Marina Tsvetaeva - one of the truly extraordinary Russian poets of the post-revolutionary period, alongside Pasternak, Akhmatova and Mandelstam - was faithful, after her fashion, only to poetry itself: her poetry wanders with gypsy freedom across boundaries and dogmas, whether economic, political or aesthetic. As she said, in Elaine Feinstein's beautiful rendering of one of her early poems:
no one turning over our letters has
yet understood how completely and
how deeply faithless we are, which is
to say: how true we are to ourselves.
In her writing, Tsvetaeva always seems intent on essence, on the essential: nothing more, nothing less. "By nature I can't abide surpluses. I'll either eat something or give it away," she writes in Earthly Signs, the collection of essays, aphorisms and diary entries newly translated by Jamey Gambrell. And elsewhere, "In prose, too much seems superfluous to me, in poetry . . . everything is necessary." In her obituary essay on the actor Alexei Stakhovich, she notes how his elegists all missed the "phenomenon" that was the man, instead reducing him to their own particular concerns: "Yuzhin - as a public figure accustomed to burying the same kind of people - for some incomprehensible reason recalls the sins of the nobility and places his emphasis on 'the social usefulness of the Stakhoviches' (a lie! They are completely useless . . .)"
"Uselessness", in the artist, is a significant virtue, as Tsvetaeva at times brilliantly establishes in a vengeful obituary essay on Valery Bryusov, a highly regarded symbolist poet who became a powerful literary bureaucrat. She argues that his fail- ure as a poet is inseparable from his easy assimilation into "the new soulless communist soul"; that his fame-hungry, audience-pleasing poetry of limit and measure was his undoing as a true poet: "a poet of entries without exits . . . he gives exactly what he promises and no more, and you leave his book as you would a profitable deal". Her final epitaph for him is a USSR accolade of the time - "Hero of Labour" - and is precisely damning.
Earthly Signs comprises pieces written by Tsvetaeva in Moscow between 1917 and 1922 (plus the Bryusov essay, written abroad in 1925). It was a wretched time for a poet so resolutely opposed to systems, labour, utility; the revolution had left Moscow in a chaos of famine, fuel shortages, violence, rapacity, appropriation and disease. Tsvetaeva's husband, Sergei Efron, was missing - for five years she did not know if he had survived the civil war - and she was ineptly raising her two daughters, Alya (a precocious five-year-old) and Irina (who died of starvation in a children's home). The family lived in the top two rooms of their house, the rest of the building having been requisitioned. Tsvetaeva sold many possessions, relied on charity, failed to barter, got robbed, cadged, stole; even burned her banisters for fuel.
The material hardship is stoically conveyed; but her failure to hold down the jobs that were found for her by communist friends is hard to take (as is the persistent egotism evident in some passages), unless one can sympathise with the temperamental failure of some artists to adapt to brutal exigencies. Tsvetaeva worked in a different economy to Soviet Russia (and, indeed, western capitalism) - no surplus, relentless generosity and receipt without obligation - just as she did in her love affairs. These were both physical and epistolary, with both women and men (including Mandelstam and Pasternak); affairs which her long- suffering husband described, wearily, in terms of a stove demanding new wood as each obsession burned out. Earthly Signs contains essays on "Love" and "Gener-osity" - aphoristic, proud, paradoxical. Through times of scarcity, the inner fires burned on: the attic walls testified to "the gaiety, the keenness of thought, the burst of joy at the slightest success, the passionate directedness of my entire being - all the walls are covered with lines of poems and NB! for notebooks".
Economically "useless", romantically "faithless", Tsvetaeva was also politically uncategorisable. Her passion, her poetry, knew no dogma of allegiance. "Truth - is a turncoat!" she writes in Earthly Signs; and uses the same phrase again when defending the collection against publishers who wanted her to cut "political" material so that the book could be sold in the Soviet Union. Her husband was a genuine turncoat: the orphaned son of early revolutionaries, he none the less fought for the White Russians, but ended up a spy for the NKVD, which killed him anyway. Tsvetaeva herself, from a wealthy and cultured background, wrote paeans to the White Russians in Moscow, but later alienated the emigre community by her support for Soviet writers such as Mayakovsky. In later years, she was alienated even from Sergei and Alya, who "shut themselves away from me in the kitchen and begin to talk in hushed voices". Ultimately, unable to trim her free enthusiasms to fit ideological imperatives, she had almost no allies: Howard Devoto's phrase "shot by both sides" comes to mind. She returned to the Soviet Union, without hope but with nowhere left to go, and was denied any opportunity to live by writing. She hanged herself in desolate Elabuga in 1941.
Tsvetaeva's writing - with its intensities, its fugitive dashing in any or all sonic or semantic directions, in its soul's flight across limit, horizon and measure - is itself notoriously hard to treat faithfully; her translators are admirably eloquent as to the difficulties of making her words sing in English. Elaine Feinstein's fine volume of selected poems, and Angela Livingstone's brio-packed version of The Ratcatcher (from Angel Books), are generous to the monoglot reader in the notes and apparatus that they use to explain contexts and to elucidate untranslatable elements of Tsvetaeva's dense, unwasteful complexity: Jamey Gambrell's Earthly Signs, while giving a fine sense of urgency and exhilaration, would have benefited from more extensive gloss and annotation, including translations of some of the German and French phrases to which Tsvetaeva turned when it suited her.
None the less, Earthly Signs offers a useful background to some of Tsvetaeva's poetry - the wood for the fire - and dazzlingly reminds us of the sacrifice required of artists who will bow to neither the demands of contemporary praise nor the politics of the day.
Robert Potts is co-editor of Poetry Review