Earthly Signs

Marina Tsvetaeva

Translated from the Russian

by Jamey Gambrell


Yale University Press: 192 pp.,


In W.H. Auden’s brief, bitter poem “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” the despot is portrayed as “greatly interested in armies and fleets,” and “When he laughed respectable senators burst with laughter / And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.” A further indictment: “the poetry he invented was easy to understand.” The reference to poetry that is easy to understand echoes with inescapable irony in light of recent controversy about the public voice of the American poet. In the matter of “difficult” poetry, it might be further noted that there is a distrust that runs deep in the American psyche -- a distrust of any poetry (or imaginative writing) that challenges conventional sentiments or refuses to reinforce language that is easily decipherable or “accessible.” And somehow this suspicion of art’s natural unconventionality presents itself as public-mindedness or a version of patriotism.

Just as poets are not expected to articulate dissent, neither are they encouraged to threaten the language of the status quo. Yet there is the tradition (at the very heart of poetry) of unbridled speculation, fancy, celebration of the anarchical imagination. This style of bold, passionate and innovative thought is much in evidence in “Earthly Signs,” writings by the Russian Modernist poet Marina Tsvetaeva, in this extraordinary translation by Jamey Gambrell.

The poet’s imagination soars from the page with startling energy -- a forcefulness that comes from honoring the complexity of expression that is poetry and the refusal to compromise that complexity in any way. “Earthly Signs” is a collection of autobiographical essays -- or what she called “a psychic chronicle.” Subtitled “Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922,” the collection reveals, in prose, the wild interior landscape of the soul of a poet. Tsvetaeva was a poet so inimitable, so profoundly difficult that the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky described her work as essentially “untranslatable.” Her poems interweave the vernacular with Old Russian, Church Russian, double and triple rhymes, puns and idiomatic speech, as well as flights of free association and layers of lyric choreography. She defended her ungovernable poetic vision to the most censorious of critics, who found her verse “counterrevolutionary,” nearly characterizing her as an enemy of the state.

To an editor who wanted her to omit what was termed “politics” from the manuscript of “Earthly Signs,” she responded thus: “There is no politics in the book; there is PASSIONATE truth: the particular truth of cold, of hunger, of anger, of the Year! My youngest girl died of hunger in a children’s home -- that’s also ‘politics’ (the home was Bolshevik.)”

“Earthly Signs,” she said, was “a living soul in a dead noose -- but alive nonetheless.” To ideological reductiveness from the right or the left, she responded in the same way: She shook off the “dead noose” (until the very end of her life, when an actual noose tightened around her neck).

Tsvetaeva, born in Moscow in 1892 to a wealthy, educated family, married a student friend at 19 and published her first book of poems. The Bolshevik Revolution changed her life. She found herself nearly destitute with two small children and a husband who was involved in the Soviet opposition and absent for long periods of time. Still she wrote daily: poems, journals, long verse dramas and endless letters. Yet, though the family escaped at one point to Paris, they did not stay -- instead they returned to Russia to a terrible fate.


Tsvetaeva’s husband was shot, her daughter incarcerated -- the poet and her small son were sent into a kind of exile in 1941. Here, no longer able to work, ill and depressed, Tsvetaeva hung herself. In the pocket of her apron was found a tiny notebook filled with poems.


Good Heart

Deborah Keenan


Milkweed Editions: 84 pp., $14.95

The collection “Good Heart” is a fine book by a poet whose expansive heart and swift sympathetic eye draw the reader’s empathy and admiration. In poem after poem, she defies expectation and eludes the purely sentimental by offering a new twist on an old perspective: What is it you don’t understand / About shrines, about death? / What can I tell you / That will give you just enough / Sorrow to make you stop?