Victim of police or her passions?
To be a poet is to be a virtual exile, someone who shifts between internal and external spaces, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. And as T.S. Eliot once said, poetry is not an expression of a poet’s personality but an escape from it. But an escape is always from somewhere or something, and a poet’s work is always emerging in some way from experience.
Marina Tsvetaeva, a poetic giant of 20th century Russia, knew exile and escape from the most tangible to the most ethereal extremes. As early as age 3, she describes a “frenzied wish to become lost,” in reaction to a feeling of estrangement in her family. As she grew up, displacement, whether sought or imposed, became the grave tendency of her every experience. Rejection, abandonment, separation, ostracism and persecution preceded her ultimate displacement from this world to the next when she committed suicide in 1941.
“The Death of a Poet” picks up the story two years before her demise, in a brave attempt to discern the motives for her suicide. Author Irma Kudrova posits the poet’s persecution by Soviet secret police as the driving force in her unraveling, based on heretofore secret Soviet archives. But this hypothesis, isolated from the details of Tsvetaeva’s earlier suffering and her poetic articulations, seems facile.
When 18-year-old Tsvetaeva burst onto the literary scene in 1910 with her collection “Evening Album,” poet Valery Bruisov said her writing “at times becomes embarrassing, as though you’d peered impolitely through a half-closed window into someone else’s apartment and witnessed a scene that outsiders should not see.”
More than most, Tsvetaeva’s verses emerged directly from the concrete stuff of her life. They read like diaries fragmented into the dangling syntax, sonic play and obscure allusions that characterize her poetic sortilege. In a letter, she described the process of transmogrifying her tumultuous life into the poetic dimension: “Externally, things always go badly with me, because I don’t love it (the external), I take no account of it, I don’t give it the required importance and demand nothing from it. Everything I love changes from an external thing to an inward one, from the moment of my love, it stops being external.”
Her experiences in love -- intellectual, maternal, lesbian and marital -- went badly indeed. These threads drew her into a litany of tragedies, beginning and ending with her marriage to the political ideologue Sergei Efron.
Tsvetaeva married Efron, a well-to-do man with a family history of radical activism, in 1912. After giving birth to two daughters, she had an affair with the poet Sophia Parnok -- a painful interlude that she described as “the first catastrophe” of her life. Parnok was an incorrigible lothario and Tsvetaeva’s attraction to this unattainable woman led inevitably to rejection.
Although Tsvetaeva’s extramarital affairs were invariably infatuations with unwilling love objects, she always expressed ardent love and admiration for her husband. Efron abided the Parnok affair and other infidelities with pain and acquiescent knowledge of his mercurial wife. He wrote to a friend, “Marina is a woman of passions.... Today -- despair; tomorrow -- ecstasy, love, complete self-abandon; and the following day -- despair once again....Everything is entered in the book. Everything is coolly and mathematically cast into a formula.”
Events soon would trump her imagination and appetite for the scourges of passion. In 1917, civil war seized Russia and Efron joined the White Army against the rising Red tide. The poet didn’t hear a word from her husband for three years while enduring wartime fuel shortages, famine and the death by starvation of their youngest daughter. She wrote in her diary: “If God performs this miracle and leaves you among the living, I will follow you like a dog.”
Despite the agony and hardship, the civil war years prompted huge poetic output from Tsvetaeva -- drawn, in large part, from the dramatic upheavals of war, with its effect of uprooting whole populations. Though she felt a strange thrill at being in a city full of displaced people, she nonetheless positioned herself as a social pariah -- proudly sporting the fact that her husband was on the enemy side and writing poetry that announced counterrevolutionary sentiments. Eternally the contrarian, Tsvetaeva writes in a diary, “I am an inexhaustible source of heresy. Not knowing a single one, I profess all of them. Perhaps I even create them.”
After the White Army’s defeat in 1920, Efron escaped to Prague. Tsvetaeva immediately followed him into a life of exile. After stints in Berlin and Prague, she settled in Paris with her husband and elder daughter in 1925, when she enjoyed a short period of popularity before entering a new phase of ostracism.
In a letter to writer George P. Ivask in 1933, she wrote, “In the emigration they began (enthusiastically!) publishing me, then, on reflection, they withdrew me from circulation, sensing it was not in-our-line but from-over-there. The content seemed to be ‘ours,’ but the voice -- theirs! ... For those on the Right it is Left in form. For those on the Left it is Right in content.” Her literary and political inclinations, including her loyalty to communist poets and affiliation with her husband’s newfound attraction to Stalinist ideology, branded her an outcast.
By the late 1930s, Efron’s Soviet sympathies had crystallized and when French suspicions of his involvement in a Soviet spy ring reached fever pitch, he fled to the Soviet Union. Tsvetaeva, living in poverty under the scornful disapproval of the Parisian emigre community, followed him a few months later. In the margins of a manuscript she scribbled: “And here I am, about to go -- like a dog (21 years later).”
In the worst twist of this Red-and-White, left-and-right saga, she and her family returned to the Soviet Union in 1939 expecting safe harbor but arriving at the zenith of the Stalinist purges. Their years in exile, and perhaps the conditions under which they left the Soviet Union in the 1920s, qualified them as “enemies of the people” rather than comrades.
“The Death of a Poet,” first published in Russia in 1995, tells of those horrific years. Soon after her arrival Tsvetaeva learned that her sister was interned in a Soviet prison camp. A few months later her daughter and husband were arrested and accused of spying for Western governments. Kudrova’s impressive excavation of recently released KGB archives provides voluminous details of the imprisonment and relentless interrogation of her husband, daughter and their associates. Bystander reports describe Tsvetaeva as a retreated, ashen and neurotic woman, bereft of family, shunned by her fellow citizens, scuttling between temporary shelters until she hangs herself in a small room in Yelabuga, Tatarstan, near the Ural Mountains.
Kudrova’s preface directly addresses the legitimacy of her theory that the Soviet secret police were largely responsible for driving Tsvetaeva to her end: “The unbiased reader might ask ... how much of the secret police material must we know in order to reconstruct the last days of a great poet’s life? Isn’t the author too absorbed in the history of arrests and interrogations? Is her interest in the secret police investigators warranted? No, the author hasn’t been carried away by a theme currently in vogue. This fashionability, if you like, troubled me at first, and still bothers me. However, on the other side of the scales is duty, as I understand it. Duty to the fate of a poet I love, a person and woman I admire.”
Unfortunately, this dutiful archive-born enumeration of events, peppered with distant witness impressions, reads like a logbook. These terrible last days, as delivered in this book, are quarantined from their deeper and broader context -- namely, the lifetime of isolation and the crucial, internal poetic topography of this insuperably defiant poet. Suicide is neither the inevitable reaction to suffering and persecution nor a poetic imperative but an unfathomably personal act. As Milton wrote in “Paradise Lost”: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
And so Kudrova’s portrait of Tsvetaeva as driven to her end by the efforts of the secret police is hard to reconcile with the poet who described herself in a 1933 letter as “alone all my life, without books, without readers, without friends, without a circle, without a milieu, with no defense, belonging nowhere, worse than a dog.... But on the other hand [I have] everything.” *
Verses for Bohemia
“I refuse -- to be.
In the Bedlam of nonhumans
I refuse -- to live.
With the wolves of city squares
I refuse -- to howl.
With the sharks of the plains
I refuse to go --
Down -- in a stream of spines.
I don’t need earholes
Or prophetic eyes.
There’s just one answer to your
Senseless world -- refusal.”
From “The Death of a Poet” by Irma Kudrova, translated from the Russian by Mary Ann Szporluk