Elaine Feinstein’s Tsvetaeva and Pushkin

This was a review that appeared in Poetry London  in Summer 2000. Writing it rekindled my interest in Russian.

MARINA TSVETAEVA, TR. ELAINE FEINSTEIN  Selected Poems  Carcanet (Oxford Poets), £7.95
ALEXANDER PUSHKIN After Pushkin: versions by contemporary poets, ed. Elaine Feinstein  Carcanet and the Folio Society, £7.95

ELAINE FEINSTEIN’S TRANSLATION of Tsvetaeva has been a long-term project. Since 1971 editions of her book have made an odyssey through several publishers (Oxford, Hutchinson, Oxford again, and now Carcanet), during which Feinstein has scrupulously deferred to a whole crew of expert collaborators for linguistic nuances. By now her own Russian must be at a standard well beyond my A Level, but con­sulting greater Russian experts means she can concentrate on the “transformation” into an English poem.

She’s serious enough that she won’t translate everything for the sake of completeness: “When the transformation altogeth­er refused to happen, regretfully the poem had to be left out of the selection” – for instance, omitting part 11 of the 14-part “Poem of the End”. This Carcanet edition is not greatly extended, with only two early poems not in the 1993 Oxford. In the notes at the back, the references didn’t get revised from the last edition, so they are all a couple of page numbers out: a small defect in a remarkable achievement.

The book is chronological, and the opening poems are full of phrases and observations that read now like epigraphs to Tsvetaeva’s life:

Written so long ago, I didn’t even
know I was a poet,
my lines fell like spray from a fountain
or flashes from a rocket  (“Verse”)

This is now the first poem, written when she was all of 21, about the book she had self-published, already fired with the vocation that made her unemployable as anything other than a poet. The previous edition’s first poem has been one of my favourite Poems on the Underground:

I know the truth – give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?  (“I Know the Truth”)

It is only 1915, but this poem’s longing for peace is like an overture to her troubles – soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we / who never let each other sleep above it”. The disruptions of the revolution, civil war and famine, her exile among mistrustful émigrés, her turbulent relationships while maintaining obstinate loyalty to her husband, following him back to Russia in 1939 – from these impossible situations she created poems unrelentingly examining her own pain, especially “Poem of the Mountain” and “Poem of the End”, in an egotistical sublime beyond confessional poetry. The sense of energy in these early poems is converted into something else by suffering, her poetic drive becoming more a drivenness until passion seems spent:

Happiness? Far away.    North of here.
Somewhere else. Some other time.
Happiness? Even the scent is cold.
I looked for it once, on all fours.  (“Bus”)

Tsvetaeva’s verse is in rhyming forms but with a character­istic jerkiness, broken up with dashes and full of exclamation marks. Feinstein states that she aims to put Tsvetaeva’s voice into an English that keeps “some sense of her shapeliness, as well as her roughness”: keeping the stanza patterns in particular, trying to maintain her abruptness within the pattern. Attempts to keep to the rhyme and metre can be a major constraint in English, as shown by the David McDuff translations (Bloodaxe, 1987), which rhyme, sometimes effectively, but sometimes at almost any cost. Feinstein uses rhyme sparingly, and this sacrifice is Feinstein’s decision as a poet who has spent thirty years getting to know Tsvetaeva.

She uses spacing to translate some of the dashes, which suggests some of the technical devices used by poets like Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich for arranging experience into the space of a page. This may be risky, the way rhyme risks pastiche of some “equivalent” poet in English like Emily Dickinson (another poet of dashes) or Stevie Smith (another idiosyncratic rhymer). These parallels might satisfy the insatiable need to place the foreign poet within our familiar poetic landscape – is she Dickinson unleashed? Smith but steamier? Plath without the cool? But she was none of these people, and Russian literature has developed differently from English. Translated poems inevitably shift towards anglophone assumptions, but Tsvetaeva should stand in her own independent space, which Feinstein’s clarity makes more possible. Some translation theorists would complain that this is making it too “transparent” but there is enough resistant opacity in Tsvetaeva without making the English wilfully unreadable.

My personal priority is for translation to bring us a poem. It may not be the same poem, but it has to have that integrity, within which the level of accuracy may have to be negotiated, on terms clear to the reader. Communicating the poet’s sensi­bility, the technical achievement in the original language, the cultural and political overtones: these can only be satisfied when the poem has been brought alive in the new language. A dead poem won’t bring the poet to life.

The transparency of Pushkin is itself a miracle in Russian, and not only purists start from the belief that it is impossible to repeat in English. He dovetails Russian sound and syntax into poems with a musical seamlessness suggesting Mozart or Schubert, and untroubled by the complex texture and imagery of, say, Keats. This musicality suggests that rhyme and metre should be priorities for the English version, or you’re singing Schubert without the tunes; but this can be a trap, as with Tsvetaeva. Pushkin is untranslatable, which is precisely why we want to see him translated: those without Russian to know what the fuss is about, the diehard purists to see the project fail again. It always will fail, but poetry needs impossible projects, to improve the skill of the practitioners.

Issue 15 of Modern Poetry in Translation (1999)contains a Pushkin feature, including an article and translations by Antony Wood, who figures largely in Feinstein’s acknowl­edgements. “What is at issue,” says Wood, “is the difference between ‘correct’ but artificial, dead language in a translation and freely and naturally used language that engages with, tries to express from inside, makes its own, the original expression – in other words, poetry.” MPT 15 also contains a revealing exercise in translation with thirty one versions of the same poem, “Mirskaya Vlast” (“Earthly Powers”), by poets includ­ing Feinstein. They are hard to read all at once, but some of them are excellent, and deserve to be in the less provisional project After Pushkin, a book of translations and versions which Feinstein has edited.

Pushkin’s bicentenary has prodded the West to take notice of him, and After Pushkin introduces current English poetry to Pushkin, as Hofmann and Lasdun did in 1994 with Ovid. After Ovid had the advantage that the poets could concentrate on the stories, which have the process of metamorphosis in com­mon. Story is abundant in Pushkin, with much to borrow and retell (there has been plenty in opera for a long time), but with­out that unifying gimmick.

Ovid feels like a rediscovery to the post-classicising gener­ations, with a freedom to reimagine him; Pushkin is closer to us in time, and despite the language gulf he feels part of a familiar romantic literature, especially the lyrics. This makes it tougher to take liberties.

A minor aristocrat descended from an African slave, his per­sonality is paradoxical. Within the perfectly textured verse, Pushkin’s complexity is in the range of subject and tone, con­necting folk tale and high culture, North and South, love’s loy­alties and betrayals, Russian patriotism and opposition to the Tsar in dangerous politics (close to the Decembrist rebellion, Pushkin could have been executed). We might see him as “Byronic”, but Byron’s range is smaller, and Pushkin admired him only up to a point; in the parallels game there are also affinities with Burns, even Blake – who was a prophet in a more literal sense than Pushkin himself envisaged for thepoet. But here is Pushkin’s “The Prophet”, like so much of Blake modelled on Isaiah: meeting a six-winged seraph at a crossroads:

He touched my ears
And a thunderous clangour filled them,
The shudderings of heaven,
The huge wingbeat of angels,
The submarine migration of sea-reptiles
And the burgeoning of the earth’s vine.

This is Ted Hughes, of course, demonstrating how deep the Biblical stream runs in both English and Russian.

The poets contributing to this book are naturally interpret­ing themselves through Pushkin, as much as the other way round, and Pushkin has always become a mirror for the indi­vidual (as in Tsvetaeva’s essay “My Pushkin” which of course is about herself). What Feinstein aptly calls Carol Ann Duffy’s “flippant assurance” is a good example, revisiting her Mean Time territory with “I loved you once”, or in “Echo” sneaking in a self-referential “well-thumbed pearls”. Heaney’s “Arion” is like a found Heaney poem. Christopher Reid shows his lyric strength in a number of short pieces. In one free version, Dannie Abse has added a whole second stanza to “To A.A. Davydova”: Feinstein places opposite her own more faithful version, and neither suffers by comparison. Some more cases like this would have been a bonus. Edwin Morgan’s “Goofy and Daffy” gives a cartoonish slant to “The Tale of the Priest and his Handyman”, just right for impossi­ble tasks like blowing the sea into knots. Sometimes there is even a miracle of rhyming technique that answers Pushkin’s, as with Ranjit Bolt’s version of the outrageously rude and funny “Tsar Nikitin and his Daughters”.

I find John Fuller’s “The Gypsies” rather pedestrian, but Jo Shapcott takes the section from this on the (unnamed but obvious) exiled poet by the Danube, and in “After Ovid” brings us clearly Pushkin’s sense of exile as central to his being a poet. The double associations of the South (Ovid’s North) as the land of his exile by the Tsar, and yet as the land of warmth and romantic freedom, crystallise in the bittersweet masochism of “The Talisman”, tackled by Allen Curnow. He doesn’t give much of what I feel the poem implies, that the enchantress’s talisman is to protect the poet from future hurt by hurting him now, but Curnow’s free verse paradoxically hits the incantatory quality of this tightly rhymed lyric. The lesson seems to be that the music is best represented by allow­ing the translating poet’s own music to operate: what carries Pushkin across best is a matching confidence and skill. I think this obliquely confirms another point made by Anthony Wood: “Through whatever metrical differences, a translation can, I think, convey elements of the original text if the trans­lator is determined in pursuing those chosen elements.”

The book suffers from a feeling of hurry to get it out for the bicentenary – and Feinstein was also working on her Pushkin biography for the same deadline. The book is much smaller than After Ovid, and covers Pushkin’s range in a rather gappy way. Eugene Onegin is only represented here in Ruth Padel’s “Writing to Onegin”, Tatiana’s letter scene as a Padelian aria in full flight. I’m not complaining, but I’d like some other aspects, other versions. The scope of this selection becomes a problem in what is practically the centrepiece, “The Bronze Horseman”, represented by the Introduction and Part Two. The Introduction may be allowed to stand alone, and had to in Pushkin’s lifetime because it was all the Tsar’s censor approved, reading it as a triumphalist hymn to Peter the Great, his city, and his bronze statue commissioned by Catherine:

Display your beauty, city, stand
steadfast like our native land,
and may the conquered element
accept a mutual content:
let the Finnish waves put by
their ancient bonds, their enmity,
nor vainly, rancorously break
Peter’s everlasting sleep.

But like the poet, the “conquered element” doesn’t always accept the situation, and the swamp reasserts itself in the rest of the poem. The individual who suffers is not a tsar but an insignificant clerk, Yevgeny. Here, Charles Tomlinson’s deco­rous in-period introduction is followed immediately by the aftermath of the flood, in a dazzling modern-dress version by Carol Rumens:

The raid was done. Neva recoiled.
She’d rampaged like a gang of hoods
Revved the getaway car, and left
A trail of trashed, pathetic goods

– which lands Yevgeny convincingly in a modern Petersburg cardboard city; though I can’t see why it ends before Yevge­ny’s death in the final stanza. Meanwhile, we are missing Part One, which shows us Yevgeny’s precarious hopes of con­tentment with Parasha, lost in the flood. I don’t think it’s unnecessarily purist to say that this isn’t enough. Feinstein’s introduction isn’t very clear about the shape of the poem for newcomers, but her statement “‘The Bronze Horseman is a poem I particularly wanted to be in the book” suggests that without a 1999 deadline and perhaps with some more poets under commission we’d have the whole thing, and in both costume and present-day versions for good measure. Fein­stein’s achievement with Tsvetaeva over a long period (no doubt continuing) should be parallelled with an ongoing Pushkin. We need this project to be contributing to new Eng­lish poetry the way Ovid has.

The dutiful captain of her ship, Feinstein undertakes the most dangerous final mission herself. “Exegi Monumen­tum” is a poem of literally monumental arrogance which Pushkin, late in his life, had certainly earned for himself in becoming the cultural conscience of Russia, against the Tsar’s restrictions and belittlement. Translating this poem (itself derived from Horace) is like trying on the giant’s seven-league boots:

I’ve set up for myself a monument, though not in stone.
No hands have made it, and no weeds will grow
Along the path to where the stubborn
Head soars above Alexander’s column.

This can be very tricky territory for the ego unless, like Elaine Feinstein, the translator is a poet who has the achievements to show for hard work, talent and humility. It’s Pushkin who can say confidently “I’ll be known as long as any poet / Remains alive under the moon”, but Elaine Feinstein is a poet who can help ensure that remains true.

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