Marina Tsvetaeva is one of Russia’s most acclaimed twentieth-century poets. She was born in Moscow, in 1892, to a classicist father and a pianist mother. She published her first book of poems at the age of seventeen. She lived through, and wrote about, the Russian Revolution and the Moscow famine that followed. In 1922, Tsvetaeva and her husband, Sergei Efron, along with two of their children, fled Russia. They lived in increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. In 1939, they returned to Moscow, and two years later, in 1941, her husband and daughter were arrested on espionage charges. Her husband was executed and her daughter imprisoned. Tsvetaeva does not seem to have known that her husband was a spy: when the police interrogated her, she read them French translations of her poetry and responded to their questions with such confusion that the police concluded that she was deranged. Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to Yelabuga, where, in August of 1941, Tsvetaeva committed suicide. These aphoristic phrases are taken from the diaries and notebooks she kept while living in Moscow between 1917 and 1922:
Betrayal already points to love. You can’t betray an acquaintance.
You don’t want people to know that you love a certain person? Then say: “I adore him!” But some people know what this means.
Sensual love and motherhood almost exclude each other. Genuine motherhood is manly.
I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.
The heart: it is a musical, rather than a physical organ.
How many motherly kisses fall on unchildlike heads—and how many unmotherly ones—on children’s heads!
A saturated solution. Water can’t dissolve more. Such is the law. You are a solution saturated with me. I am not a bottomless vat.
Everything that is untold is unbroken. Thus, an unrepented murder, for instance—endures. The same goes for love.
Kinship by blood is coarse and strong, kinship by choice—is fine. And what is fine can tear.
To love—is to see a person as God intended him and his parents failed to make him. To not love—is to see a person as his parents made him. To fall out of love: is to see, instead of him, a table, a chair.
Excerpted from Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922, by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell. Published with permission from the New York Review Books Classics.
Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture. Her translations include Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, The Blizzard, and, for NYRB Classics, Ice Trilogy. In 2016, she was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation.
Marina Tsvetaeva is considered one of the most renowned poets of twentieth-century Russia. Along with numerous verse plays and prose pieces, her works include several long poems, among them The Poem of the End, The Poem of the Mountain, and The Ratcatcher.
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