Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva – A Reading by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine


In Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine take a new approach to Marina Tsvetaeva’s work by interspersing poems with fragments of prose from her “daybooks,” prose books described by one critic as a “lyric diary.” The book is formatted as an assortment of tasty Tsvetaeva tidbits: poems juxtaposed with prose excerpts, and Kaminsky’s afterword, a fragmented collection of mini-essays that explore Tsvetaeva’s life in the context of revolutionary Russia.

In the afterword, Kaminsky explains that this book is more of an homage than a translation. He writes, “If translation—as most translators are eager to claim—is ‘a closest possible reading,’ then this is not translation; it is a notation, a midrash. These pages are fragments, notes in the margin.” He addresses the complexity of literary translation. Translating poems from one language into another is more complex than stopping at the “closest possible reading,” transformation might be more accurate. By interpreting Tsvetaeva more loosely, Kaminsky and Valentine push the borders of translation by infusing their own nuances.


Tsvetaeva wrote many poems about her contemporaries. In “Poem for Blok,” the imagery is harsh, and Kaminsky and Valentine honor her guttural language. “Your name at my temple / —sharp click of a cocked gun.” The alliteration of “click” and “cocked” respond to the sound of Blok’s name: this line offers a fitting metaphor for Tsvetaeva’s work, both poetry and prose.


The prose fragments complement the poetry by highlighting Tsvetaeva’s lyrical language. In Writing Books and Notebooks, September 1940, Tsvetaeva comments on her own writing shortly before her suicide:


My difficulty (in writing poems—and perhaps other people’s difficulty in understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan: nnh, nnh, nnh. To express a sound using words, using meaning. So that the only thing left in the ears would be nhh, nnh, nnh.


The difficulty in understanding Tsvetaeva’s poetry comes from its complexity. As we discover in the afterword, she took lyric poetry to a new level, and was accused by one critic as being “too much.” Tsvetaeva countered, “A lyric poem is a created and instantly destroyed world. How many poems are in the book—that many explosions, fires, eruptions: EMPTY spaces. The lyric poem—is a catastrophe. It barely began—and already ended.” Tsvetaeva’s writings about poetry are as insightful, controversial, and exciting as her poems.


The translators have taken care to attend to Tsvetaeva’s obsession with sound. In a love poem to Osip Mandelstam with whom she had a brief affair when they were young, Tsvetaeva writes, “These aren’t the first curls / I’ve wound around my finger.” The speaker is questioning new emotions brought on by this person who is not her first lover. The consonance of “first” and “curls,” followed by the assonance and internal rhyme of “wound around” may be tribute to Tsvetaeva’s sound. The final stanza shows an overwhelmed speaker unsure how to handle the feelings she has for her lover:


Where does this tenderness come from?

And what will I do with it? Young

stranger, poet, in this city of strangers:

you and your eyelashes—longer than anyone’s.


“Where does this tenderness come from?” acts as a refrain repeated in each stanza. A litany of wonder about tenderness overwhelms the speaker, but may also be the tenderness her lover shows her. The final line uses synecdoche where eyelashes represent her lover.


Tsvetaeva wrote poems to poets that she did not personally know, but whom she admired. One example is “New Year’s Letter,” an epistolary poem addressed to Rainer Maria Rilke upon her learning of his death.


… What is death,

Rainer? Bone-learned language: assonances, sentences.

Will we meet?—Our words will meet,

in the ocean water, Rainer, when the earth calls the bells

on my day and there is no desk

for the elbows, for my palm, no forehead.

Go to the ladder—bring poems—

so I won’t drop them, I hold up my cupped palm


As we learn in an excerpt from a “daybook,” Tsvetaeva only needed a desk to write. In the lines “…there is no desk / for the elbows,” she wants to know how they will continue to write after death without a desk or physical form. She inverts syntax in the line “so I won’t drop them, I hold up my cupped palm.” The speaker wishes to receive poems from Rilke, but “cupped hands” implies liquid and could be referring back to the “ocean water” from earlier in the stanza. Either way, the speaker clearly treasures Rilke’s poems and wants to receive them carefully like a communion wafer.


Throughout the book, the prose fragments often complement the poems that they have been positioned near. As a translator, Tsvetaeva translated many poets into many languages; one of whom was Rilke. She writes:


But today I want Rilke to speak—through me. In the vernacular, this is known as translation. (Germans put it so much better—nachdichten—to pave over the road, over instantaneously vanishing traces.) But translation has another meaning. To translate not just into (i.e., into the Russian language), but across (a river). I translate Rilke into Russian, as he will someday translate me to the other world.


By hand—across the river.



Here Tsvetaeva uses a German term to describe the process of translation; it covers the original “road” or words with new ones, making it a new entity within the frame of the original. The last line, “By hand—across the river,” speaks to the poem, “New Year’s Letter,” which ends with “deliver this to Rainer—Maria—Rilke’s hand.” The poem works as a prayer for Rilke to help her cross to the afterlife, just as she, as translator, is handing him across languages: and in turn, how Kaminsky and Valentine are handing Tsvetaeva to readers of English.


The book’s fragmentary nature and nonadherence to traditional formatting raises it to a master class in poetics: the use of assonance, consonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and repetition within the poetry, Tsvetaeva’s fragments on writing, and the essay by Kaminsky (which discusses translation, Tsvetaeva’s life, and Russian history) bring layer after layer of meaning, context, and skill to life. Instead of striving to duplicate Tsvetaeva’s music, Kaminsky and Valentine find their own rhythm and musicality. Tsvetaeva would approve of this re-vision of her work. She wrote, “I tried to translate, but decided—why should I get in my own way? …The result was I rewrote it.” Dark Elderberry Branch is a glimpse through a window at an intensely lyrical poet and complex time in poetic Russian history.


More Marina Tsvetaeva:

Buy Dark Elderberry Branch from Alice James Books.

Read about Tsvetaeva at the Poetry Foundation.


More Ilya Kaminsky:

Hear Kaminsky read his work.

Find Kaminsky and his poems at the Poetry Foundation.


More Jean Valentine:

Visit Valentine’s site.

Check out Valentine’s Wikipedia page.

Read about Valentine at the Poetry Foundation.

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