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Ruing Young Orphans: The End of the Line

Ruing Young Orphans: The End of the Line

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Ruing Young Orphans

ended more strongly than with a lyric poem—with a lyric pistol shot. For twelve years

in a row the man Maiakovskii was murdering in himself Maiakovskii-the-poet, and in

the thirteenth year the poet rose up and murdered the man. If there is such a thing as

suicide in this life, then it is not where people think they see it, and its duration was

not just the instant when he pulled the trigger, but twelve years of his life. No government censor dealt with Pushkin as efficiently as Maiakovskii with himself. If there is

such a thing as suicide in this life, then it is not singular, there are two, and neither is

a suicide, for the first—is a feat [podvig], the second—a holiday [prazdnik]. The overcoming of nature and the glorification of nature. He lived like a man and died like a poet.


Tsvetaeva, partly in response to a verse fragment contained in Maiakovskii’s

suicide note that evoked a ‘‘love boat smashed on the rocks,’’ 3 conceives of his

death as the climax of a lifelong struggle between the man and the poet within

himself. In her eulogistic cycle ‘‘To Maiakovskii’’ [‘‘Maiakovskomu’’] (2:273–

80), she uses a gruff, humorously colloquial idiom to memorialize Maiakovskiithe-man and prays to God sacrilegiously at the end to ‘‘give solace to the soul

of Thy departed enemy’’ [Uspokoi . . . dushu usopshego vraga tvoego].4

The questions of death, of suicide, of the poet’s fatal struggle between body

and soul that Tsvetaeva addresses in her meditation on Maiakovskii’s suicide

are clearly ones that preoccupied her during the 1930s; indeed, Maiakovskii’s

smashed ‘‘love boat’’ must have seemed to her an apt metaphor for her own unhappy romantic history. At the same time, the contrast she makes in the conclusion to ‘‘Art in the Light of Conscience’’ between Maiakovskii’s crushing selfcensorship and Aleksandr Pushkin’s persecution by external authority points to

her affiliation during this period with yet another dead poetic genius, as evinced

in her 1931–33 cycle ‘‘Poems to Pushkin’’ [‘‘Stikhi k Pushkinu’’] (2:281–90) and

her 1937 autobiographical essay ‘‘My Pushkin’’ [‘‘Moi Pushkin’’] (5:57–91).5

Tsvetaeva shares with ‘‘her’’ Pushkin a vibrant physical energy that expresses

itself equally in a love of hiking and a vigorous poetic work ethic; Pushkin, like

Tsvetaeva, challenges authority and ‘‘rhyme[s] the tsar’s censorship . . . with

fool ’’ [tsarskuiu tsenzuru / . . . s duroi rifmoval] (2:281). Yet Tsvetaeva’s Pushkin unites the oppositions that plague both Maiakovskii and herself. In contrast

with her own habitual separation of Eros and Logos, Pushkin’s physical passion and poetic inspiration are one. Indeed, he is a protean genius, able to be

all things to all people simultaneously: ‘‘A thorn in the side of the gendarmes, a

god to students, gall to husbands, bliss to their wives’’ [Bich zhandarmov, bog

studentov, / Zhelch' muzhei, uslada zhen].

This same metaphysical wholeness that governs Pushkin’s life and creativity

is manifest in Tsvetaeva’s description of his tragic death in a duel:

Кто-то, на фуру

Несший: «Атлета

The End of the Line



А не поэта!»





[Someone who carried you to the hearse said: ‘‘An athlete’s musculature, and not a poet’s!’’ That—was the

strength—of a seraph: the indestructible muscle—of

a wing.]

True, Pushkin is an athlete of the soul; yet his power is viscerally, palpably

physical. When he is shot down by the French assassin Baron Georges-Charles

D’Anthès—who stands, in Tsvetaeva’s interpretation, for the uncomprehending

mob, to whom the language of poetry is incurably alien—his demise equates

the raw meat of the stomach with the glory of poetic martyrdom. Thus, Tsvetaeva reminisces: ‘‘At three years old I learned definitively that a poet has a

stomach . . . In the word stomach there is something sacred for me . . . With

that shot, they wounded all of us in the stomach’’ (5:57). Tsvetaeva identifies

with the pangs of this human stomach, as she does likewise with Pushkin’s

persecution by the ‘‘mob.’’ (During the last years of her emigration, she felt

more and more estranged from the Parisian émigré community; her publications and public readings occurred with rapidly diminishing frequency, while

the vociferousness of her resentment increased.6) Yet, these affinities aside, the

primary question for Tsvetaeva remains whether her own death will emulate

Pushkin’s and mend the divisions within herself, or whether she walks instead

the same tortured path to irrelevant self-destruction that Maiakovskii so recently trod.7

Photographs of Tsvetaeva taken during the decade 1930–40 narrate a harrowing progress of aging, worry, and exhaustion. In the late 1920s, Tsvetaeva is still

a young and attractive woman with smooth skin, shining green eyes, and silky

chestnut hair, who gazes at the camera with a shy, alluring calm. By the end of

the following decade, not yet fifty years of age, she has gone prematurely gray,

her hair is coarse, her skin lined, her eyes kind but somehow dimmer, her expression one of wisdom and endurance. For a woman like Tsvetaeva with Eros

and self-image so much on her mind, this dramatic physical change was surely

devastating. According to social convention, old men look stately and distinguished; old women look ridiculous or pathetic. Unlike Akhmatova in her later

years, Tsvetaeva proved unable to find an alternative poetic self-image that permitted power to continue to flow into old age; the most she could do was to

inscribe her losses in her poetry.8

Tsvetaeva’s physical erosion, brought on at first by her exhaustion, must also


Ruing Young Orphans

have exacerbated her spiritual condition, so that the aging process only continued to accelerate further. In this way, Tsvetaeva’s life comes full circle.

Whereas earlier, she renounced bodily desires in favor of poetic transcendence

and passion at a distance, now her former ‘‘wildness’’ with words comes home

in the body, and she is forced, for the first time, to reinvest genuine value in

what is trapped in the flesh. Erotic metaphors of sexual penetration, pregnancy,

uterine rebellion—even in the service of pure spirituality—are grounded, after

all, in a reminiscence (or at least an imagination) of actual, physical, sensual,

sexual, brute biological experience. Gender is inescapable, as are the human

consequences of her attempts to escape from gender.

Thus, Tsvetaeva’s many hymns to poetic isolation notwithstanding, she recognizes in her later years that such isolation must be an answer to a question,

proposition, or refusal, stated or unstated. Dreams, visions, and faith in the unseen are ultimately insufficient; as both a woman and a poet, she is still in need

of real emotional and inspirational events. She requires dialogue for her life and

her art. Without the challenge of a subjectivity—and a body—external to her

own, there can be for her neither life nor art; the dearth of a beloved now becomes tantamount to real death (not the fecund metaphoricity of creative Mra,

but the barrenness of complete spiritual annihilation). Without a push, there is

no shove; Tsvetaeva ultimately finds the dead to be too compliant. She needs a

vector; the spiral is not, after all, consistent with her inspirational requirements.

She thirsts for a renewal of the exaltation she experienced through her love for

Rilke, but the renewal does not come, and the liberating curve of mutuality that

she sketched together with him is now transformed through memory’s agency

into the entrapping circle of endless repetition.

The poems of Tsvetaeva’s last decade or so, no less than her prose, constitute a retrospective stock-taking, a leave-taking; even her long works in these

years are historical reminiscences connected not only with past events, but with

her lost homeland and a lost era (pre-Revolutionary Russia).9 Her lyric poems

are few and far between; she no longer writes as a habit of being, but only as

a conscious effort that emanates from urgency or extremity. Her poetic ‘‘play’’

has even ceased to be exhilarating, for she has begun to realize in deadly earnest the toll it has taken on herself and on those dear to her. The leitmotifs of

Tsvetaeva’s late poetry, therefore, are isolation, loneliness, exhaustion, and the

desire for death; her tone is almost always dark, whether searingly ferocious

or quietly desperate; and her style, which has always been so flamboyant, now

tends toward sparsity, to the point of being telegraphic. More and more, her

imagery is heavily gendered and emphasizes motherhood to the exclusion of

sexuality—and frustrated motherhood, at that. More and more, she gazes inward; she no longer searches for a muse or a mentor, but turns instead toward

the younger generation, in an avowedly futile search for poetic heirs.

The End of the Line


Tsvetaeva’s Poetic Orphans: Nikolai Gronskii

and Anatolii Shteiger

For Tsvetaeva, the admission of body into poetry is the admission of pain, need,

illness, vulnerability, and the corpse. Her project in much of her late poetry is to

prove the frailty of body under the debilitating burden of poetic drive. Fate cooperated with this aim when it sent her way two young poets whose lives would

become, in different ways, exemplary casualties of the human body’s transience.

Nikolai Gronskii, for whom Tsvetaeva had served as a poetic mentor and

self-designated substitute mother beginning in the spring of 1928,10 was tragically killed when he fell into the Paris metro at the end of 1934—prompting her

poetic cycle ‘‘Epitaph’’ [‘‘Nadgrobie’’] (2:324–28), a philosophical and emotional counterweight to ‘‘New Year’s Letter.’’ Anatolii Shteiger, a homosexual,

a friend of Tsvetaeva’s poetic arch rival Georgii Adamovich, and a member of

the Fascist/neo-Bolshevik organization ‘‘Young Russia’’ 11—and, for all these

reasons, the unlikeliest recipient of her affections—was undergoing a cure for

tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium when he sent her an admiring letter in the

autumn of 1936. The disease was sufficient to activate all of her most robust maternal instincts; so much so that she forgave Shteiger his numerous ‘‘sins’’ and

made room for him in her heart: ‘‘And if I said mother—then it was because

that word is the most spacious and all-embracing, the vastest and most exact,

and—it demands nothing. A word before which all, all other words are limitations’’ (7:566). A copious correspondence and the cycle ‘‘Poems to an Orphan’’

[‘‘Stikhi sirote’’] (2:337–41) were the result of Tsvetaeva’s mostly one-sided

long-distance affair with Shteiger.12

The relationships that give rise to the cycles ‘‘Epitaph’’ and ‘‘Poems to an

Orphan’’ are far more incidental and have far less formative significance for

Tsvetaeva’s poetic self-definition than did her earlier inspirational infatuations

with Blok, Pasternak, and Rilke.13 Her later relationships no longer hold out to

her any promise of a true exit into the alterity of either myth or love; her ambivalent emotional dalliances with Gronskii and then with Shteiger serve, instead,

as the occasion for her insular poetic retrospection on the full extent of her subjective isolation. Whereas in the case of Blok, Pasternak, and Rilke, Tsvetaeva

strained to rise to their level, levitating upwards and outwards, in the case of

Gronskii and Shteiger, by contrast, she must stoop down in order to have anyone

at all to talk to.

Indeed, Tsvetaeva’s desire to view Gronskii and Shteiger as her potential poetic disciples prompts her to adopt a generous perspective on the less-thanbrilliant work of both younger poets. Thus, she rationalizes the weakness she

perceives in their writing by her belief that their talent simply has not yet been

fully realized. To Gronskii she writes in 1928:


Ruing Young Orphans

Your poems are younger than you are. To grow up to one’s own level and beyond—this

is the poet’s path. For now you lag behind (you know much that you are not yet able to

articulate—because you don’t know enough)—you’ll be your own equal in seven years

or so, and after that will come the outgrowing [pererastanie], in all its inevitability, for—

the more a poet grows, the greater the human being in him, and the more the human

being grows... (7:204–5)

Tsvetaeva almost echoes this passage directly when she tells Shteiger: ‘‘You still

have to grow up in your poems to the level of yourself in life—that man who is

older and deeper and more charismatic [iarche] and more passionate [zharche]

than the other’’ (7:573). After Gronskii’s death, when she discovers his unpublished poetry, written during the years since the period of their closest friendship, she apparently feels that he, unbeknownst to her, has fulfilled the poetic

promise she sensed in him several years before.14

Tsvetaeva’s embrace of the idea of motherhood as another name for her intense, antisexual (verbally sublimated) passion is not new; we recall the stepmother in her 1920 poema ‘‘The Tsar-Maiden’’ [‘‘Tsar'-devitsa’’] (3:190–269),

as well as her fascination with the figure of Phaedra. Indeed, Tsvetaeva has often

preferred men who betray a hint of androgyny—or ‘‘mamas’ boys,’’ as she calls

them elsewhere.15 Shteiger’s homosexuality apparently aligns him in Tsvetaeva’s

mind with this male type, to which Rilke also belonged: ‘‘There is an unconcealable feminine stamp on you: the mark of female hands in your infancy, the same

mark that Rilke bore—he never became a man, although he died at the age of

fifty’’ (7:568). This passage illustrates that Tsvetaeva in the mid-1930s is even

beginning to remythologize her relationship with Rilke in terms of the issues

that now claim her attention, imagining herself in a mothering relationship to

the same senstitive, vulnerable, ailing soul that ten years earlier represented to

her the height of poetic invincibility.

In May 1928, during the peak of her friendship with Gronskii, Tsvetaeva addressed to him her lyric poem ‘‘Into the Lips of a Youth’’ [‘‘Iunoshe v usta’’]

(2:266–67). In this poem, the imagery of physical motherhood is everywhere

insistently present. This imagery, in turn, is intimately linked with her own

essential identity when she refigures the ‘‘foam’’ [pena] of her marine name as

the oozing liquid of female breasts, making the sea of her passion into a giant

milk machine that verges on obscenity: ‘‘The cream jug of the seas boiled over’’

[perekipel / Slivochnik morei]. At the same time, there is a telling reversal of

desire in which the mother’s hunger to give is projected as the child’s hunger to

take, as she frantically feeds her own poetry into the mouth of her poetic addressee: ‘‘I’m a mother, since I sing, you’re a son, since you suck—so suck!’’

[Mat', koli poiu, / Syn, koli sosesh'—// Sosi zhe!]. The milk of Tsvetaeva’s

poetry is associated with the unconscious Russian heritage of her young disciple, which he, a mere child at the time he emigrated, hardly remembers: ‘‘Suck

The End of the Line


in once again an ancient love: ancestral love! Nomadic love, all of it—from

before Kii—until Peter’’ [Staruiu liubov' / Zanovo vsosi: // Tu ee—davno! /

Tu ee—shatra, / Vsiu ee—ot do / Kiia—do Petra].16 Just as Phaedra’s identity

in Tsvetaeva’s eponymous cycle was conditioned on the sexual female breast,

so too, now that Tsvetaeva has left her Psychean aspirations behind, her own

essence emerges from the breast in its maternal hypostasis: ‘‘More than just

the breast—you suck my essence’’ [Bol'she nezhel' grud'—/ Sut' moiu sosesh'].

Rilke’s internal rhyme was with death and the otherworldly (‘‘Rainer—umer’’);

the internal rhyme here between grud' [breast] and sut' [essence] equates Tsvetaeva’s poetic selfhood with lactation.

A passage that Tsvetaeva excluded from the final version of this poem emphasizes the cyclicity of her predicament:


Всех нянек

Сердечный щем:

Что тянешь—

Тем станешь—

И канешь—тем!

[Prememory: heartache of all nannies: what you suck

—that’s what you’ll become—and that’s how you’ll


The threefold verbal rhyme (tianesh'/stanesh'/kanesh' [suck/become/end]) that

closes this segment has several possible interpretations. It is at one and the

same time a merciless summary of Tsvetaeva’s recognition of the inescapability

of her gender; of the deadly poisonousness of the poetic sustenance she feeds

her young pupil; and of the inescapable circle of age and youth. At the same

time, her association of her poetry with the ‘‘prememory’’ of all nannies (i.e.,

wet nurses) indicates the antiquity of her bitter female predicament. Similarly,

her allusion to Russia’s ancient history (‘‘from before Kii—until Peter’’)—excludes the linearly conceived modern period and so also smacks of prehistorical, mythical cyclicity. Like the wet nurse (who, traditionally, was employed to

suckle a stranger’s child after the death of her own infant), Tsvetaeva has lost

(never found) her true poetic offspring, and she must be satisfied with a mere

approximation of her ideal. In this sense, Gronskii here inhabits the same category of poetic orphanhood that Shteiger will later occupy in Tsvetaeva’s poetic


An important subtext in ‘‘Into the Lips’’ is Pushkin’s love for his nanny, Arina

Rodionovna, whom he immortalized in a number of poems and whose storytelling inspired him to poetic creation even in adulthood, particularly during

the period of his 1824–26 Mikhailovskoe exile.17 In her essay ‘‘My Pushkin,’’


Ruing Young Orphans

Tsvetaeva characterizes the importance of Pushkin’s nanny thus: ‘‘Of all women

in the world, Pushkin loved most of all his nanny, who was not a woman . . .

One can love an old woman—because she is like family—more than a young

one—because the young woman is young and even because she is beloved’’

(5:81).18 Tsvetaeva, who has always been used to playing the role of the ‘‘unbeloved’’ in every romantic encounter, now glimpses in the fact of her own

aging the possibility that she will, after all, find love and fulfillment of a kind.

Old age, in a sense, accomplishes the goal that she has been trying to achieve all

her life through poetry: it annihilates the dangerous femininity inherent in the

female. The question remains, though, whether poetic voice is simultaneously

annihilated (Tsvetaeva’s desperation in this poem intimates that it is)—and, if

so, whether she can survive this loss.

Tsvetaeva, as we have seen repeatedly, has previously found it impossible

to participate in the traditional, erotically charged relationship between loving

poet and beloved muse. Now, forced back into a reacknowledgment of her

bodily origins, she consents to play muse to Gronskii’s poet in the immensely

powerful sense in which she reinterprets the role of Pushkin’s nanny in his

poetry: the words and the power are her own, and Gronskii is merely the mouthpiece. Gronskii is, in fact, all mouth in this poem—in its title (‘‘Into the Lips

of a Youth’’) as in his incessant sucking. He sucks first on an empty pipe—a

‘‘meerschaum mouthpiece’’—whose name in Russian [penkovyi mundshtuk]

phonetically approximates the milky foam [pena] of Tsvetaeva’s waiting teat.

He is the embodiment of oral fixation; she is the source of the words that issue

forth. When he exchanges his pipe for her teat, a number of ingenious reversals

and substitutions occur.

In real life Tsvetaeva, not Gronskii, is the addicted smoker; she confesses

her oral fixation in a letter to Shteiger: ‘‘I’m exhausted—and the cigarettes got

used up ages ago—I suck the empty nipple of a mouthpiece [sosu pustuiu sosku

mundshtuka], surprised that nothing—at—all comes out’’ (7:613). Her imagined exchange of the ‘‘masculine’’ habit of smoking for the feminine nurturance of breast-feeding mimics the switch that Gronskii makes in her poem.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in her 1920 poem about Pushkin’s

wife, Natal'ia Goncharova (the poem is tellingly titled ‘‘Psyche’’ [‘‘Psikheia’’]

[1: 508–9]; this was Goncharova’s society nickname), Pushkin himself smokes a

meerschaum pipe [penkovaia trubka pyshushchaia], whereas Natal'ia’s flouncy

ballgown, discarded on the floor, is described as ‘‘empty foam’’ [pustaia pena].19

When Tsvetaeva associates herself with the nanny rather than the female beloved in ‘‘Into the Lips,’’ she reincarnates this ethereal foam as maternal milk

and, in so doing, distances herself from her youthful identification with the incorporeal Psyche, while at the same time urging her own hypothetical usurpation of Goncharova’s place in Pushkin’s mature affections.

As this last point demonstrates, the exchanges that shape ‘‘Into the Lips’’ are

The End of the Line


by no means capitulations on Tsvetaeva’s part. Her new self-image is something bizarrely intermediate between a wet nurse and a muse, and she hopes

that in her embrace of this identity will come renewed poetic power: ‘‘She is

a mother—who gives drink and song’’ [Mat'—kto poit / I poet]. Indeed, even

in her revised female incarnation, Tsvetaeva surreptitiously exchanges the expected lullaby [baiu] of maternal nurturing and nourishment for the military

metaphor of her continuing poetic campaign [boi] against—for—within impossibility: ‘‘A battle or ‘lullaby,’ a dream or... but all the same’’ [Boi ili ‘baiu,’ / Son

ili... a vse zh]. Tsvetaeva’s agenda is never simple—or transparent. In aligning

herself with a nanny in this poem with a Pushkinian subtext, she carries out an

implicit subversion of the myth of Pushkin’s genius. In Tsvetaeva’s treatment,

Pushkin’s nanny—his nonlover and nonmuse—becomes more than his muse:

she is the true, native poet who uses Pushkin to speak for her. She is the cause

and he the effect; she is the actor and he the acted upon; she is the self and he

the object. In a sense, this is not a reversal so much as an extrapolation to infinity of the contours of the traditional inspirational myth. Tsvetaeva takes the

myth to its logical conclusion and shows that, at the extreme, it mutates into its


By the time that Tsvetaeva’s cycles to Gronskii and Shteiger were written

in 1935–36, she was no longer so certain of either her maternal or her poetic

powers. Psychological projection of her emotions onto an unwilling or inanimate recipient is a common technique in her late poetry. In ‘‘Epitaph’’ and

‘‘Poems to an Orphan,’’ too, her perception of Gronskii’s and Shteiger’s childish ‘‘orphanhood’’ is actually a projection of her own extreme isolation onto

the male other; the poems and letters she supposedly writes as an antidote to

her young lovers’ loneliness are really a painful admission of her own. The epigraph to ‘‘Poems to an Orphan,’’ with its pathetic ‘‘little old lady,’’ indicates her

unsparingly accurate awareness of the self-deception in which she engages:

Шел по улице малютка,

Посинел и весь дрожал.

Шла дорогой той старушка,

Пожалела сироту...

[A little boy went along the street, blue in the face and all

shivery. A little old lady went along that road and pitied the


These sentimental lines from a popular song of the time ironically return Tsvetaeva in her old age to the schmaltzy ‘‘feminine’’ poetic sensibilities that she has

long eschewed. The implication is that, for all her striving for spiritual growth

and self-realization over the years, nothing has really changed, and—despite her

stunning poetic achievements—no real metaphysical progress has been made.


Ruing Young Orphans

In a sense, then, she is back again where she started; the difference now is that

she is old and weary—and that each repetition of old patterns, by the very fact

of its repetitiveness, urges a greater sense of hopelessness, pointlessness, dulling cyclicity (corresponding to the Russian concept of a ‘‘bad eternity’’ [durnaia

beskonechnost']). She expresses her feeling of entrapment succinctly in a letter to Shteiger: ‘‘Continually repeating chance is fate’’ [Postoianno-povtoriaiushchaiasia sluchainost' est' sud'ba] (7:617). This kind of impossibility—this existential dead end—is very different from the Romantic poetics of impossibility

with which Tsvetaeva began her poetic career. She recognizes now that there

is and will be no way for her ever to forge a true relationship between self and

other; the outcome of her continued attempts to do so is the breakdown of grammar, meaning, and psychology, as a passage in one of her letters to Shteiger


Let me introduce you: Sie—Ihrer mit Sie—meinem, Sie—Sie mit Sie—ich [you—yours

with you—mine, you—you with you—I]. And maybe they—you—will coincide—as

criminals’ faces and poets’ biographies coincide when laid on top of one another. (This

is the explanation for the formulaic quality that may have troubled you in the last letter.

I sometimes think that you—are I, and I don’t explain. Whenever you are not I—please

ask.) But you, at certain moments, are I—to the point of strangeness. (7:569)

As if the near nonsensicality of Tsvetaeva’s statement is not yet sufficient to

convey the acuteness of her psychological disorientation, the German pronouns

imbedded in the Russian text further emphasize her state of mental crisis.

The fact that ‘‘Epitaph’’ and ‘‘Poems to an Orphan’’ belong to the genre of

the poetic cycle is in itself an important aspect of their meaning. Whereas previously Tsvetaeva was able to transform her isolation into at least a curve of distant mutuality in the genre of the poema, here the very cyclicity of form makes

any such exit impossible, returning her inexorably to the circle of her lonely

fate. In the case of ‘‘Epitaph,’’ structural cyclicity is most apparent in the temporal organization of the cycle. The work begins with Tsvetaeva’s imagination

of Gronskii’s last, tragically nonchalant and nonclairvoyant words of parting to

his family as he goes out the door to his death: ‘‘I’m going out for a few minutes...’’ [Idu na neskol'ko minut...]. This 1935 cycle ends with a short poem that

Tsvetaeva dedicated to Gronskii back in the summer of 1928, whose final words

(‘‘God—save!’’ [Spasi—Bog!]), which originally referred to herself, are ironically transformed in the context of Gronskii’s death into a prophetic prayer for

him instead.

This reverse chronological strategy in the composition of a poetic cycle (i.e.,

the completion of the cycle by the inclusion of a poem from the past) is unique

in Tsvetaeva’s opus; she generally writes all the constituent poems of a cycle

within the span of several days at most, and her greatest deviation from strict

chronology in any of her other cycles is the appendage of poems ‘‘from the

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future’’ in final position.21 In ‘‘Epitaph,’’ Gronskii’s last words to the living are

complemented by Tsvetaeva’s last poetic words to him during his life. She is as

unable to believe in the reality of his death in retrospect as he was himself in

the moments preceding the event, and time turns back upon itself. Moreover,

the January of the cycle’s composition echoes the new year of ‘‘New Year’s Letter’’ and ultimately, perhaps, the January of Pushkin’s death as well, since for

Tsvetaeva the death of any poet is always an archetype.22

Whereas in ‘‘New Year’s Letter,’’ death is a new beginning, a liberation from

the constraints of physical being into new spiritual meanings, Tsvetaeva’s view

of death is very different in ‘‘Epitaph.’’ The cycle’s title indicates this change.

In contrast to the New Year’s greeting she prepares for Rilke, all she is able

to muster for Gronskii is an epitaph, a gravestone inscription [nadgrobie] that

locates him in his coffin [grob] and so relentlessly stresses his physical decomposition, to the exclusion of any spiritual remnant. She will attempt to recompose him before it is entirely too late; but the poems of ‘‘Epitaph’’ are written

after the fortieth day after Gronskii’s death—thus, after the cessation of his presence on earth and, perhaps, anywhere at all.23 This contrast between ‘‘Epitaph’’

and ‘‘New Year’s Letter’’ is highlighted by the acoustic and morphological near

match of their titles: both ‘‘Nadgrobie’’ and ‘‘Novogodnee’’ are compounds,

grammatically neutral, and the numerous sounds they share (n, g, o; even the

stops b and d and the vowel combinations ie and ee are similar) result in a kind of

slant rhyme between the two. In ‘‘Epitaph,’’ the new year’s burgeoning spiritual

possibility is amended by the ponderous physical finality of a gravestone slab.

The open circle of Rilke’s death in ‘‘New Year’s Letter’’ is closed with Tsvetaeva’s return to the death of a poetic beloved in ‘‘Epitaph,’’ never to be opened

again. The spirit comes home, after all, to the decaying flesh—and afterwards

there is nothing left.24

The opening poem of ‘‘Epitaph’’ sets the tone for the entire cycle, with its answerless, persistent, despairing questions: ‘‘Where did you go? . . . Your soul—

where did it go? . . . Your face—where did it go? Your face, your warmth,

your shoulder—where did it go?’’ [Kuda ushel? . . . Tvoia dusha—kuda ushla?

. . . Tvoe litso—kuda ushlo? / Tvoe litso, / Tvoe teplo, / Tvoe plecho—/ Kuda

ushlo?]. The question is a rhetorical device that Tsvetaeva employs extremely

sparingly, because it points to an ‘‘external goal, which poems should not have’’

(5:77). Indeed, this is the case in ‘‘Epitaph,’’ in which she utilizes Gronskii’s

passing to try to come to terms with the finality of real, physical death—the

opposite of Mra and of Rilke’s transcendence, just as the biological reality of

her own aging, yearning body is the opposite of her earlier fantasy of some

extrabiological, spiritually feminine yet nonsexual essence.

It is fitting, then, that almost all her questions in this poem mourn the inexorable loss of Gronskii’s body: his face, shoulder, corporeal warmth, and indeed

the totality of his bodily presence. When she recapitulates, briefly, her earlier


Ruing Young Orphans

focus on spiritual rebirth, she does so almost scornfully: ‘‘Since only in fairytales and only in pictures do they rise up to heaven!’’ [Ved' v skazkakh lish'

da v kraskakh lish' / Voznosiatsia na nebesa!]. The contrast between this attitude and Tsvetaeva’s ecstatic response to Rilke’s death is striking and reflects,

at least in part, the different identities of the two men and the different circumstances of their deaths. Rilke’s is the greater poetic tragedy and receives a poetic

answer; Gronskii’s is the greater human tragedy and receives a human answer—

an answer that is a nonanswer, just a set of unanswerable questions, since knowledge is given only to the poet. And the poet in Tsvetaeva, in a metaphysical

sense, is now absent or inaccessible. She no longer knows.

The second poem of ‘‘Epitaph,’’ ‘‘In vain with my eye’’ [‘‘Naprasno glazom—

kak gvozdem . . .’’], reverses one of the refrains of ‘‘New Year’s Letter’’ and,

simultaneously, of the Romantic, quasi-Symbolist poetics of Tsvetaeva’s youth:

the ironic poetic identification of life with death and death with life. In ‘‘New

Year’s Letter,’’ we recall, this world and the next, the now and the hereafter are

put into communication with one another through the poetic medium, and the

result is a new, ‘‘third’’ existential state that is neither life nor death but a philosophical synthesis of the two—a state achieved precisely through Rilke’s death:

‘‘If you, such an eye, have darkened, it means that life is not life, death is not

death’’ [Esli ty, takoe oko smerklos', / Znachit zhizn' ne zhizn' est', smert' ne

smert' est']. In ‘‘In vain with my eye,’’ the separation between life and death

is neither transcended nor transgressed but is, on the contrary, reinforced. The

circle of Tsvetaeva’s limited human vision—her ‘‘eye’s compass’’ [oka oborot]

—tells her that her lover, far from being made omnipresent by death, has actually been erased from any form of existence: ‘‘Here you are not—and are not

. . . There you are not—and are not . . . There—is too much there, here—is

too much here’’ [Zdes' net tebia—i net tebia / . . . Tam net tebia—i net tebia

. . . Tam—slishkom tam, zdes'—slishkom zdes']. ‘‘There’’ for Tsvetaeva is no

longer a place of escape. Moreover, the ‘‘nails’’ of her poetry, which once held

fast the liberating coffin of ‘‘Poem of the Air,’’ are no longer capable of fastening together a lasting monument to the dead: ‘‘In vain with my eye—like a

nail—do I pierce the black earth: my consciousness pierces more truly than any

nail: here you are not—and you are not’’ [Naprasno glazom—kak gvozdem, /

Pronizyvaiu chernozem: / V soznanii—vernei gvozdia: / Zdes' net tebia—i net


Not only does Tsvetaeva no longer believe in a possible meeting of the world

of the spirit and the world of the flesh, but she has lost her faith in the inherent

meaningfulness of death—and hence, of life—altogether: ‘‘However much the

priests might sing to us that death is life and life is death, God—is too much God,

the worm—is too much a worm’’ [Chto by ni peli nam popy, / Chto smert' est'

zhizn' i zhizn' est' smert',—/ Bog—slishkom Bog, cherv'—slishkom cherv'].25

Gronskii’s death brings home to Tsvetaeva the illegitimacy of her earlier efforts

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Ruing Young Orphans: The End of the Line

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