Mary Jane White – Three Translations of Tsvetaeva


Night’s whispers: over silk
Your profligate hand.
Night’s whispers: over silk
Your planishing mouth.

All the jealousies of the day—
and the flaring up
Of all our ancient history—clenched jaw—
And the stifled
In this rustling . . .

With a leaf
At the window . . .
With the first bird’s warble.
–So fine!—And a sigh.
Not that. –You’re gone.
I’m gone.
With the flinch
Of a shoulder.

In vain.
An end.
As if not.

And into this vanity of vanities
This sword: the dawn.

17 June 1922


So you will never find me—
In this life—with a sharp and invisible
Fence, I encircle myself.

With honeysuckle, gird myself,
With hoarfrost, cover myself.

So you will never hear me
At night—with a crone’s subtlety:
With reticence—I fortify myself.

With rustlings, gird myself,
With silkiness, cover myself.

So you neither flower nor mold in me
Overmuch—in my undergrowth: in my books
I mislay, I bury you, alive:

With fabrications, gird you,
With any pretense, cover you.

25 June 1922


Lethe’s underwater light,
My red heart’s reef.
The lancet caught, as it
Opened up my singing throat:

Neither the cautery of our mouths,
Nor the fever of ill will—
Moves the insoluble pearl, lodged
In the bitter reflux of our singing throats.

Mountain of sorrow! We cut facets,
Smelt and fade out—to no good end.
Unable to dissolve
In our voices’ focused laser

That pearl . . .
Like iron in the whine,
Of a thousand saws and augers—
An un-extracted nail, caught
In the bitter reflux of our singing throats.

11 August 1922


Mary Jane White is a poet and translator, from Amen Lake, Deer River, Minnesota, MFA University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received NEA Fellowships in 1979 and 1985 in both poetry and translation, twice awarded writing scholarships to Bread Loaf (1979, 2016) and to Squaw Valley Community of Writers (2006). Her Book Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) is available from Holy Cow! Press, and contains translations of Marina Tsvetaeva which first appeared as a long feature in The American Poetry Review. Recent Tsvetaeva translations include: New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke, a chapbook from Adastra Press (Massachusetts); “Poem of the Hill” in the Summer 2007 issue of The New England Review; “Poem of the End” in the Winter 2008 issue of The Hudson Review, reprinted in two anthologies, From a Terrace in Prague, (Prague 2011) and Poets Translate Poets, (Syracuse 2013). More at:

Marina Tsvetaeva (1882-1941) was a Russian poet, born in Moscow, much admired by Joseph Brodsky who stated in 1978: “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.)” The poems translated here were written as Tsvetaeva was living in exile in Prague, where she lived from 1922-1925, before moving on to Paris, and eventually returning just before World War II to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide, having lost her husband to the KGB, believing she had lost her daughter to the Gulag, and leaving behind a teenaged son, who did not survive military service in the war. Her daughter, Alya, emerged from the Gulag late in life and did much to preserve her mother’s legacy.