9 Poems
by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian and introduced by James Stotts

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Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow in 1892; as a member of the bourgeoisie she traveled and studied in Switzerland, Germany, and France, during the Civil War, she witnessed history from the Red and White sides of the Revolution while her husand, Sergei Efron, served on the front lines, often with her accompanying, and after 1922 as a political exile she emigrated through Europe again in varying levels of poverty and despair. Before leaving Russia, while trapped in Moscow for five years during the famine that followed the Civil War, she gave up her youngest daughter whom she was unable to feed to state care, where she died of starvation. Despite his history as a White soldier, Sergei Efron later joined the Soviet secret police, the NKVD (the immediate precursor to the KGB), and was eventually murdered by Stalin’s firing squads in 1941, shortly after Tsvetaeva had returned to be reunited with him in 1939 after twenty years of exile. That same year, she was evacuated to Elabuga, where she desperately looked for means of support, having been spurned by the literary community. She committed suicide in Elabuga before the year was out.

Extraordinarily manic and prolific, Tsvetaeva—who wrote incessantly from the time she was a little girl until her death—bore witness to a world in shock and flux. And famously promiscuous, her many lovers included Osip Mandelstam and Sofia Parnok, and her psychic affairs-en correspondences included Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke. All of them made their way into her poems. Her own identity, revealed in outbursts of brief lyrics and book-length elegies and novels-en-vers, transcended sexual and literary conventions, could be coldly formal and fiercely intimate, trans-sensual, and often seeming to come apart at the seams. Her capacity for negative capability allowed her to identify with Hamlet and Ophelia, Orpheus and Eurydice, to rewrite history as imagination, and to almost literally inspire (that is, inhabit) her precursors and exploit her fellow poets as personal muses. Ironically, though, she faced resentment and animosity in the émigré communities for her recognition of Soviet writers’ genius (especially Vladimir Mayakovsky’s) at the same time as her own work was strangled by the Soviet censors. Tsvetaeva’s work, officially impossible to publish in the USSR for most of her life, spread through sam- and tam-izdat and wouldn’t be ‘rehabilitated’ inside Russia until a generation after her own death, long after it found life outside the Russian superterranean culture. But in that sense, her story is typical.

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