When Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog mentioned he’d like to host an Archipelago Books reading fortnight from 9th-23rd May, I was reminded that I do have one of the publisher’s books on the TBR, and thought now would be a good time to pull it off the stacks. I think the reading fortnight is not going ahead, but nevertheless I thought I would share my thoughts about the book anyway. It’s a collection of verse by one of my favourite Russian poets, Marina Tsvetaeva, and it’s called “Moscow in the Plague Year”, translated by Christopher Whyte.

Tsvetaeva is a long-time favourite, and I although most of my reading of her poetry was pre-blog, I found “Letters: Summer 1926” which collected together letters between her, Pasternak and Rilke particularly moving. “Plague…” is a very special volume, however, representing as it does the first English translation of verses she wrote during the years of the Russian Revolution subsequent famine. Tsvetaeva was stranded in the city for most of that period with her two young daughters, as her husband was away fighting against the Reds, and she endured unimaginable privations and tragedies. Despite that, verse continued to pour from her pen and the collection of those writings makes stirring, often emotional, reading.

The poems are sometimes fragments, sometimes longer sequences, but all uniquely Tsvetaeva. Despite the horrors of daily living, which seep into the poems, she can write about love, attraction, the heartache of loss, her children, rings, dancing and the past. It’s worth remembering that Tsvetaeva was born into a rich, upper class family – as the afterword stages, she and her sister could have been ladies-in-waiting at court – so to go from that kind of background to scraping out an existence and trying not to starve in a freezing cold attic is a shock to the system. Despite that, and the tragic loss of one of her children, she survived and went on to continue living and working until 1941.

Dying, I’ll regret the gypsy songs.
Dying, I’ll regret my […] rings,
cigarette smoke, sleeplessness, a flock
of weightless verses underneath my hand.

“Moscow…” makes wonderful reading, although I have a couple of caveats; I would for a start have appreciated some notation. Despite my knowledge of Tsvetaeva and the period, for some of the poems I felt I needed a little more context. Although a note at the end indicates that the poems were pulled from a number of sources to produce this volume of works from the period in question, I would have liked a little more bibliographical information, particularly on which verses had been previously published, which were the ones left in manuscript at her death and so on. I sensed a little uneveness in the collection and I did wonder if this was the mix of published and unfinished works.

These are minor issues, though, as the main thing is to have more of Tsvetaeva’s work available in English. Deeply personal, often lyrical and fanciful, and full of wonderful imagery, the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are stunning and memorable. I’m so glad that I was nudged into reading this book right now, and I’m reminded that I have an unread Virago collection of her prose lurking somewhere in the stacks – must see if I can pull it out soon… 😉