New Welsh Review

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva

Belinda Cooke (trans)

Filip Noubel admires a translation of a prolific Russian poet for whom exile is home

PUBLISHED ON: 08/11/21


TAGS: Bolshevik, Russia, Soviet, exile, international, modernist, poetry, sensory, translation, women in translation

PUBLISHER: The High Window Press

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Poetry is the place where meaning remains an open question. When engaging with a poem, the reader is offered a rare gift: the freedom to interpret condensed language in any possible way, knowing the invitation can be renewed endlessly and experienced differently every single time. Because reading a poem is a translation, including in a native language. So what sort of treat can a reader expect when presented with a collection of poems by the notoriously anti-conformist Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Belinda Cooke?

First, the reader is offered a path: Tsvetaeva was a prolific writer: over 1,300 of her poems have been identified, yet many more have been lost, and perhaps are yet to be found in letters and notebooks. She started writing poetry at the age of six, in Russian, French and German, and never stopped until her very last days in 1941.

How to choose from this vast continent of words? Cooke focuses on exile, a wise choice, given that it is more than just a theme in Tsvetaeva’s work: it is primarily a defining marker of her life. She spent most of her youth in western Europe, and then seventeen years in exile to follow her husband who had fought against the Bolsheviks. Exile is Tsvetaeva’s only home, a long list of temporary and precarious addresses scattered around Berlin, Prague and Paris.

Second, Cooke reveals patterns that enhance the journey, and structure the book around six major themes. The first section, Take from my hands… this city not built by human hands, contains eight poems, written in 1917 and 1918, a time when Tsvetaeva hasn’t left Moscow yet, but had already abandoned the world of yesterday that shaped her intellectually and aesthetically. Clearly, she did not welcome the Bolshevik Revolution:

But this winged one was cursed,
Singular and alone,
Like the moon – alone,
In the eye of the window.

………………‘I welcomed in the New Year alone’


Distance, versts, miles… names the second section, which presents eight poems or parts of longer pieces, and starts emblematically with ‘To Berlin’. As Cooke explains, ‘Tsvetaeva is less a visual poet than one of sound, touch and movement,’ something best exemplified by ‘Balcony’ in which a balcony is described only through dizzying sensations of rapid movements and blurred colours:

O, from the open drop
To fall below – to become dust and jet-black.


In a typically modernistic fashion, she turns the telegraph into a poetic object that moves and distorts words in ‘Wires’:

 …this telegraphic
pole to pole I send out: I l-o-v-e-y-o-u


The third section, God save us from smoke… introduces five poems, often steeped in irony and black humour, as in ‘In Praise of the Rich’:

They can’t buy me (and don’t buy my books!),
I stress, I love the rich.


The fourth and fifth sections, entitled I will sin as I have sinned with passion… and No Doubt we’ll Meet in Hell my Passionate Sisters… comprise twelve poems that speak to Tsvetaeva’s sensual and erotic vein. As she once said: ‘I am a multitude of poets – but how this happened remains my secret.’ Some of those secrets have been revealed, over time: one of her most famous poems, ‘Poem of the Mountain’, is believed to be inspired by a break-up with her lover Konstantyn Rodziewicz in 1923.

The final section ends, full circle, back in Moscow, albeit in its now Soviet version. Its title says it all: I will follow him like a dog… a possible reference to her husband’s sudden change of heart that made him a staunch supporter of the Soviet ideology and brought him back to the USSR in 1937. A final cycle of six poems, including one dedicated to Mayakovsky, closes the book.

The third gift to the reader is a key, revealed by Cooke in her introduction: ‘The trick with Tsvetaeva’s work, as with much modernist poetry in English, is to tap into the poet’s free associations. By so doing one gains a cohesive perception of the poetic self.’ Vladimir Orlov, a discerning Soviet literary critic, once wrote that Tsvetaeva is a master of корнесловие (korneslovye) – the old word for etymology – as she ‘reaches the root, the deep meaning of words and extracts from it a new series of related sounds.’ In the poem ‘Distances’, Cooke manages to remain faithful to this extraction and elongation process through the hyphen, Tsvetaeva’s poetic trademark:  ‘Рас-стояние: версты, мили? / Нас рас-ставили, рас-садили’ becomes ‘Di-stance, versts, miles… / they put us apart, planted us apart.’

Tsvetaeva did provide a warning in her poem Poets:  ‘The poet – brings speech from far off. / Speech – carries the poet far.’  And Cooke’s translation carries the reader very far indeed.

The USSR is only one of the places where Filip Noubel has lived. As the Managing Editor for Global Voices, he seeks new ways, formats and technologies to tell stories grounded in local knowledge which are also aimed at a global audience. A writer and translator, he has lived and worked in, and written about, Central and Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, the Himalayan region and East Asia. His interests are identity and historical memory, minority groups, arts and culture, language, and less known cross-regional cultural influences. He has a passion for literary translation, and is also Editor at Large for Central Asia at Asymptote Journal.