Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Selected Poems

by Marina Tsvetaeva

Translated & Introduced by Elaine Feinstein

Encountering the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, in the translations of Elaine Feinstein retains more of the formal veracity and elevated lyricism associated with Tsvetaeva than the previously discussed Paul Schmidt translations in "The Stray Dog Cabaret." Tsvetaeva is not my type of poet, but she is certainly a master both of the long poem and of elevating emotional extremity into elevated and frequently lyrical poetry. The long poems were the most striking for me personally. The celebrated "Poem of the End," allows for a modernist disjunction of narrative and word play that compliment the emotional core of the poem, a walk between Tsvetaeva and her lover as they agree to conclude their affair. Lines such as "Dense as a horse mane is:/ rain in our eyes. And hills." reminds me favorably of the focused natural imagery of Marianne Moore. There is also a strong sense of a poetic community within these poems. While the poems addressed to other Russian poets weren't always my favorite in the collection, I was struck by the opening of "To Mayakovsky," in which high, elevated descriptions are combined with a colloquial address, "High above cross and trumpet/ baptized in smoke and fire/ my clumsy-footed angel-/ Hello there, Vladmir!" This interplay of "poetic" and "common" address reminded me a great deal of the Schmidt anthology.

Reading Feinstein's translations coincidentally with Schmidt's, I was struck by the difference in tone. Feinstein's versions often possess a smoothness to them that allows an English reader to encounter the poems without as overt a reminder of the act of translation as is the case with Schmidt. Feinstein's Tsvetaeva may not retain the strict meter of the Russian, but there is a definite formalism at play here, replaced in Schmidt by a deliberately casual chattiness. I personally prefer the Schmidt to the Feinstein, but in some instances the faithfulness of Feinstein pays off. The repetition of "I kiss your…" in "A kiss on your head" is potent partially before of the rigor of the lines and the quiet language.

Feinstein introduces Spacing and dashes with varying effectiveness. The irregularity of the spacing in lines such as "on time as death is/ prompt strangely…" presents the reader with unnecessary affinities with an American tradition of projective lineation that isn't a part of the original. Schmidt's deviations from the original are presented within the context of a greater narrative. I'm much more aware of the liberties in his book, in fact, his liberties nicely remind the reader that they are reading a translations. Feinstein does a good enough job translating Tsvetaeva, I simply found her choices to mislead the reader without as well stated of a reason.

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