To Aleksander Blok I went to visit the poet.Exactly at noon. On a Sunday.It was quiet in the spacious room, And there was frost outside the windows. And a raspberry sunAbove curls of blue-grey smoke…How serenely my taciturn hostSurveys me! He had the kind of eyesThat everyone remembers.I had to be careful not toEngage them at all. But I’ll remember the conversation,The smoky noon, that SundayIn the tall grey houseBy the waterway of the Neva. 1914 TeacherIn memory of Innokenty Annensky
The nine poems assembled under “Trees” are some of the most difficult in Tsvetaeva’s oeuvre. They were written in 1922-3, soon after she had left the USSR and settled in a rural area across the river from Prague. She was in a high state of excitement after escaping from Moscow, where she had suffered deeply from famine during the Revolution years. Additionally she was rejoining her husband Seryozha Efron after years of separation. This emotional high is evident throughout the nine poems of “Trees.”
Like most educated Russians, Shostakovich was a regular reader of poetry. Throughout his life, he set many poems to music, not only Russian but also Japanese, Jewish, English, Italian, German and French. He covered some of the major Russian poets from Lermontov and Pushkin to Blok, Yevtushenko and Tsvetaeva. The very last of these Russian poets he worked on was Marina Tsvetaeva, whose poetry had become more accessible in the USSR since a major publication of her work in 1965. Shostakovich wrote the music for Six Verses of Marina Tsvetaeva in just one week in August 1973, when he was vacationing in Estonia. His health at this time was bad, and he already knew he had a terminal illness. His familiarity with Tsvetaeva’s work was increased in 1971 when he set to music Yevtushenko’s “Yelabuga Nail,” a poem about Tsvetaeva’s suicide. Soon after, he heard Tishenko’s “Three songs on Verses of Tsvetaeva” and subsequently ordered a copy (Fay 277)
This sequence of seven elegies was written over 40 years (1921-1964) and arranged just before Akhmatova’s passing in 1966. The elegies vary in length from 23 to 57 lines, averaging 40. Akhmatova often used this format of a small number of short poems under one title. It was also used by some of her contemporaries—Tsvetaeva, for example with “Poems on Moscow.” These seven elegies cover phases and aspects of her life. Elegies 1-4 cover specific periods, while the last three elegies are more generally retrospective: her “substitute life,” the trials of memory and her “silence” of 30 years.
In memory of VDN Inspiration, a rosy sky,a black house with just one fiery window. Oh, that sky,swallowed up by the fiery window!Trash of uninhabited outskirts,a blade of grass with a teardrop,a skull of happiness, slender, longlike the skull of a borzoi.What’s with me? I’m losing myself,I’m dissolving into the air, into the sunset; 10I mutter and feel faintin the evening’s wasteland.Never did I want so much to weep.Its here deep down in me. Slightly hazy, and so anxious
Gare Saint Lazare some pull themselves togetherothers lose their way.there are those who seekthe key to the rumeurs*. From evening to nightthis is the thoroughfare;with weary wing beatsa little sleepdrifts and then settles. The manna of the eveningfeeds pell-mellthose who smilethose who are afraid,those who pursuea game without hope. I go into the night;alien spacestake hold of me, move meinto the meal of shadowsI look for my place. Henri Thomas, Le monde absent, 1947Translated by John Cobley
One of Mikhail Lermontov’s better known poems conveys the wish to be buried alive under an oak tree. Such a wish is unusual even for a Romantic poet. This untitled poem is dated 1841, the year of Lermontov’s death in a duel at 26. Alone, I step out on to the road;The stony track glistens through the mist. The night is still; Nature pays heed to God,And above, star is talking to star. The skies are solemn and wonderful!Earth sleeps in a pale blue radiance…Why then do I feel such pain and angst?
In 1969 Richard Wilbur published this fine poem in Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations. It has three parts, set in 1933, 1957 and 1969 respectively. These three parts correspond to Wilbur’s childhood (age 12), adulthood (age 36) and middle age (48). A close reading brings many rewards. I have added some notes and also an analysis that tries to bring out some of these rewards. RUNNING I. 1933(North Caldwell, New Jersey) What were we playing? Was it prisoner’s base?I ran with whacking keds
While translating Apollinaire’s “Zone” and Tsvetaeva’s “Verses on Moscow”—coincidentally at the same time—I was surprised to find many similarities. First I found that they were written within three years of each other (1913 and 1916) and contain almost the same number of lines (160 and 155). Then I noticed that both are strongly autobiographical and that they focus on their respective cities, Paris and Moscow. For two poets living a long way apart and in very different cultures, the similarities seemed worth pursuing further.
Sometimes we have borrowedThe art and voice of your poetsSo that the silence of the woods,Which makes a home for beasts,Approaches you, and keepingAt a distance the rumbling motionOf out-of-tune machines,Surrounds you with a forestOf words where our leavesAnd your words might assemble again. For these cadences of your versesBalance themselves like our branches,Filling also the universeWith a deep breath of silence.And in the enigma of the sounds of trees We recognize ourselves