Volume 73, Number 39 | January 28 - February 03, 2004

Work of Russian poet examined

By Aileen Torres

Paul Muldoon, whose book “Moy Sand and Gravel” won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, recently read the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Poem of the End” at Poets House on Spring Street. The reading was part of a series read by Muldoon.

“I wanted to try to begin to think about the extent to which the facts of a life such as hers [Tsvetaeva’s], which was so grim, was reflected in the lines of her poem,” said Muldoon to explain why he chose this poem.

Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow in 1892. Her father was the founder of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and her mother was a pianist who wanted her daughter to become a musician, too. Tsvetaeva began writing poetry as a child, and, at the age of 17, she published her first volume of poems. At 19, she married a man who was a Soviet sympathizer. He ended up being drafted into the Imperial Army.

According to her husband, Tsvetaeva was an impetuous woman who characteristically experienced “hurricanes” of passion. She was bisexual and had a series of extramarital affairs with men and women, which hurt her husband to the point of humiliation. While living with him in Prague in the early 1920s, she immersed herself in the literary scene and had an affair with her publisher. She also established an epistolary romance with the poet Boris Pasternak.

“Poem of the End” is most likely, as Muldoon surmised, about the end of one of her affairs. As a poet myself, what I find most resonant about the poem, is its quality of transcendence, as opposed to its scandalous biographical background. By transcendence, I mean the way in which the poem goes beyond the particulars of one relationship to say something about the nature of human relationships in general.

The opening lines of “Poem of the End” are: “Closely, like one creature we/start…” But this organic union does not last. In the 15th stanza, Tsvetaeva writes: “What are we doing?-We are separating.” “It is insane, unnatural,” she declares in Stanza 17, referring to the deterioration of a relationship.

And why is separation, the main theme of the poem, “insane” and “unnatural”? Because, according to the poet, humans are not meant to be simply individuals. One of the necessities, or absolutes, even, of life, is interconnectedness. So, the link between two persons is the building block of the plexus of humanity. “No man is an island,” as John Donne put it.

Another characteristic of “Poem of the End” that particularly strikes me is its pervasive melancholic mood. An undercurrent of violence, or the threat of violence, haunts the poem, arising from Tsvetaeva’s emphasis on the word “separation” and its variants.

A separation is a rupture of some sort; therefore, it necessarily causes pain. And even though the pain to which the poet refers in not a physical one, the metaphysical hurt is, nonetheless, still grievous to the soul: “To separate. Is a shock of thunder.” Who among us has not felt something akin to this crucifixion of sorts, vis-à-vis a loved one?

In Plato’s “Symposium,” Aristophanes tells a tale about the origin of love and the reason behind desire. According to the story, all humans were originally physically bound to each other in pairs, but the god Zeus severed each one as punishment for pride.

Because of this violent separation, the halves of each pair were thereafter compelled to search for each other, longing to reunite what was once a harmonious whole.

We, as humans, are capable of creating relationships that have the power to conjure that original (regardless of whether it is apocryphal) state of harmony. The ongoing cycle of these relationships often comprise a personal search for a soul mate, which is characteristically a long journey and typically one of trial and error. The cycle of unification and separation is the metanarrative that runs through this ongoing plight, engendering much of the joy and sadness of living—the end of one cycle being especially sorrowful, with “…A logic that turns/everything over…,” as Tsvetaeva declares. Yet one should never rule out hope of the possibility of the cycle beginning anew.


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