A Poem That Grows More Difficult

Marina Tsvetaeva

Here is a poem you should read. It’s by the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva.

from The Desk (2)

Fair enough: you people have eaten me,
I- wrote you down.
They’ll lay you out on a dinner table,
me- on this desk.

I’ve loved living with little.
There are dishes I’ve never tried.
But you, you people eat slowly, and often;
you eat and eat.

Everything was decided for us
back in the ocean:
our places of action,
our places of gratitude.

You- with belches, I- with books,
with truffles, you. With pencil- I,
you and your olives, me and my rhyme,
with pickles, you. I, with poems.

At your head- funeral candles
like thick-legged asparagus:
your road out of this world
a dessert table’s striped cloth.

They will smoke Havana cigars
on your left side and your right;
your body will be dressed
in the best Dutch linen.

And- not to waste such expensive cloth,
they will shake you out,
along with the crumbs and bits of food,
into the grave, hole.

You- stuffed capon, I- pigeon.
Gunpowder, your soul, at the autopsy.
And I will be laid out bare
-two wings to cover me.

Translation by Ilya Kaminsky & Jean Valentine

I was at Skylight Books the other night for the LA Review of Books reading celebrating their first print journal. A good reading and good excuse to roam the bookstore- even though I shouldn’t buy any new books for at least a decade. I opened Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva and kind of swooned over this poem. Typing it out here reinforces how strange the punctuation is. Why a dash here and comma there? Is that proper use of the semicolon? I really don’t care. (It does remind me of Dickinson.)

As I look at this poem again (for about the 20th time), it seems more difficult than the first time I read it. I’m not very good at writing out analysis of poetry, but I wanted to give this one a try because I was so taken with it. (Even after reading poetry for all these years, I feel as though I miss really obvious things that everyone else understands.)

Ellen Bryan Voigt writes of the difference between poems that are more clear and those that are more resonant. This poem falls into the category of resonant even though the details (olive, pencil, cigar) are specific and common. The sparse descriptives for the couple in the poem are simple, but the result is a rich contrast.

This isn’t really helpful information. Let the poem wash over you and don’t try to understand it head on. What matters is what it evokes. For me, I imagined a long life together for the couple. On my first reading I imagined it a love poem. Thinking of a marriage like that of the poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. After her death, he wrote a very moving book called Without. In one poem he talks about their habit of working in different parts of the house, then lunch together, making love. Their years spent sharing, knowing. Now I think I read Tsvetaeva’s poem completely wrong. She mentions nothing of love. Knowing the details of someone’s likes is not the same as love.

Translator’s notes are found in the back of the book. They tell about Tsvetaeva’s life which ended in suicide in 1941. She witnessed and experienced much tragedy. I have to read more about her. But here’s a little from the translators and a quote by Tsvetaeva:

One of the first reviews of her debut collection blamed Tsvetaeva for “too muchness,” for an over-abundance of lyricism. Tsvetaeva’s response? “There cannot be too much of lyric because lyric itself is too much.”

I spent part of today searching for the rest of The Desk poems and came up with her Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917 – 1922 and Selected Poems instead. Maybe there will be something in the Diaries to help me understand why I am so taken with this stripped down piece that fooled me into thinking it was a love poem.


JOP 23: Writing is Hard

 JOP 23: Writing is Hard

Last night I posted to Facebook with some elation that I’d just worked for four hours on a new poem. Probably my longest and about how great that felt. Tonight, I went back into the piece and it was hard. I’m lucky because my ex has the girls this weekend and since I was alone, I was able to mix it up between work and poetry. I’ve only really gotten back to my poetry recently and it feels good to inhabit that space again.  It also feels pretty horrible. I’m working on a difficult section of my book. Writing about a recent event. The rawness of the experience fuels the work, but it also catches up with me. One friend described it as having a long half-life. This is compounded by the fact that I am separated, almost divorced and there’s no one to buddy up to at the end of the writing day to say, “Hey, look at this. Wow, that was a lot to tackle. Can I tell you about it?” I hope I don’t sound self-pitying. That’s not what this is about. It’s just a new reality. Going deep means going for the jugular, the places that are scary and vulnerable. It’s necessary and good, but damn. It isn’t always fun. I’m writing this because I just don’t want to bottle it up. Thanks for listening.

photo credit: Rob Swatski via photopin cc

JOP 22: Insomniac Celebration of Poetry

Just One Paragraph: Poetry

This photo has nothing to do with what I’m writing about. (I can’t even make out what it is, but I like it.)

Usually I sleep really well. Tonight I’ve been up writing and can’t seem to call it a day. I’m hoping that getting down some thoughts here will be the final call and then time for rest. My latest project is hopefully a serious one, one I’ll see through. I’ve criticized myself for years for not finishing things. But now I’m working daily on a book of poetry. I have felt like a weekend poet, an occasional poet (your basic fraud) for a while now. Having gotten some wonderful encouragement (Thanks David!), I’m really trying to put a book together. It feels like it’s going slow and fast at the same time. I’m doing something every day on the book. Not always a new poem, sometimes just reading old stuff, sometimes editing. Editing means I may change a whole comma, stare at it and change it back an hour later. It’s closer to watching paint dry than a real writing process. It matters to me though. So while the world may not be waiting for a book of poetry from me with bated breath, it feels heady and exciting to have focus. Stayed tuned and I’ll be documenting some of the process. When I’m closer to finishing, I’ll share some poems and the title. I know that at least my parents are looking forward to this. (Thanks Mom & Dad!)