“I am happy living simply/ like a clock, or a calendar,” Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in 1919.
Tsvetaeva’s life was anything but simple, for she had the misfortune of living through some of the most turbulent years in Russian history.
She married Sergei Efron in 1912, but was soon separated from him during the Civil War. She had a brief love affair with writer Osip Mandelstam, and a longer relationship with Sofia Parnok. She nearly starved to death in the Moscow famine and lost one daughter to starvation. The family fled to Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they lived in poverty. Tsvetaeva, Efron, and her two remaining children returned to the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a fatal decision, for Efron was arrested in Moscow and executed, and her surviving daughter, Ariadna, who had been imprisoned in the 30s, was sent to a labor camp. Their son Mur soon died in World War II. Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself on August 31, 1941.
It is because of the efforts of Tsvetaeva’s sister, Anastasia, who served two terms in labor camps, and her daughter, Ariadna Efron, that we have a rich collection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, notebooks, and manuscripts today.
With Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Alice James Books, 2012), Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky and American poet Jean Valentine have created a brilliant collection of “readings” of Tsvetaeva. These are not translations in the strictest sense, but renderings of a small selection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, journals, and prose. The book also includes a CD of fifteen Tsvetaeva pieces read in the original Russian by Polina Barskova and Valzhyna Mort.
For a reader like myself, largely unfamiliar with Tsvetaeva’s vast oeuvre, Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva is the perfect introduction to this unique, passionate voice. Through their astute selection of passages, careful arrangement, and sharp, empathetic ear, Jean and Ilya have made Tsvetaeva, the most mysterious of Russian poets, more alive, while also giving us a glimpse of the everyday life of women during these “terrible years” of Russian history. Here is a passage from Tsvetaeva’s poem “The Desk”:
I’ve loved living with little.
There are dishes I’ve never tried.
But you, you people eat slowly, and often;
you eat and eat….
You—with belches, I—with books,
with truffles, you. With pencil, I,
you and your olives, me and my rhyme,
with pickles, you. I, with poems.
When Tsvetaeva writes, “My little thefts in the Commissariat: two gorgeous checkered notebooks (yellow, bright), a whole box of quills to write with, a glass bubble of red English ink. I am writing with it now,” there is a special intimacy to her words. Kaminsky and Valentine are like guides, leading us to a beautiful, but somewhat mysterious place. With skil