Tsvetaeva and Outskirts

“Poem of the Ourskirts”

And until the desert of fame
will not cover my mouth,
I’ll write about bridges and outskirts,
I will sing of simple places.

And until I didn’t stick yet
in the snares of human deformities,
I’ll take the most difficult note –
I’ll sing the out-cast life:

complaining moan of the plumbing,
the paradise of vegetable gardens,
digging bar and pickaxe,
the forelock of the beardless ones.

Day without month,
Willow withered out.
Life without cover:
the smell of the blood.

Sweaty and thickset,
sweaty and emaciated:
ready to be taken to the square!
As in paintings –

As in paintings
Only – and in odes:
roar of the jobless,
roar of the beardless.

Hell? – Yes,
but also garden for
peasant women and soldiers,
old dogs
and small children.

“Paradise – with brawls?
Without – shells
from oysters?
Without chandelier?
With patches?”

-No need to weep about it:
everybody has
his own.

Apr. 23, 1923
(Trans. by Victor Enyutin)

Tsvetaeva felt deep sympathy for the people having a difficult existential destiny – the victims of injustices, poverty, circumstances and betrayals by others and/or the system but who have somehow maintained their dignity. She was prone to perceive the existentially heroic people as “poets in life”.

Instead of feeling, as many poets do, a justifiable pride in her poetic gift and considering herself as a “special case” in comparison with the “simple” people who were put in a situation of the unbearable life by the blind circumstances (while “poet” suffers because of being “chosen” by “possessing a poetic talent”), Tsvetaeva felt herself “inferior” to the “regular” people caught within their destiny and still finding the way to respect their human nobility and not transforming themselves into petty philistines with their tails in between their legs. It is, as if, Tsvetaeva felt that if she tolerated the impossible life and refrained from forcing herself to compromise with conditions of the world, she did it because of her poetic work, for the sake of its truth, and she admired people who did it just for the sake of their integrity in life, as if, life for them was what poetry was for her.

In other words, Tsvetaeva didn’t think that when people remain poor – it is because of their inability to improve their situation. Conversely, she thought that it is their power and even their spirituality to continue to respect themselves in spite of the absence of social/material success. It is in this light, it seems, that it makes sense to perceive two poems belonging to the cycle “Poem of Outskirts”.

Tsvetaeva sees the protagonists of her double poem as people of heroism as a poetic category, as her poetic “comrades in arms”. She interpreted their very staying on the bottom of the social hierarchy – going through hell, as poetic act, and in her “Poem of Outskirts” she paid a poetic tribute to their heroism of being “chosen” to live gracefully on the bottom. The both poems belonging to the “Poem of Outskirts” seem to have been written in the same day, on April 23, 1923, but what a change in Tsvetaeva’s elaboration of the topic from the first to the second poem! The gentle people calling “simple places” their homeland are helpless to prevent the destruction of their dream that it is possible to keep your humanity intact amidst appalling conditions and chronic abuse.

Tsvetaeva as a poet doesn’t belong to those who have a certain feelings about life which push a poet to write a poem that will clear what those feelings are through the linguistic and stylistic form poet’s intuition incarnates into. Tsvetaeva is not a poet of static universe to code it in the poem that then becomes a kind of aesthetic model of that universe.

Tsvetaeva’s inspiration is dynamic and improvisatory, it is an alive organism. For her a poem is poetical living in time, borrowing the time of the poem as a temporary vehicle for her existence. Every poem becomes a sort of love-making of a poet with a sensual-semantic enigma of the poem in the process of its realization, mixed with giving birth to and with nurturing and forming the poem as her poetic off-spring. In other words, it is like life in miniature. To return to the “Poem of the Outskirts”, she, probably, didn’t even know that it will be more than one poem under this title.

In the second poem she had to come against herself. Were these two poems her children with two different destinies and two different worldviews? While praising the heroism of people continuing to live at the bottom of the social hierarchy instead of running away for “better deals”, in the first poem, in the second Tsvetaeva understood that this existential heroism is doomed, that defending our human dignity in a degrading environment is meaningless – that the inhumane conditions will psychologically prevail over the stubborn vitality and idealistic nobility by breaking people’s humanity from inside of their feelings. The depiction of existential heroes in the second poem traces their self-destruction.

The contradiction between the two poems becomes a contradiction between Tsvetaeva’s two views on heroic life. It extends into her whole life and was resolved in her own death. But existential resolution is never a philosophical one. Life is always limited but the concrete constellations of circumstances and situations are like thinking – unlimited and eternal, even if the continuation will be in some other place – on another planets, galaxies and universes.

The antagonism between Tsvetaeva’s two views on existential heroism survived her death and belongs not only to her life, but to ours as well and to our future. Is Tsvetaeva’s final act in life a sign of defeat amidst the outskirts, or rather a radical victory over historical dead-end?

*The essay about the second poem belonging to “Poem of the Outskirts”:   Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Here Passions Are Greedy and Rusty” (1923) – Psychological History of Revolt  by Acting-Out Politics