1922. Muzot. Rilke, after a complex, Europe-wide search, many years in the making, is deeded, in perpetuity, the charming and beautifully isolated stone tower of Muzot. (Rhymes with coulotte.) He promptly mended all the holes in the walls (well, o.k., he hired local masons to do it for him), redecorated a little (adding books and an upright desk), replanted the garden (and, yes, it's true, the prick of a rose thorn is what finally killed him, after he had so successfully manipulated the pins and pricks of love's arrows...) And then, on the second day of February, he heedlessly embarked upon what is undoubtedly the greatest month of composition any poet has ever known. The unfinished parts of the war-abandoned "Duino Elegies" (named after a demolished castle, of course) came pouring out, he wrote fantastic new ones, and as a bonus to his subscriber, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, pulled the 57 timeless "Sonnets to Orpheus" out of the rarefied air, often completing two or three a day. (O.K., you try it!)
1923. Exiled poet Marina Tsvetayeva was in the wide-open city of Berlin. A White Russian's worst nightmare. Nabokov cocktail. Rilkeville. In Berlin Tsvetayeva mourned the death of Alexsandr Blok, her Russian "Orpheus," and tried to come to terms with both exile and the demise of everything she believed in that was also Russian. She developed a passion for Rilke - willed herself to believe that he had succeeded Blok as the most recent incarnation of Orpheus. And in that confusing, tempestuous mileau of exiles and spies, literary and artistic movements and alliances, some of which lasted less than a day, but where each and every -ism did at least have its one day, she also connected with her literary brother, Boris Pasternak, whose parents had moved to Berlin to escape the aftershocks of the Bolshevik Revolution. Tsvetayeva's favorite book: "The Iliad." Her favorite country: ancient Greece. She named her daughter Ariadna. When she was still and even more madly in love with Rilke in 1926, by which time she had emigrated to Paris, and thought she could have anything in the world from him that she desired, she asked Rilke for a Greek mythology, in German, "without philosophy," she said, like the one she had as a child. She needed it to finish her dramatic trilogy: "Theseas, Ariadne and Helen."
In Berlin, in 1923, Tsvetayeva opened her notebook and addressed the part of the Orpheus myth that was missing -- Eurydice's soliloquy -- which was addressed not just to Orpheus, but to the audience in front of which their final moments together were to be played out. "For them," she dedicated her poem, who have nothing left to wear "but the wisps of a shroud..." Without hope or desire, Eurydice says that such a meeting like hers with Orpheus would be "like a knife." In the house of the dead, she reasons, it is Orpheus who is the ghost, because he is still alive, because he hasn't sacrificed his life to join her, but has instead risen above his station to go down to Hades in search of her. Like Eve, Eurydice blames the snake: "the viper's fangs / Mark the end of a woman's desire." And she is resolute that because she has nothing left of her former loveliness to offer him - "...no hands, nor lips that I would press/ Against your lips..." she won't follow him out of hell, at least more than once. "Orpheus should not descend to Eurydice," the poem ends, "And brothers should not disturb their sisters."
Spring, 1926. Tsvetayeva received an amazing letter from Pasternak. In eighteen paragraphs he revealed what Rilke once referred to as the rich yield of his inner self, and suggested that in a year he would leave Russian and his family to join her. "I wished to go outside," he wrote of an impulse in Moscow to talk with her in Paris, "to see what one poet's thinking of another poet had done to the air and the sky. I saw our shackles, I saw you and me made for each other, and I saw the starvation ration we must hold to for a year if you can survive on it and promise me that I can, too." (Strangely enough, Rilke believed to the end of his life that his motherland was the Russia of Pasternak and Tsvetayeva. She noted, "'There is a land which is God, Russian borders with it,' said Rilke, who himself yearned for Russia all his life, everywhere outside Russia.") Pasternak also described seeing Marina in a dream, "enveloped in a mist of high determination, appearing not suddenly but on wings... What were you? A fleeting vision of all that in the prism of momentary emotion transforms a woman into something incommensurable with human dimensions..." Poor Marina was out of the prism. At best she was looking forward to a quiet summer at the beach with her two children. What was she supposed to say to a man who told her: "I am not exposed to frequencies that threaten to distort life... There are 'thousands' of women whom I would 'have' to love if I let myself go... Answer me as you have never answered anyone before, as you would answer your own self. 'Shall I join you now or within a year?'"
Tsvetayeva was very successful as turning her life into poetry. But this was beyond even her ability to assimilate. "I restrained him..." she wrote to a friend. "I feared 'total' disaster." She instinctively understood that his vision of her was a key that he hoped would unlock the door to his Muse. He told her so. "I have an aim in life and that aim is you. But you are becoming less my aim than a part of my labor, of my misfortune, of my present uselessness..." By the fifth of May, Pasternak has her letter, described by his translators (but not published) as "somewhat reserved." So, he pretended: "Your reply will come any day now... Whenever I murmur your name, Marina, little shivers run up and down my spine from the cold and the pain of it..." Then he confessed: "I identify even my grief (the grief of having been rejected) with you -- that is, with the poignant oneness that can never be shattered." This was a difficult man to say no to! Tsvetayeva thought that he had gone mad. "A few days ago," he told her, "I expressed it this way to a certain person: I receive letters from a person I love to distraction. But this person is so immense, and the letters testify to this so vastly, that sometimes it almost causes me physical pain to hide them from others. Such pain is called happiness."
- Greg Simon