From Passions to Hate, to Cry, to Self-harming, to Self-destruction, and to Repentance onto Death

Here passions are greedy and rusty:
Dynamite to the status quo!
Here fires happen again and again:
The outskirts burn!

Here hate lives by posture and action:
Reprisals’ machinegun!
Here floods happen again and again:
The outskirts drift!

Here people cry – here the silent dawn
Rings and howls.
Here arrested adolescents
Chirp to cops – “Stop joking”!

Here people pay – by god and by devil,
By sweat and by heirlooms!
Here the young ones sing over themselves
As for the dead.

Here mothers overlay the baby to death…
(Bridges, sand, crosses in the outskirts!)

Here fathers drank away the youngest daughter to the merchant…
(Bushes, crosses of the stinging nettles)

-Let me go.
-Forgive me.

April 23, 1923

[Transl. by Victor Enyutin]

Interest in the psychology of poverty develops in Tsvetaeva the more she was exposed to the physically unbearable conditions of life, in early 20’s in Russia, in various locations in Europe and upon her return to Russia almost twenty years later. She analyzes the human soul of poverty as inseparable from pauperization’s geographical setting. From here comes her attention to the outskirts of towns. While reading the poem the readers ought to bear the participation in poverty, in life of the outskirts, in the life of dying. After four stanzas the intonation of the tormented accents of drums changes into that of howls, of a long weeping interrupted without ending. Depictions become ripped off into more and more particular and essential ones (emphasizing a reductive, withered character of the experiences), as if, a wider scope of life is transformed into its last drops.

Psychological degradation as a symptom of extreme poverty, powerlessness and feeling of being victimized by injustice, starts when human passions begin to reflect not only the impossible conditions of life (when passions become “greedy”) but also the fact that they are wounded and made morbid by these conditions (when they become “rusty”). But the first stanza is not only about deformation of human passions which desperately and powerlessly warn the world by the promise of vengeance (that can only be fruitless and meaningless). Dynamite passions already in the first stanza turn against its carriers – desperate people burn their own abode (“the outskirts burn”). In the second stanza greedy, rusty, dynamite-like and pyromaniac passions are met by the hate of systemic reprisals, more, the city itself answers with punishment (the outskirts are flooded). The third stanza accents the condition of the youngsters, whose resistance to their destiny often takes a stubborn form of “heroically” challenging the mighty unchangeable status quo. But their resistance to power is still cheerful, they are chirping even when they are fighting with superior force. Their bodies are condemned but they instinctively try to prove to themselves and to the big world that they can endure more, that their spirit is stronger than their physique and their destiny (a masochistic psychological situation that is all too dangerous because it adds on self-destruction to their destruction by the world). Mutinous children are destined to transform their weep into (masochistic) self-mutilation. In fourth stance it’s time to pay – for being poor, condemned, doomed and stubborn, for daring wanting to be a human being in spite of living on the dirty social bottom. The young poor, like soldiers during the war, psychologically dissociate themselves from their physical being (they unconsciously look for ways to sacrifice themselves) – they try to beat death by the death. They become “heroes” during wars and revolutions and later are cynically respected for their sacrifices, or they become greedy/rusty ideological fanatics with pathos of hate. The fourth stanza is the day of wrath when people pay to god and to devil with their present and their past, with their life and their death.

After the drastic stylistic interruption (metaphorizing the moral death of those who physically survived the systemic abuse of their childhood and youth) the poem like life is continuing even when there is no life. Chronic despair settles in beyond the extreme situations – in unintentional killing of baby by its exhausted mother who accidently fell sleep with the baby next to her, or selling the daughters by drunken fathers for an extra drink. The poor traumatized by their existence are like soldiers with PTSD – they either hurt themselves or others. Outskirts become existentially tiny – people’s immediate impressions encircle them like prison walls (“bridges, sand, crosses in the outskirts” are reduced further into “bushes, crosses of the stinging nettles”). Life is reduced to one archetypal situation: imposing violence, when sadism cannot be separated from masochism, and when pain tries to block feelings and understanding of what happened and what’s happening.

In the third/the final stanza of the last part of the poem (separated from the first four stanzas) the motif of compassion/refraining from violence and a shade of repentance (“Forgive me”) is depicted by Tsvetaeva not as a note of hope but as a muffled, as if, a suffocated experience. By reducing poetic lines into two short prosaic exchanges (- Let me go/ – Forgive me) what could be sign of overcoming existential condemnation, makes it even stronger and impossible to redeem. It’s too late for everything.

“Passions” of the first stanza are transformed by life into suffering (as a result of being targeted by reprisals) of the second, that is then transformed into weep and howl in the third, with chirping of “adolescents” who can defend themselves only through “transcendent” absurd of bravado (chirping of “adolescences” in Tsvetaeva’s text, instead of “adolescents” as I have it, means that with each adolescent who is tormented by his/her life the whole world of potential life of the future is destroyed).

It‘s very likely that in this poem Tsvetaeva is expressing her opinion about the destiny of violent social protest – people who are hurt by the very living conditions which they want to change are psychologically not able to do it exactly because they are already traumatized by them. She knew the moral crimes of the Russian revolution, and today we know even more about it. Revolt instigated by the unbearable conditions of living is meaningless – those who are psychologically hurt-traumatized by them are doomed to replicate them under new guises, like a mentally traumatized soldier repeats over again and again what was so tormenting and unbearable for him. Changes of social conditions can be realized only by people with therapeutic and/or self-therapeutic experience and with humanistic education, and only in a vital and a potent democracy where political elite is answerable to and cares about people. She sees violent mutiny as a great tragedy rather than a great hope.

The poem in its duration becomes the image of not just historical but historico-psychological time when moving from stanza to stanza we are moving along the reality where the preceding experiences influence and frame and sometimes even directly determine the following ones. We feel the historical perspective analyzed by Tsvetaeva with attention to the human emotions living in an embrace with a deformed reality that deforms human beings and through this – the future conditions of human life. We move from a period of dynamite passion and psychological self-burning (1st stanza) to reprisal by the powerful and by nature (2nd stanza), then to the period of crying, howling and chirping of human suffering (3rd stanza), and finally, to the period of paying the price (4th stanza). Here is the truthful in its unbearability alternative to the childish ha-ha-hopes and pompous utopias of human bravura ideologies destroying the future of human species in the very moment they bombastically proclaim it.

This poem is prophetic; it makes Tsvetaeva’s own death part of a disastrous historical process and not only a personal tragedy.