One way to pin down a poet is to read her poetry on poetry. This is Marina Tsvetayeva, who frequently wrote poems about and to poets, in 1923:
A poet’s speech begins a great way off.
A poet is carried far away by speech
By way of planets, signs, and the ruts
Of roundabout parables… (from “The Poet,” I, p. 35)
Those gaps are one of Tsevtayeva’s signatures, one of the ruts she digs into her poems to make her readers twist their dang ankles. The poet – I mean The Poet – “confuses arithmetic and weight,” “altogether refutes Kant,” and “burn[s] without warming.”
Tsvetayeva writes about Moscow and Prague, Akhmatova and Blok, love affairs and exile, with great intensity, her matter personal and intimate but hardly confessional. Meaning, even the deepest grief, is pushed through language and imagery. Her long “Poem of the End” (1924) is about the painful end of a love affair in Prague. It begins with the couple still together, but the poet is uneasy.
A single post, a point of rusting
tin in the sky
marks the fated place we
move to, he and I
on time as death is
too smooth the gesture of
his hat to me (I, 48)
The river is “a strip as colourless / as a slab for corpses,” his laughter is like “that cheap tambourine,” and so on. The metaphors, one after another, do much of the emotional work. Once I decode the language, the poet’s anguish seems more direct. Maybe it is a confessional poem.
A post. Why not beat my forehead to
blood on it? To smithereens! We are
like fellow criminals, fearing one
another. (The murdered thing is love.) (7, 58)
This is a specific scene in a specific place (the man has broken up with the poet; they have returned to the site of the first line), but I found that it took several tries for the scene to emerge, to close the distance Tsvetayeva creates.
Or, said another way, I thought a lot of her poems were pretty hard.
Some poems are closer to pure metaphor, pure description.
Readers of Newspapers
It crawls, the underground snake,
crawls, with its load of people.
and each one has his
newspaper, his skin
… No face, no features,
no age. Skeletons – there’s no
face, only the newspaper page. (1935, p. 35)
Even though the poem ends with a cry against “news/papers’ evil filth,” it’s a funny poem. I see that two more of my favorites are from the same time. The passengers in the rattletrap “Bus” “were like / peas in boiling soup,” “shaken / in vibrato, like violins” (91). Tsevtayeva’s “Desk” is her “most loyal friend,” her “loaded writing mule”:
And when my body will be laid out,
Great fool! Let it be on you then. (89)
How Marina Tsvetayeva wrote like she did under the constraints she faced, what a mystery.
My book of Tsvetayeva is the 1981 edition of Selected Poems translated by Elaine Feinstein with the aid of numerous collaborators.