cover image Moscow in the Plague Year

Moscow in the Plague Year

Marina Tsvetaeva, trans. from the Russian by Christopher Whyte. Archipelago (Random, dist.), $18 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-935744-96-2

Those who can read Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) in the original Russian describe her as passionate, volatile, and breathtaking in the sensuous flights of her erotic poems, but also as a gifted writer in traditional rhymed forms, a poet of great control, even when the experiences described involve a near-fatal loss of control. Such is the case for these cycles of lyric poems, mostly about erotic love pursued, lost or won (some address her young daughter). Together the many stanzas and fragments record a year of mostly unrequited devotions, a year spent near Hvation in the disastrous Moscow of 1919. The translation can sound slightly old-fashioned; though Tsvetaeva's passion comes through in these unrhymed translations (printed without the originals), the sonic acuity does not: "With youth's last gaps, beneath the shade/ of dry fig trees, I sing the women/ fated to be your lovers in/ the future you've ahead of you!" Even though the individual pages%E2%80%94some never before translated%E2%80%94do not stand up as poetry in English, together they tell a hair-raising and heartbreaking story: a self-destructive, almost compulsively productive poet, roaming a broken city, hearing and learning from the writers she loved, writing immortal scraps and heartbroken fragments, "not hiding the emotion in my voice." (Aug.)