Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva

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Dark Elderberry Branch is a collaboration between two living poets and one who is dead but fully present. Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa (former Soviet Union, in the Ukraine), learning English at the age of 16 when his family immigrated to the United States. Jean Valentine is a poet traveling between unseen worlds and this planet. Her relationship to poetry is as light is to air. Marina Tsvetaeva was born in 1892 in Moscow. She died at age 48, by suicide, having endured profound suffering and loss; having filled mountains of notebooks with poetry, prose and plays.

“Translation”, Willis Barnstone says, in An ABC of Poetry Translation, “is an art between tongues, and the child born of the art lives forever between home and alien city. Once across the border, in new garb, the orphan remembers or conceals the old town, and appears new-born and different.” How paradoxical (if not disturbing): giving birth to an orphan. How haunting, that in his “Afterword” Kaminsky writes “as a girl [Tsvetaeva], she dreamed of being adopted by the devil in Moscow streets, of being the devil’s little orphan.” She traveled and lived in Europe, was fluent in several languages, and translated poetry, including her own (into French.)

“Reading poetry in translation is like kissing through a veil,” Chaim Nachman Bialik, the Hebrew poet who lived (like Kaminsky) in Odessa reported. Yet when the poet is translating—is she not making love to the poem? She caresses, penetrates. Tastes and smells. Perhaps while making love to her own husband, her thoughts stray to her obsession—the poem. She aches with her idiosyncratic sense of fidelity. The translating poet is passionate about her unrequited lover, the poem. It’s destined to yield secrets, in a different tongue. Both poets yield, fuse.

In the poem “I am happy living simply”, Valentine and Tsvaetaeva are spiritually fused. For those who know and love Jean Valentine and her work, it brings joy:

I am happy living simply
like a clock, or a calendar.
Or a woman, thin,
lost—as any creature. To know

the spirit is my beloved. To arrive on earth—swift
as a ray of light, or a look.
To live as I write: spare—the way
God asks me—and friends do not.

Kaminsky explains why he and Valentine refer to their project as “a reading” in his “Afterword”:

In fact, Jean Valentine and I do not claim to have translated her. To translate is to inhabit. The meaning of the word ekstasis is to stand outside of one’s body. This we do not claim. (We wish we could, one day.) Jean Valentine and I claim we are two poets who fell in love with a third and spent two years reading her together….These poems are fragments, notes in the margin. “Erase everything you have written”, Mandelstam says, “but keep the notes in the margin.”

What happened when these brilliant poets “read” Tsvetaeva? Did they visit her in dreams? I imagine numerous night flights, many glasses of tea. Doing what they do best, they simmered, lathed, spun, conjured and carved poems with music, internal rhyme, new compound words (“darkgold” & “wonderpowers”), expertly placed Dickinson-like dashes, and more.

“New Year’s Letter” is a joyous and fervent (even funny) elegy to Rainer Maria Rilke with question marks and exclamation marks galore. Two stanzas:

Happy new earth, Rainer, town, Rainer!
Happy furthermost cape of all seen—
Happy new eye, Rainer, ear, ear, Rainer!

Is heaven like a snowed-in amphitheater?
Is it true what I knew, that God is a growing baobab? And God’s not
lost? Another God over him? And above him, further
up, another?

“From ‘Poems for Blok,’ ” a stunningly precise imagistic poem, etches deep. (first stanza):

Your name is a—bird in my hand,
a piece of ice on the tongue.
The lips’ quick opening.

Your name—four letters.
A ball caught in flight,
a silver bell in my mouth.

“Attempt at Jealousy” (“How is your life with an ordinary /woman?”) is savvy, sharp, and strikingly modern. And supremely entertaining! Here are two stanzas:

How’s your life with a tourist
on earth? Her rib (do you love her?)
—to your liking?

Is it life? Do you cough?
Do you hum to drown out the mice in your mind?

“Where does such tenderness come from?” is a sweet, stirring song. The question is repeated in each of the four quatrains with lovely emotional shifts.

But I’ve never heard words like this
In the night
(where does such tenderness come from?)
with my head on your chest, rest.

Many contributed to this volume, including illustrious figures summoned from the Russian past. On this windy January day, I see them all huddled close around Marina Tsvetaeva, source of creative energy and fire. In order of appearance, (besides Valentine and Kaminsky): W.S. Merwin (praise) Stephanie Sandler (introduction) Anna Akhmatova (her poem, “There are four of us” serves as an epigraph) and her translators Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. There is a CD tucked in the back cover of this visually gorgeous, beautifully designed volume. Tsvetaeva’s poems read gloriously and boldly in Russian by poets Paulina Barskova and Valzhyna Mort add a powerful dimension to the project with voice, performance, offering a direct, authentic experience of sounds and language unfamiliar to non-Russian speakers. A linguistic-poetic cycle completes itself within Dark Elderberry Branch.

The four Great Russian poets are present. You can hear them breathe. Mandelstam and Pasternak are here, warming their hands by the fire. Others are evoked, appearing through the mist: Rilke, and Russian poet Alexander Blok, in one of Tsvetaeva’s cycle of poems to him. The title of the book comes from lines in the Akhmatova poem:

–O look!—that fresh elderberry branch
Is like a letter from Marina in the mail.

It does feel like Valentine and Kaminsky inhabited Tsvetaeva’s poetry, if not her soul. “Reading” is transformative as poems are absorbed in numerous ways by the reader. Indeed, this book is homage. Valentine and Kaminsky, with tenderness and emotional integrity created a Tsvetaeva-centric world in gorgeous poems and fragments of prose. Through the veil, I kiss you, Marina Tsvetaeva.

Ellen Miller-Mack has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 5 A.M., Valparaiso Poetry Review, Rattle, Verse Wisconsin and Bookslut. She co-wrote The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press) and is a nurse practitioner/primary care provider at a community health center in Springfield, Massachusetts. More from this author →