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Tsvetaeva's "Trees" Sequence

by John Cobley

Monday Aug 31st, 2020



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.”


After years of urban misery, Tsvetaeva luxuriated in the forest environment: “Trees, I come to you to escape the marketplace roar!” Trees for her are “the quietest of friends.” The forest was her Elysium, the paradise of the gods.


These poems explore what she wants from the trees. There is a continual expression of upwardness. Trees have “upward growth” and the forest is “breaking from its roots.” In one of the poems the trees are even “running uphill.”


Throughout there are elements of mysticism, classical and Christian religion, eroticism, poetic inspiration, and death. I suspect there also some private elements that relate to the dedicatee, her friend Anna Antonovna Teskova. It’s significant that this work is dedicated to her and not to Tsvetaeva’s husband, with whom she had just been reunited after years of not knowing if he was alive.






                          To my Czech friend Anna Antonova Teskova



Losing faith in mortals,

I try not to be bewitched.

Into the aged heather,

Into the silver-streaked dry place, 


Let the trumpeters trumpet                            

The glory of my shadow!

Into the heather-loss,  

Into the heather-dry streams.


Aged heather!

A layer of bare stone!                                                             10
Making sure

Of the identity of our orphanhoods.


Removing and rejecting

Shreds of the last brocade—

Into the heather-ruins

Into the heather-dry streams.


Life: two-souled friendships 

And suffocation of flaws.

Greyness and dryness

(For the leader is severe),                                                        20


Upwards where the rowan

Is more beautiful than King David!

Into the heather-grey,

Into the heather-dry seas.




When my irritated soul 

Became intoxicated by wounds,

When seven times I renounced

Fighting the demons—


Not with those lashed by a torrent of fire

Down in the depths:

With Earth’s daily baseness,

With human lethargy—


Trees! I come to you! To escape

The marketplace roar!                                                             10

With your upward growth

How my heart is purged!                                                        


God-fighting oak! Marching 

Into battle with every root!

My willow-prophets!

Birch virgins!


The elm is frenzied Absalom,

Lifted up in torture

The pine is you, psalm of my lips:

The bitterness of rowan berries…                                          20


To you! Into the splashing mercury

Of leaves—let them all fall!                                        

To open up my hands for the first time!                    

To abandon the manuscripts!


A swarm of green reflections,

As if they were splashing into my hands

My bareheaded ones,

My trembling ones.





Women bathers, herded

Into a simple circle

By a band of nymph-guardians

And suddenly, the bristling of a mane                        


In the projection of brows and hands,

--a scroll is unwound!—                                                                     

In a dance ending abruptly

With a gesture of defence—                                  


A long arm on a thigh.                                     

The stretching of a neck…                                                                              10

The silver of birches,

Lively streams!




Friends! Brotherly throng!

You, by whose rustling the vestiges 

Of mundane resentment are swept away.                  

Forest! My Elysium!


In the noisy camp of friendships

I’ll finish with the companionship of souls,

Choosing sobriety,

A day among the quietest of friends.


Ah, with stamping feet:                                                           

Into the simple sacrificial fire                                                 10

Of groves! Into the great calm—

Of mosses! Into the pouring of conifers…


Prophecy of a tree!                                                     

The forest proclaiming: It’s right here, 

Above the riff-raff of curvatures—    

The perfect life:


Where there’s neither servitude nor ugliness,

There, where everything is in full stature

There, where truth is more visible:

On the other side of days…




Fugitives? Soldiers?                            

Answer if you are alive!

Chernet monks on horseback                                      

Do they see God in the undergrowth?


How many rustling sandals!                                       

How many buildings ablaze!

How many hounds and deer—

In the flight of trees!


Forest! You’re a horseman today!

This is what people                                                                10                     

Called sickness: the last                                                                      

Convulsion of trees—


This is a loose-smocked youth, 

Raised on nectar.

This is a forest instantly 

Breaking loose from its roots!


No; something else. Not flakes

In the dry-leaved flood!

I see: spears plummeting,                                                       

I hear: the roar of blood!                                                         20


And flying in an open chlamys*—                             

Who has seen him?                                                                             

There’s Saul following David:                                                            

Towards his own dark death.



Not with paint, not with a brush!

Light is its kingdom for grey.                                      

A lie is like red leaves:

Here colour is downtrodden by light.


Colour is trampled by light.

To colour, light is a heel on the breast.                       

Isn’t it in this, in this:

The mystery and power and essence


Of autumn woods?

As if a curtain                                                                         10

Had been drawn sternly                                  

Over the quiet backwater of days…


As if you envision your son

Through vestment partings,

Words: Palestine and Elysium 

Appear suddenly…



Through the fine interweaving of agitation--

Light is more blissful than death

And--the bond breaks.                                                                        20



Autumn greyness.

You, Goethe’s apotheosis!

Much has been sung here,

And still more unraveled.


Thus grey hairs shine:

Thus the ancient heads of the family--

The last son

The very last of seven.


Into the last door—

With the outspread luminescence of arms…       30

(I don’t believe in colour!                               

Here purple is the last of servants!)


…Already not with light:                               

Shining with some kind of luminescence…

Isn’t it in this, in this—

And the bond breaks.




Thus deserts shine.

And—having said more than I could:

The sands of Palestine,

The domes of Elysium…                                                        40





The one who slept without dreaming--

She stirred and rose up.

In the strict measures of a psalm,

A visible rock.                                                             


A throng of awakening bodies:


Like an army under a hail of arrows,

Ripe for torture.


Rolls of vestments, transparent as nets,

Crumble into dust.                                                                        10

Hands, protecting the groin,

(Of virgins!)—and like limp whips                


The hands of shameless old men…

Of youths—birds!

Cavalry into the funnel of judgment!              

Standing waist deep,


Working loose from burial shrouds—

The grey-bearded ascension:

Existence!--Migration!—A legion!                             

A whole nation                                                                       20


Of descendants!—Into mercy and into anger!

See!—Wake up!!—Remember!

In the evening, a few trees

Running uphill.





Someone is heading for a fatal victory.

From the trees, gestures of tragedy.

A sacrificial dance from Judea!

From the trees, tremblings of mysteries.


This is a plot against our century: 

Weights, measures, time, fractions.

This is a torn veil:

From trees, gestures of tombstones…


Someone’s coming. Heaven is like an entrance.                      

From trees, gestures of celebration.                                        10




With what revelations,

With what truths,

Of what do you rustle,

Leafy floods?


With the mysteries

Of what frenzied Sybil--

Of what do you rustle,

Of what do you rave?


What’s in your breath?

But I know that you treat                                                       10

The insult of Time 

With the coolness of eternity.


Rising with youthful genius—

You denigrate 

The lie of seeing 

With the finger of detachment.                                               


Thus again, as before,

The earth seemed to us.

Thus behind eyelids

Plans were enacted.                                                                 20


Thus no boasting                                            

Of miracles with coins!

Thus behind eyelids

Mysteries were enacted.


Away with certainty!

Away with urgency!

Into the flow!--Into the prophecies

Of evocative language…


Is the foliage made by leaves?             

Did the Sybil moan?                                                               30

…Leafy avalanches,

Leafy ruins…


Marina Tsvetaeva, 1922-3


Translated by John Cobley, with help from Olga Bakal 



Note: chlamys, a cloak fastened with a brooch. Greek origin.


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