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Translator's Note: "Our sweet companions-sharing your bunk and your bed"

by Sasha Dugdale


This poem was published in a collection called Versts 1917-1920. (A verst is a pre-revolutionary unit of measurement, a little over a kilometer.) The poem itself is dated January 29, 1917. As I translated it I wondered what exactly Marina Tsvetaeva was living through, what she could see out of her window, on the day she wrote this highly romantic poem. It was snowing, or at least snow lay on the ground—the week towards the end of January is considered to be the coldest in a Russia winter—Tsvetaeva was seven months pregnant with her second child and, no doubt, mainly confined to the house. The war was going badly for Russia. Defeats and losses of life, combined with food shortages and unrest in Russia's larger cities, had contributed to a sense of crisis. January 1917 was the last month of czarist rule in Russia. Although Tsvetaeva and her husband welcomed the February revolution a month later, they cannot have foreseen how the two revolutions of 1917 would change their lives. I am haunted by the fate of Tsvetaeva's second child, who starved to death in a children's home on the edge of Moscow two years later; and by Tsvetaeva's own fate: a wandering outcast for years.

In her own childhood Tsvetaeva was obsessed by Pushkin's romantic narrative poem The Gypsies. In Pushkin's poem the male outsider Aleko marries a Gypsy girl Zemphira. When Zemphira takes a Gypsy lover, Aleko kills her and leaves the Gypsies. In Tsvetaeva's short lyric she, the lyric persona, is the outsider, the non-Gypsy bride. She addresses her proud song to her Gypsy companions, who she knows will one day move on without her. But the poem remains within the romantic dream. It ends with a bonfire, songs, stars above the steppes, and does not dwell on what lies outside the frame of the poem: the cold sober morning when she wakes up alone on the steppe.

It struck me that perhaps Tsvetaeva had been reading the Pushkin poem to her young daughter, Asya. Or maybe the frustration of confinement had brought on a yearning for a nomadic life. I found myself, a mother at home with small children, enchanted by and entangled in the supple, sonorous lyricism of Tsvetaeva's waking dream.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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