

like water – down a gully – mourning,

like a wind across the snowfall – mourning.

Do not plead with her

for quiet.

Sunset cries for sunrise,

the arrow for a target –

as burning sand is crying

for a cold camellia-radiance –

like a bird’s life that is

threatened by the snake’s denunciation.

Dear guitar – my poor, bare victim –

five brisk daggers.



The Landscape


A field of olive trees –

an opening fan –

over the young branches,

heaven lowers meanly –

raining a dark downpour

of cold luminaries –

frigid heaven’s bodies.

On a canal-edge –

the twilight – grasses – shudder,

and a third – a leaden breeze.

Birds’ outcries

fill the trees –

poor captive troops of actors –

long tail-feathers

trailing darkness.



The Village


On a sorrow-mountain –

a chapel –

on the bare crown of a sorrow –

milky water

penetrating centuries of olives –

a cloaked people,

a bell-tower –

a weathervane is

turning – day, is

turning – night,

eternally –

somewhere – a lost village,

my Andalusia,




The Desert


Time’s broken

mazes –


Desert –



The unquiet heart –

wellspring of desire –


Desert –



Sunset haze

I kiss –


Desert –



Stalled, cooling

dessicated –


Desert –




The Cave


From a cave – moan after murmur.

Hundreds of murmurs, throngs of sighs.

Over red – violet.


From the gypsy’s throat,

countries sunk into oblivion –

resurrected. Towers slice the heavens.

Strangers full of mysteries…


Broken moan of the punctuated

voice under the arched eyebrow –

black over crimson.


Shivered through

a chalk cave – trembling

gold – cave stretched out

in brilliance – white over red –

a she-bird…

from a cave

stream tears: white over scarlet.


1 As translated from Marina Tsvetaeva’s 1940 Russian translations of five lyrics from Poema del cante jondo (composed in 1921, published by Lorca in 1931), by Tony Brinkley.

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