From the desk: reviews, commentary, etc.
Reviews by Greg Simon


Three Summers: 1926 - 1939 - 1941
 
Letters Summer 1926
Correspondence Between Pasternak Tsvetayeva Rilke
Translated by Margaret Wettlin & Walter Arndt
Oxford University Press  1988
 
The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva
By Irma Kudova
Translated by Mary Ann Szporluk
Overlook Duckworth  2004
 
     In the summer of 1926, no other poet in the world had more reason to live from minute to minute than Marina Tsvetaeva.  She was in the middle of a triangle of love and literature with Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke.  Letters Summer 1926 is the best of books and the worst.  Every page is alive with the passion MT felt for the other two poets and for poetry.  We can observe all the tortuous details of Pasternak's indecision about leaving Russia and his young family to follow MT into exile, as well as marvel at Rilke's unsurpassed sensitivity and genius for literary life.  The crime an indifferent world perpetrated upon them at the time was to prevent them from ever meeting together in person.  Pasternak never left his family, and Rilke died alone in Switzerland while MT was left to try to make sense of her losses and a tenuous living for her family in the strangeness of Prague.
     In the summer of 1939, no other poet had less reason to live than Marina Tsvetaeva.  Her sister, nephew, oldest daughter and husband had been or were about to be arrested by the NKVD at a time when everyone knew that interrogation at the Lubyanka meant torture and almost always resulted in one-way trips to Kazakhstan or the firing squad.  She'd left Paris with her son for the relative "safety" of Moscow just as Russia was about to be invaded by the armies of Adolf Hitler.
     In the summer of 1941, Marina Tsvetaeva's new Soviet masters, who had consolidated their control over her country while she lived in exile in Europe, had banished her from Moscow to the tiny village of Yelabuga, on the River Kama, near Kazan, ostensibly for her own well being.  In some other, less fatalistic context, MT might have been glad to have travelled to Tatarstan.  It was a place that might have inspired a memorable sequence of poems from the impressionable Russian poet.  The capital city of Kazan, after all, is over a thousand years old.  It's probably true there weren't any nightclubs in Kazan like the ones she could have visited for poetry recitations in Moscow, but it isn't fair to say there wasn't any culture.  A thousand years of existence is nothing to shake a stick at, and many aspects of Russian history are saturated with the influence of Tatar society.
     The real problem was that everyone else she knew in the community of Russian literary evacuees had been sent to Chistopol, a town larger than Yelabuga, although not noticeably less rural.  And of all the Russian poets whose lives have been documented in this century, MT depended on the people who were alive around her for inspiration.  She went through young and adoring male poets the way Akhmatova went through headscarves.  (Of course the regal AA, whose pen name had been taken from one of her Tatar relatives, was no stranger to male attention either, and no neophyte at making that attention work in positive ways for her writing.)  Existence without the psychic support of her fellow writers was perhaps unthinkable following on the heels of her forced separation from sister, daughter, and husband.  "My loneliness..." she wrote in her last notebook.  And right after that entry, this one: "The overtone -- the undertone of everything -- is terror."
     Irma Kudova writes, "When her husband and daughter were arrested... she probably thought that her own freedom was based on some mistake or strange oversight."  MT believed her every move was being watched and recorded, and that eventually she also would have a date with the implacable interrogators behind the thick Kremlin walls.  A young acquaintance of this time commented that she recited her own poems in public as if she were on a scaffold.  And in her notebook she noted that "No one sees, no one knows, that for a year already (almost) I have been looking around for a hook..."
     As Kudova points out in her penetrating commentary, in order to survive at this rueful point in time, MT had to somehow join a community of survivors.  She must have thought that community existed in Chistopol, not Yelabuga, and at the time of her suicide had talked herself into a transfer of locality which she nonetheless did not take advantage of.  For once her impeccable radar for support had failed her.
     "One day, at the end of the summer of 1941, [Alexander Ivanovich Sizov] met a woman in the institute courtyard who looked totally exhausted.  She asked him if he was a local person and when he said yes, she asked for help in finding a room for herself and her son."  Sizov was a reader of literature, and apparently not an agent of the NKVD, although he was in the military with every other able-bodied young man in Russia, and he did find another room for her.  But MT was rejected by the landlady.  "Your woman doesn't have a ration card or wood.  And she's a White Guardist too."
     Tsvetaeva, Kudova writes, "was such a marked person."  Not only was she unlikely to find a community of fellow exiles to embrace her, she was immediately perceived as an outsider, sure to bring trouble from the ever-present Soviet authorities whose vigilance was extended into every aspect of an emigre's life, and unable to bring precious resources of food, fuel, or money to the communal table.
     And of course, ever since the fateful Revolution, there was the matter of trust.  "...the sincere young poet Yaropolk Semyonov," Kudova writes, "had appeared on her horizon a bit too suddenly and accidentally."
     "Why is he so nice to me," Tsvetaeva asked. "Could he be from the NKVD?"
     MT constantly met new people, both women and men, who strove to help her and her son, and she was usually moving under the beneficent cloak of Pasternak while in Russia.  But in Tatarstan she was far from the reach of any sympathetic influence.  She was homeless and powerless, or worse, at the mercy of her husband's tormentors.  And although her immediate needs were being taken care of -- even though she did have four walls around her, food, water, and safety from the German blitzkrieg that was to take the lives of so many of her fellow citizens, including her son -- she made only one entry in her journal in the last year of her life.
     MT could no longer write.
     A poet's death in the late summer of 1941.


The Incognito Body
by Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press  2006
 
     Porter Moresby, a main protagonist of Paul Bowles's legendary novel, The Sheltering Sky, seems to suffer from the most perverse case of writer's block I've ever read about.  He doesn't open a single book in the course of the novel, reads only train and bus schedules, and does all his serious thinking far removed from the nearest supply of ink and paper.  Port even takes devilish pleasure in denying his so-called writer's craft to his widowed mother, and his relationship with his wife Kit seems to depend upon a mutual interest in exotic things, far off the beaten path, but exclusive of the thick French novels she can often be found reading.  (Dumas, Proust, Colette?  Hmm.  I fear not.)  Port, we come to understand rather quickly, is occasionally attentive but spiritually dead to his wife (as well as to many places in his world) long before typhoid fever kills him in a grim, one-windowed hospital of the Foreign Legionnaires.
 
The Sheltering Sky (1949) reads like an artful clone of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), featuring camels instead of bulls, except Hem didn't have the decency to let Jacob Barnes die.  In fact he made his Port-figure narrate the book, a calculated act of internal and eternal se