My Morning Reading: Marina Tsvetaeva and Sarah B. Boyle

This week has featured more reading than writing, but I'm okay with that. (Babysteps towards art-making, right?) I've vacillated between internet essays and the Bloodaxe Books' collection of Tsvetaeva essays, Art in the Light of Conscience, as well as Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva.

And honestly, I'm disappointed in Dark Elderberry Branch. Its subtitle is "A Reading by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine," and I'd hoped for more by two such well known and fairly well respected writers. They've excerpted bits and pieces of Tsvetaeva's poems as well as bits and pieces of her nonfiction scribbling -- from essays to letters -- but the sole commentary on these bits and pieces comes at the end of the collection in an essay/afterword by Kaminsky. 

I'm left frustrated with the feeling that there's too little substance here. I really don't want to say that, because I was excited about the book when I found it, but there you go. For one, the book is so pretty: superficially/physically (I mean, we can all agree that Alice James Books creates some gorgeous books, right?) AND in terms of the translations. Consider, for instance, the differences between the Kaminsky/Valentine translation/reading of Tsvetaeva with Elaine Feinstein's translation (published by Penguin Classics) -- the differences are apparent right from the start, with titles:

 Feinstein, from "Verses about Moscow":
Strange and beautiful brother -- take this
city no hands built -- out of my hands! 

Church by church -- all the forty times forty, and
the small pigeons also that rise over them

Take the Spassky gate, with its flowers, where
the orthodox remove their caps, and

the chapel of stars, that refuge from evil,
where the floor is -- polished by kisses.
Kaminsky/Valentine, from "Poems for Moscow":

From my hands -- take this city not made by hands,
my strange, my beautiful brother.
Take it, church by church -- all forty times forty churches,
and flying up the roofs, the small pigeons; 

and Spassky Gates -- and gates, and gates --
where the Orthodox take off their hats;

and the Chapel of Stars -- refuge chapel --
where the floor is -- polished by tears;
There's more elegance in the second translation -- the poem still feels like a poem, and less prosy than Feinstein's -- although there are elements of Feinstein's that I'm missing in the Kaminsky/Valentine version, like the flowers (where did they go, Ilya?) . . . and yet we don't have the rest of the poem for context. In fact, this is the second poem or strophe in "Poems for Moscow/Verses About Moscow" and Kaminsky/Valentine follow the second strophe with the seventh, which describes the religious of Moscow, "nuns sweeping to mass in the warmth of sleep," and ends with this couplet:

And priest -- place on my tongue
all of Moscow, city of bells!

which is so much more appropriate to the religious imagery of the mass (in particular, the act of communion) and reverent in tone than Einstein's clunky
And priest: stop my mouth up firmly
with Moscow -- which is a land of bells!

In short, Kaminsky/Valentine's versions feel much more confident and at home with Tsvetaeva. Feinstein's versions feel too rooted to the Russian-syntax-as-literal-translation and therefore less a true version of the poem itself. So, naturally, it's going to be disappointing to find that there are far fewer (drastically fewer) translations here than in Feinstein's Selected Poems

Also, since Kaminsky/Valentine made a conscious decision to call this book "A Reading," I would have liked to see more interaction with the work -- from "flash" essays on particular poems to longer pieces like Kaminsky's afterward. I would have liked it to feel more like a reader's notebook than whatever it is in its current form -- at 32 pages of poetry, it's barely a selection, not even hardy enough to be termed a found-essay-through-poems (if such a term were a thing, which I don't think it is).

Of course, Valentine and Kaminsky certainly didn't have me in mind when they created this awkward, though beautifully titled, homage to Tsvetaeva. The problem is that I can't really figure out what they DID have in mind, and that bothers me as a reader. . . . and as a fan of the few translations we find here.

All right. End rant.

The other pieces I've been reading are by Sarah B. Boyle, who wrote that lovely essay published last week about motherhood and used Fabulous Beast: The Sow as a point of reference. I've been reading some of her other work, including this piece from her blog and this essay featured on Luna Luna this week.

Boyle is far more aware/tuned-in than I am in many ways, but particularly with regards to feminism and the lit and alt-lit scenes and contemporary publishing. What I like about her writing is that she's thinking through it, using the medium as a means to do her thinking, and not rushing to proclaim opinions and/or denounce, denounce, denounce, which many of our feminist colleagues are doing of late in a kind of gut-reaction, knee-jerk, emote emote emote stop listening kind of way. 

Anyway, that's all I'll say so far because I'm just beginning to read her work and I haven't had time to explore it more fully, but I thought I'd at least make this important note: that Boyle did more than one favor for me when she wrote about my chapbook for The Hairsplitter last week -- she introduced me to her writing, and there's something in the voice of this writing that resonates with me, and that resonance is a gift.

Welp. Onward! Time to go to the office and meet with my independent study student. (Did I say I was off the clock for the summer? C'mon . . . you believed that?)

Comments

Neil Astley said…
You should check out David McDuff's Selected Poems of Tsvetaeva from Bloodaxe:
http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852240253

And these comments on his and Feinstein's translations:

'It must be said right away that those who want to have an inkling of what Tsvetayeva is actually like, and that includes her form, her rhyme, and the tone of that accompanies form and rhyme, will have to go to McDuff. His diligence with metre and rhyme is remarkably successful, and is the only proper tribute to the poet's linguistic virtuosity. Readers may find that Feinstein comes across more fluently, but that fluency is not Tsvetaevan. McDuff has caught her abruptness, her veering and tacking, and has tried to show something of the curious modern music this produces - "modern" not through free verse but by dint of straining traditional patterns to breaking point' - Cencrastus.

'Tsvetayeva is one of the great poets of the century and David McDuff's translations are very good. This is all the more remarkable because, like the poems they translate, they rhyme. There are overlaps with Elaine Feinstein's excellent but unrhyming translations of the same poet, but not too many. McDuff conveys Tsvetyeva's commitment to poetry's musical force, Feinstein substitutes a beautifully nuanced syntax for music; Tsvetayeva shines and appals in both' - Martin Dodsworth, Guardian.

McDuff's edition also includes some translations by the mysterious FF Morton - actually Joseph Brodsky.
sarah gutowski said…
Oooo, thank you, Neil. That's wonderful. I WILL check out McDuff's versions.
Very well written. I appreciate your post and thank you so much for share.....

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