Moscow in the Plague Year: Poems

Overview

Written during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed, these poems are suffused with Tsvetaeva's irony and humor, which undoubtedly accounted for her success in not only reaching the end of the plague year alive, but making it the most productive of her career. We meet a drummer boy idolizing Napoleon, an irrepressibly mischievous grandmother who refuses to apologize to God on Judgment Day, and an androgynous (and luminous) Joan of Arc.

"Represented on a graph, Tsvetaeva's work would ...

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Moscow in the Plague Year: Poems

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Overview

Written during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed, these poems are suffused with Tsvetaeva's irony and humor, which undoubtedly accounted for her success in not only reaching the end of the plague year alive, but making it the most productive of her career. We meet a drummer boy idolizing Napoleon, an irrepressibly mischievous grandmother who refuses to apologize to God on Judgment Day, and an androgynous (and luminous) Joan of Arc.

"Represented on a graph, Tsvetaeva's work would exhibit a curve - or rather, a straight line - rising at almost a right angle because of her constant effort to raise the pitch a note higher, an idea higher ... She always carried everything she has to say to its conceivable and expressible end. In both her poetry and her prose, nothing remains hanging or leaves a feeling of ambivalence. Tsvetaeva is the unique case in which the paramount spiritual experience of an epoch (for us, the sense of ambivalence, of contradictoriness in the nature of human existence) served not as the object of expression but as its means, by which it was transformed into the material of art." —Joseph Brodsky

While your eyes follow me into the grave, write up the whole caboodle on my cross! 'Her days began with songs, ended in tears, but when she died, she split her sides with laugher!'
—from Moscow in the Plague Year: Poems

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/03/2014
Those who can read Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) in the original Russian describe her as passionate, volatile, and breathtaking in the sensuous flights of her erotic poems, but also as a gifted writer in traditional rhymed forms, a poet of great control, even when the experiences described involve a near-fatal loss of control. Such is the case for these cycles of lyric poems, mostly about erotic love pursued, lost or won (some address her young daughter). Together the many stanzas and fragments record a year of mostly unrequited devotions, a year spent near Hvation in the disastrous Moscow of 1919. The translation can sound slightly old-fashioned; though Tsvetaeva's passion comes through in these unrhymed translations (printed without the originals), the sonic acuity does not: "With youth's last gaps, beneath the shade/ of dry fig trees, I sing the women/ fated to be your lovers in/ the future you've ahead of you!" Even though the individual pages—some never before translated—do not stand up as poetry in English, together they tell a hair-raising and heartbreaking story: a self-destructive, almost compulsively productive poet, roaming a broken city, hearing and learning from the writers she loved, writing immortal scraps and heartbroken fragments, "not hiding the emotion in my voice." (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"A poet of genius." —Vladimir Nabokov

"Unique, profound, passionate, inspiring ... Asks questions we didn't know existed until she offered them to us, and answers to some of poetry's most enduring mysteries." —C.K. Williams

"Although generally less well known here than Pasternak, Akhmatova and Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva is counted by some critics as the greatest of these four major poets of postrevolutionary Russia ... Infused with high passion and a heroic tenacity of spirit." Publishers Weekly

"colloquial, witty and most welcome […]. Whyte’s contribution to the ‘English’ Tsvetaeva, apart from the focus of the selection which gives the reader the opportunity really to get to know the poet as a young woman caught up by the tornado of war and revolution, is [...] the way he reflects her edgy humor […] and her pithy self-characterisations […]. Tsvetaeva’s visual imagery is superbly conveyed […] as are her sustained, ephemeral metaphors. What a fine feeling for language to say ‘on’, not ‘in’ the sky, so that we see not just the rainbow name MARINA, but the industrious adolescent stretching up to spell it out. For the sake of this name, Whyte allows the Russian music to break through his own, more sober idiom."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781935744962
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 8/12/2014
  • Edition description: Translatio
  • Pages: 180
  • Sales rank: 967,399
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) was a Russian poet and memoirist. Tsvetaeva's work was admired by many poets of her time, including Rainer Maria Rilke, Boris Pasternak, and Joseph Brodsky, among others. The Russian Revolution prompted Tsvetaeva's husband to join the White Army, and she and her young children were trapped in Moscow and thrown into extreme poverty for five years, the subject of the poems in Moscow in the Plague Year. In 1941 her husband was shot on the charge of espionage, her daughter sent to a labor camp, and Tsvetaeva herself sent to Yelabuga, where she found herself once more desperately looking for work until her suicide later that year. The author lives in Moscow, Russia.

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Read an Excerpt

Moscow in the Plague Year


By Marina Tsvetaeva, Christopher Whyte

archipelago books

Copyright © 2014 Marina Tsvetaeva
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935744-96-2


CHAPTER 1

Sweet to be two of us – on just one horse,
in the one dinghy, riding one wave,
sweet when the two of us chew the same crust –
sweetest of all when we share the same pillow.

November 1st 1918

* * *

With airborne step –
the sign of a clear conscience –
with airborne step
and resonant song

God set me down alone amidst
the world's immensity: 'You're not
a woman', he said, 'but a bird.
Your task, therefore – to fly and sing!'

November 1st 1918

* * *

The morning dove has found a place
to perch on my right shoulder, while
the eagle owl of night has found
a place to perch upon my left.

Like Kazan's emperor, I pass
knowing I have no cause to fear –
enemies having joined in league
to offer me common defence!

November 2nd 1918

* * *

I'm giving you this comb so you'll remember
me longer than an hour, lad, or a year.

Little gold combs got invented for that –
so young lovers don't forget their girls.

To stop the one I love drinking without me –
comb, little comb for straightening my hair!

This one is special, there's no other like it –
pulled through my hair, its teeth feel just like strings!

As soon as you touch it, a shiver will run
all down my body, but nobody else's.

To stop the one I love sleeping without me –
comb, little comb for straightening my hair!

So that every inch he puts between us
can seem to him a mile of burning sweat,

each mile as he returns seems like an inch –
little gold combs got invented for that.

To stop the one I love living without me –
comb, darling comb, with all your seven teeth!

November 2nd 1918

* * *

A mug, the tail end of the bread,
a raspberry out of the punnet,
moonlight through the attic window –
that's how far our banquet reaches!

As a bonus, offer me
a lad I can get warmed up with –
even when no bread's included,
I can never hope to pay!

November 2nd 1918


PLAYACTING

Dedication:

To an actor, trying to pass for an angel, or an angel, trying to pass for an actor – it makes no difference, since in 1919 tenderness towards Your Worship, and not snow, had me in thrall


1

An evening comes to mind. Early November.
Rain falling, foggy. Underneath the streetlamp,
your gentle features, alien, uncertain,
pallid and blurred as in a Dickens novel.
A shivering as of winter seas within me....
Your gentle features underneath the streetlamp.

The wind howled, and the stair we climbed unravelled ...
My eyes were riveted upon your lips;
I stood, twisting my fingers, almost laughing,
the version of a Muse in miniature,
as blameless as the evening hour was late ...
The wind howled, and the stair we climbed unravelled.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Moscow in the Plague Year by Marina Tsvetaeva, Christopher Whyte. Copyright © 2014 Marina Tsvetaeva. Excerpted by permission of archipelago books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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