Poem of the week: Girlfriend, Poem 1 by Marina Tsvetaeva

This daring love poem, written in Russia in 1914, relays its intense passion with sardonic resignation

Poem 1

Are you happy? You never tell me.
Maybe it’s better like this.
You’ve kissed so many others –
which makes for sadness.

In you, I see the heroines
of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
You, unhappy lady, were
never saved by anybody.

You have grown tired of repeating
the familiar words of love!
An iron ring on a bloodless hand
is more expressive,

I love you – like a storm-burst
overhead – I must confess it;
all the more fiercely because you burn
and bite, and most of all

because our secret lives take
very different paths:
seduction and dark fate
are your inspiration.

To you, my aquiline demon,
I apologise. In a flash –
as if over a coffin – I realise
it was always too late to save you!

Even as I tremble – it may be
I am dreaming – there
remains one enchanting irony:
for you – are not he.

16 October 1914

This week’s poem is the first of a cycle of love poems which charts the love affair between its author, Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), and the poet and translator Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), whom Tsvetaeva met at a literary salon in 1914. The cycle, Podruga (Girlfriend), is represented in Carcanet’s latest edition of Elaine Feinstein’s selected Tsvetaeva translations, Bride of Ice, and demonstrates once more what an accomplished and eloquent lyric voice the Russian poet had achieved while still in her early 20s.

Elaine Feinstein discovered Tsvetaeva’s poetry early in her career. It had a formative role in her own fiction and poetry. The particular skill she brings to her translations, made in collaboration with Russian speakers including Angela Livingstone and Tatiana Retivov, is to convey Tsvetaeva’s vernacular energies through syntax rather than metre and full rhyme. In Poem 1, as always, she adheres to Tsvetaeva’s fundamental stanzaic pattern, the quatrain, but introduces indentation to lines two and four of each stanza. Unfortunately, the Guardian’s digital format resists indentation, but readers I hope will be able to picture the effect and feel its lyrical grace.

Tsvetaeva sings an almost reluctant praise song in this poem of newly discovered lesbian love. The tone is sardonic as she diagnoses the cause of her girlfriend’s unhappiness - “You’ve kissed too many others …” There’s a hint of “dark fate” as early as the second stanza, where Tsvetaeva’s persona sees Shakespearean tragic heroines embodied in her lover. The imagery of stanza three – “an iron ring on a bloodless hand” might even suggest Lady Macbeth as one such heroine. It’s clear that Tsvetaeva’s persona is performing her own act of heroine-ism in overcoming any desire for “words of love” from someone who conforms to a romantic ideal of same-sex monogamy.

Tsvetaeva is foreseeing and embracing her abandonment: the reason she is able to say “I love you” is, she declares, “because you burn / and bite” and “because our secret lives take / very different paths”. Feinstein plays down some of the excited rhetoric of the original: she creates a persona that is fired up but also intellectually armed. At the same time, she speeds the syntactical flow between stanzas three and five, deleting the exclamation mark in the original which follows the word meaning “expressive” and substituting a comma. There’s a narrative impulsiveness here that suggests a folk tale, enhanced, perhaps, by the image of the addressee as “an aquiline demon” and by the speaker’s appearing “in a flash” over her coffin, too late, as already predicted, to save her (one wonders what this salvation might look like). The younger of the two women, Tsvetaeva asserts both her authority as a poet-prophet and her friend’s apparently dangerous sexual expertise.

The fierce if humorous attempt at rebalancing power takes a delightful turn in the last stanza, with a triple rhyme suddenly lighting up the astonishing fact that the “you” in the poem is not a “he”. Despite the little gesture of distancing, the force of the idea of this “one enchanting irony” lightens the previous storm clouds and seems, at a stroke, to open the window on a happier future relationship.

The Russian original of Podruga may be found online here. You can also read a free translation and an interesting commentary here by Rachael Daum.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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