Mary Jane White – Five Translations of Marina Tsvetaeva




From earth to the branch — like lynxes!
From earth to the wind — like whistles!

Written with a goose quill?
No, this would be a Scythian arrow!

Cast by the sharp wing of a vulture
This final pitch-darkness — Scythia!

Friend, don’t come down off your horse!  No need
To dismount, when the miles — still number in the thousands.
Like an exchange of arrows
When some day by and by — we may exchange letters!

Great — and — silent
Between me and you — Scythia . . .

And sleep, my young, my troubled
Syrian, shot with a mortal arrow
With Laylas — and — lutes
To dull your pain . . .
                                  Not for mortal ears —

(Heard once a hundred years)
The epic flight — of Scythia!

11 February 1923



(A Lullaby)

Over deep-blue over the steppe
From stars of the Great Dipper
To your forehead, but . . .
                                          — Sleep,
Deep-blue stifled by pillows.

Breathe, in but not out,
Gaze, don’t just glance.

Over flattery over a walking-stick
Like beads of dew that fall
Fingers begin their work . . .
Footsteps — stifled by pillows

Lie down — but don’t move,
Tremble — but don’t cry out.

From the sea from the Casp-
ian’s — deep-blue cape,
An arrow whistled, but . . .
Death stifled by pillows) . . .

Chase — but don’t touch,
Sink in — but don’t sink under.

13 February 1923



From arrows and spells,
From nests and holes,
Goddess Ishtar
Guard my tent:

From brothers, sisters.

From my smelting ore,
From my vat of enmity,
Goddess Ishtar
Guard my quiver . . .

(He took me — the Khan did!)

Let them not linger, the old,
Let them not linger, the ill,
Goddess Ishtar
Guard my fire:

(Its sharp flame!)

Let them not linger — the old,
Let them not linger — the evil,
Goddess Ishtar
Guard my cauldron

(Its glow and resin!)

Let them not linger — the old,
Let them fall easily to love — the young!
Goddess Ishtar
Drive my flock
Beyond the dark side of many moons!

14 February 1923


A Letter

One doesn’t wait for a letter like this,
Like one waits for — the letter.
A soft scrap,
Around it a ribbon
Of glue.  Inside — a small word.
And happiness.  And that’s — all.

One doesn’t wait for happiness like this,
Like one waits for — the end:
A soldier’s salute
And into his chest — the lead
Of three 44’s.  Into his eyes, red.
And that’s that.  And that’s — all.

No happiness — I’m too old!
My flower is — wind-blown!
Waiting for the courtyard square
And its black muzzles.

(For the square of a letter:
For ink and magic!)
For mortal rest
No one is too old!

Nor for the square of a letter.

11 August 1923


* * *

The insinuations of your hair:
Of its satiny smoothness, the luster
Of all its tangled strands —

Deep blue midnight, its raven
Color.   — To stroke to my heart’s content
Tangled all along — the length of my palm.

Poor man! — You needn’t credit me!
This is how I pass over your notion,
Your intention:  to part — to separate —

The stairs’ last creak . . .
This is how I pass over any thorn
On a rose . . .  — You needn’t prick your hand!

By my consent, in my life so many
Hands.  — It’s never been easy to tear
My fixed gaze from any shining yoke:

Along the length of your cowlick
I trace its regimentation:  black,
I shift it under pressure.

I envy your un-
Yielding palm:  the luster
Of your hair, — here, just at your hair-

Line — your eyes . . . Driven into them
Your obstinate notion:  this morning’s
Delusion — gone beneath your skull!

17 July 1922


Translator’s Statement on Beauty


          As a poet, I’ve always loved to read, write and translate the love poem, especially the love poem of mixed tone:  the one both certain of the attraction and uncertain of the commitment, or uncertain of mutual commitment; the one both fierce and forgiving, or, if not exactly forgiving, wonderfully dismissive when the brave move of separation becomes inevitable. 

The selection of Tsvetaeva translations here appeal to my odd sense, that truest sense of beauty.  All are from her final lyric collection After Russia (Paris, 1928).

Tsvetaeva’s biographer Simon Karlinsky has written: 

“The poems of After Russia are rich and rewarding when read on their own, without commentary.  But the publication of Tsvetaeva’s correspondence in recent years has revealed the hidden themes and addressees of this volume.  Much of the book is about the four men to whom she was drawn during the years when these poems were written and about the impossibility of a desired, lasting union with any of them.  The main protagonist of After Russia (how much better the original title Secret Intentions would have described this aspect of the book!) is Boris Pasternak, by virtue of both the sheer number of poems addressed to him and the intensity of the emotions he aroused in the poet.  His three supporting players are Abram Vishniak, Alexander Bakhrakh and Konstantin Rodzevich, who all proved in one way or another unworthy of the expectations vested in them, but who inspired magnificent poems during their span in Tsvetaeva’s orbit.”

“The insinuations of your hair” is a love poem written for one of Tsvetaeva’s “supporting players,” her Berlin publisher Abram Vishniak.  As Tsvetaeva moved into exile in 1922 from the Soviet Union toward an anticipated reunion with her husband, Sergei Efron—the couple had been separated for five years by the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, and Efron had been evacuated with the remnants of the defeated White Army through Turkey to exile in Prague– the couple’s anticipated reunion failed to preclude Tsvetaeva’s brief affair with her publisher of two of earlier collections, Abram G. Vishniak (1895-1943) [Helicon], about and to whom the great majority of her poems in 1922 in Berlin were written.  

Karlinsky give us this description of him:

“He was twenty-seven years old and happily married to a lovely young woman with whom he had a four-year-old son.  He had published Tsvetaeva’s Separation and was planning to publish Craft.  Tsvetaeva impressed Vishniak both as a poet and as a woman. [Tsvetaeva’s] precocious, not-quite ten-year-old daughter [Alya] noted in her diary:

‘Marina talks to Helicon like a Titan, and she is as incomprehensible to him as the North Pole is to an inhabitant of the Near East and just as enticing, [ . . . ] I saw that he turns toward her like a plant to the sun, with the whole of his rumpled stem.  But the sun is distant because Marina’s essence is reticence and clenched teeth, while he is pliant and soft like a pea sprout.’

. . . . Tsvetaeva mistook his admiration and his professional interest in her work for something more personal and intimate. . . . [Tsvetaeva’s feelings for Vishniak] which are a curious mix of passion, condescension and maternal concern . . . . were . . . reflected in a group of poems dated June and July 1922 [of which, “The insinuations of your hair” is but one] . . . . [and] Tsvetaeva’s one-sided infatuation with Abram Vishniak lasted only a few weeks.  When it was over, she thought of him with revulsion.”

Three pieces, gathered under a single title, “Scythians,” are simply three beautiful charms, written in Prague.

 “A Letter,” was written in reproach of her dilatory correspondent, the young critic Alexander Bakhrakh, another of Tsvetaeva’s “supporting players” with whom she carried on an intensely emotional epistolary relationship in Prague.


Marina Tsvetaeva (1882-1941), admired by Joseph Brodsky: “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman.” 

Mary Jane White, MFA Iowa Writers’ Workshop, NEA Fellowships (in poetry and translation). Tsvetaeva translations: Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke; Poem of the Hill (The New England Review); Poem of the End (The Hudson Review), reprinted in Poets Translate Poets, (Syracuse 2013).