Mary Jane White translating Marina Tsvetaeva

Girlfriend, A Cycle of Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva to Sophia Parnok
GIRLFRIEND, A Cycle of Poems

From a cycle of lyrics
October 16, 1914 to July 14, 1915


How gaily snowflakes shone
In Your grey, my sable fur.
How, Christmas shopping, we
Bought ribbons, brightest ones.

How I gorged on pink
Unsweetened waffles —- six!
How I touched all the red
Horses in Your homage.

How hawkers in rusty coats —- like sails,
Swearing, sold us their cast-offs,
How the foolish old women gazed
Rapt, at us, lovely girls from Moscow.

How, one o’clock, as the crowd dispersed,
We entered the cathedral, tentatively,
How long You stood gazing
At an Ancient Virgin.

How blessed her face was, and drawn,
With its dolorous eyes,
In its iconostasis with the plump
Elizabethan cupids.

How You dropped my hand,
Saying:  “O, I want her!”
With what solicitude You placed
A yellow taper —- among the votives . . .

 --- O, genteel, opal-ringed
Hand!  O, all my undoing! —-
How I promised I would
Steal You the icon that night.

How from the monastery inn
 --- Boom of bells, and sunset, ---
Blissful, as newly-baptized girls,
We burst, like a soldiers’ regiment.

How I swore to You to grow prettier
With age, and spilt salt,
How twice I had —-You were furious! —-
The King of Hearts turn up.

How You squeezed my head,
Fingering every curl,
How the flower of Your lips cooled
To me, like Your enameled brooch.

How over Your slender fingers, I
Brushed my sleepy cheek,
How You excited me as if I were a small boy,
How much You liked me . . .

                  December 1914


Unbending Her neck easily,
Like a young sprout.
Who will say Her names, Her years,
Her country, Her century?

Curve of Her dull lips,
Capricious and weak,
Blinding terrace
Of Her Beethoven brow.

Set off by shining
Light-brown rings,
Her eyes hold sway
Over Her face, as two moons.

Empty of emotion,
Melting oval.
Hand, a flagellant walked under, perhaps;
An opal —- in silver.

Hand, gathering silk,
Worthy of a violin bow,
Unique hand,
Beautiful hand.

                  10 January 1915


How could I fail to remember
The scents of White Rose and tea,
Or the Severes’ figures
Above the blazing fireplace . . .

We:  I —- in my blazing dress
Of barely-gold faille,
You —- in Your black knit man’s-jacket
With its winged collar.

I remember what sort of face
Entered —- not the slightest blush,
How you stood, biting a finger,
Just tilting Your head.

Your power-hungry brow
Under its heavy red helmet.
 --- Not woman, not boy,
But powerful to me!

In an aimless movement
I rose, people surrounded us.
Someone spoke up lightheartedly:
“May I introduce you, gentlemen!”

With a slow movement You
Put your hand in mine,
Tenderly; there in my palm
Your splinter of ice lingered.

Caught in the corner of Your eye,
Already anticipating some squabble,
I reclined in my armchair
Twisting the ring on my finger.

You drew out a cigarette,
I offered You a match,
Without knowing, whether, as I did it,
You would look me in the face.

I remember —- over a blue vase —-
How our wine glasses rang.
“O, be my Orestes!”
And I gave You a flower.

Laughing —- over what phrase of mine? —-
From a black suede purse,
With a slow gesture, You drew out
And dropped —- Your handkerchief.

                  28 January 1915


I insist on the eve of parting,
At the end of love,
I loved these hands —-
Imperious.  Yours.

And these eyes —- that will not
Bestow a glance on just anyone! —-
That demand an accounting
For every stolen glance.

God sees —- all of You and Your
Accursed passion! —-
That demands an apology
For any chance sigh.

Yet I admit I was tired,
 --- Don’t hurry about it! —-
Because Your soul stood
Athwart my soul.

And I admit to You:
 --- All the same! —- that evening —-
Kissing You
My mouth —- grew young.

Glance for glance —- bold, unclouded,
Five-year-old —- at heart . . .
Blessed is he who never crossed You
In this life!

                  28 April 1915


At first You loved
Beauty best,
Curls touched with henna,
Plaintive call of the zurna,
Ringing —- of hooves —- on flint,
A shapely dismount,
In two Turkish slippers
Embroidered with semi-precious . . .

Then You loved -— someone else —-
Sharp arched eyebrow,
Silk carpets —-
Pink Bokharnans,
Rings on every finger,
Birthmark on a cheek,
Lingering sunburn under white silk lace,
London at dusk.

And then —-
Someone, who remains dear . . .

 --- What of me will remain
In Your heart, wanderer?

                  14 July 1915

Translator's Note

These translated poems concern

“an event in Tsvetaeva’s life which was important to her as a person and a poet—her relationship with S. Ia. Parnok. To trace the rocky course of their relationship with its complex psychological atmosphere and reflections of this in their poetry was possible because I was lucky enough to be able to study Tsvetaeva’s archives while they were still to be found in private hands. The reader will find new facts here, and poems and letters by Tsvetaeva published for the first time.” S. V. Poliakova, Zakatnye Ony Dni: Tsvetaeva I Parnok (Ardis Publishers, 1983), my translation from Those Sunset Days: Tsvetaeva and Parnok.

“Few know—including even those scholars who specialize in Tsvetaeva’s life and work—that for more than a year and a half Sophia Parnok and Marina Tsvetaeva were the whole world to each other. Until very recently even the name of the poet Sophia Iyakovleny Parnok (1885-1933) remained little-known: Although her poems establish an honored place for her in Twentieth Century poetry, they never came to light because she was denied the right to publish for many years (inharmonious epoch!” Id (footnotes omitted).

“These monuments to their love remained: the poetic cycle “Girlfriend,” dedicated by Tsvetaeva to Parnok, together with other poems connected to the cycle, and Parnok’s poems dedicated to Tsvetaeva.” Id.

These first came to light in 1983 as a result of Soviet scholar S. V. Poliakova’s digging through both Soviet archives and private papers. Since then, a biography of Sophia Parnok has been published—by Diana L. Burgin, Sophia Parnok: The Life and Work of Russia's Sappho (NYU Press, 1994).

At the time of this relationship with Parnok, Tsvetaeva was married and the mother of a small daughter, Ariadne. Her husband, member of his family, and some of the contemporaries of her literary milieu were scandalized by the open conduct of the affair and the two women’s travels together to, for example, the Svyatogorski Monastery, described in poem 6.

The poems of “Girlfriend” were collected as a cycle by Tsvetaeva in 1920 and originally titled “A Mistake.”

“The original title of the cycle give some evidence of Tsvetaeva’s intention to question, to expose, to doubt the importance of the relationship she planned to address. The simplest way to discover the addressee is to look to” the final lines from the opening poem—Because it is a charming irony, / That You—are not a he.” Id.

According to Poliakova’s archival research, upon Tsvetaeva’s return to the Soviet Union from exile in Paris, Tsvetaeva did look back over this cycle to Parnok and made at least one correction in 1940—changing the title to “Girlfriend”—shortly before her suicide in Elabuga in 1941, where the Soviet government evacuated her, with her 16-year-old son, during World War II.

Mary Jane White

Mary Jane White, MFA Iowa Writers’ Workshop, NEA Fellowships (1979, 1985 in poetry and translation), awarded scholarships to Bread Loaf (1979, 2016) and Squaw Valley Community of Writers (2006). Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988, Holy Cow! Press) contains translations of Tsvetaeva first published in The American Poetry Review and Willow Springs. Recent Tsvetaeva translations include: New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke, (Adastra Press, Massachusetts); Poem of the Hill ( Summer 2007 The New England Review); Poem of the End (Winter 2008 The Hudson Review), reprinted in From a Terrace in Prague, (Prague 2011) and Poets Translate Poets, (Syracuse 2013).

Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941) Russian poet, born in Moscow in 1892, began to publish in her teens, to multiple good reviews. She was a working contemporary of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke, all of whom were important to her as rival, lover, correspondent, and mentor, respectively. Tsvetaeva was admired by Joseph Brodsky in 1978: “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman.)”

Sophia Iyakovleny Parnok

Note: This is Parnok, the woman addressed in the poems. The translator requested that we include a photo of her as well.