In this world there are rhymes.
Disjoin them -- and it trembles.
Homer, you were blind.
Night on your eyebrows' snowdrifts,
- from "Deuce", 1924
One of the four great figures of twentieth century Russian
poetry: she called the group "We four
", and with Tsvetayeva they were Anna Akhmatova
, Osip Mandelstam
, and Boris Pasternak
. She was a highly cultured and cosmopolitan
woman, close to these and other great poets, living in the cultural capitals of Europe; but her tragedy was that she herself and her family usually lived in desperate poverty
, exacerbated either by exile
or by the political climate of the Soviet Union
As on a tightrope and as to light's joys,
Beyond going back, and unshaken.
For, poet, once you're given a voice,
From you all else is taken.
- from "there are happy men and women", 1935
She was born in Moscow in 1892 to gifted parents. Her beloved and highly influential mother was a pianist, pupil of Anton Rubinstein. Her father was a philologist and critic, and founder of the Moscow Museum of Fine Arts. From her mother she got an intense love of music, poetry, nature, and cultures and languages such as German and French.
But her mother contracted tuberculosis in 1902, and spent the remaining four years of her life travelling Europe seeking a cure, accompanied by her daughters Marina and Anastasia, who thus received a polyglot education. Marina developed a romantic fascination with Napoleon; and all this formed her first teenage poetry. She did a course in Old French literature at the Sorbonne.
Her first collection appeared when she was eighteen, in 1910: the 111 lyrics entitled Vecherniy Al'bom or Evening Album. It was competent, and well reviewed. She was clearly a talent with the youthful interests of childhood combined with intelligent knowledge of both classic and contemporary poetry.
At this point I have to admit I don't know anywhere near enough Russian to appreciate the originals. I am relying on English translation; I've found I much prefer those of Elaine Feinstein - in hers I first discovered the thrilling beauty of Tsvetayeva -, but the book I have by me is of translations by David McDuff; I'm afraid they don't move me in the same way.
She had returned to Russia by now. In the heady artistic world she was moving in, in Moscow and in the Crimean resort of Koktebel, she met Sergey Efron: they married in January 1912, and had a daughter Ariadna a year later, and Irina after that. In 1912 her second volume, Volshebnyy fonar' (Magic Lantern), appeared, and from then on she produced numerous collections and long poems. She befriended Osip Mandelstam and dedicated a work to Anna Akhmatova.
But the troubles came now. First war, then revolution and civil war. Her husband went off to fight, and she lost contact with him. She took odd jobs and even stole food to feed her children. Irina died at the age of three in 1920. They were to have a son Georgiy in 1925, after she had regained contact with her husband and in 1922 moved to Berlin to be with him. They moved to Prague in 1923, and here she met and loved Boris Pasternak. Here, and in Paris from 1925, although they themselves were living in great hardship, they began to recover their cultural life.
My land, my land, that has been sold,
Entire, alive, with beasts,
With magic kitchen gardens,
With mountain-veins, rock-hardened,
- from "Poems to Czechia", 1938
Her last volume of poems, Posle Rossii (After Russia), was published in 1928. As the next war approached her family became involved in pro-Soviet circles in the expatriate community. Her daughter and then her husband returned to Russia in 1937, and she finally followed them in 1939 with her son. Two months later both Ariadna and Sergey were arrested by the secret police, and she never saw them again; no-one ever saw Sergey again. She tried to continue writing and publishing; she finally met Akhmatova at this time; but her life was impossibly hard. She took her young son up the Volga, seeking an easier place to survive than Moscow, and came to Yelabuga, where on 31 August 1941 she hanged herself. Her grave is unknown.
Prochti -- slepoty kurinoy
I makov nabrav buket --
Chto zvali menya Marinoy
I skol'ko mne bylo let.
Read, when you've picked your bouquet
Of henbane and poppy flowers,
That I was once called Marina,
And discover how old I was.
- from "Much like me", 1913