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Hymns: For the Orthodox

by Jordan Smith


Marina Tsvetayeva, 1892-1941

A Moscow Invocation, 1916

Yes, I have called bereavement most beautiful
sister
, she who requires my song, who insists
even if I am bashful and the few guests
bored. Why is she not welcomed in finer homes?
She is as kind as a gentleman’s polished
mirror, white mistress of likenesses, as if
the heart were a field stiff with ice, as if
our griefs were the dire wolf who never feasts, who
lives only to scour these woods. As if the farms
blazed through snow, cold streets ran flaming with her voice.  

An Open Letter to Emigre Friends in Paris, 1933

How I love the rich,
who even in their fall from grace
are never graceless. (The count who wipes the cafe floors
honors even me
with his smooth court bow, and I’m told
he overtips on his night off.) Yes, you would prefer
me bitter, I think,
but that is a tone too cheaply
acquired for my taste, and hard to lose. When I wrote how
my daughter blistered
her fingers in making bonnets
and five francs a day, which served just to preserve us
in our cold attic,
in our usual state of slow
starvation, your applause was like the cries of angels
who see the fine shirts
burning on the backs of the damned.
I want no more of it. And when I did not visit
because my good shoes,
my only shoes, abandoned me
on the street outside your house, my apology read
like those bad novels
of Dostoevsky’s, volumes stocked
with fools who believe their precious lodgings in heaven
are paid for in full by the great sins of their neighbors
who owned, perhaps, an extra lamp or some china.
Let the covetous
have all they want, they still must live
in a world yawning with hunger. Let me remember
an old man who bows
because his pride requires it,
not the vanity of others. He owes us little else.

To Her Husband, On His Disappearance into Russia: A Premonition, 1937

Sergei, I cannot
                sleep. I must confess over
and over my one sin,
                that I always desired you
less than I craved knowledge
                of your forgiveness, my love,
our imperial road
                where we met like two strangers
who bow once and pass by.
                Oh, if we had joined hands there,
and gone on together
                toward some rising mist, Japan,
some port where we’d forget
                how all things fail: grand hotels,
their caviar and cream,
                dwindling at last to a thin
potato broth, bad wine,
                at a third rate village inn…
I knew no other man
                who could forgive me the wise
clarity of my heart:
                I found I could love you more,
More, in your absences,
                and so I led my lovers
From my lips to my bed
                just so they too would leave
and my nights would wither
                except for this song, white priest
who blesses the marriage
                of our distant, strange voices
into one long lament.
                All the men I’ve loved are dead.
The sleek souls I gave them
                leave no more shade than bare trees.
But you, you are the light
                of winter, glare through the branches,
ice in the sky, all these
                wonders which keep me awake.
Those songs I wrote were meant
                for those who shiver at night,
who cannot sleep, as you
                poor man, could never find rest.
Those songs are dead, and I
               fear they will become your wreaths,
gifts of a wife who must
                always come too late. Sergei,
in my insomnia,
                I love you wholly . . .

On the Paris-Moscow Train, 1939

I think I always give myself to doomed things
                which is the way of exiles,
         to love only what cannot be held:
                not streets, mountains, gilded spires,
but the heart, the domes and mountains of my heart!

Stone fathers of Germany, worn stones of Prague . . .
                yes, all these will outlast me.
         Even the eagle, shorn of his wings,
                will be a gift to my son,
his icon: my body in its downward flight.

But I am the gift given all to myself,
                like steam off a last thick broth
         brewed for men who will give everything
                to join the white regiment:
mist, thin mist, that settles on Moscow’s hills.  

To Her Daughter, From the Communal Kitchen of Yelabuga, 1940

And so my daughter
                                                            we are reduced
to distant, bare rooms,
                                                             these last scribbled
correspondences
                                                             between unlike souls
who bear one name,
                                                             one punishment.
Oh, when you forgot
                                                             your dear poems
for a girl’s duller
                                                             playthings, I knew
we would not be close
                                                             again. You were
so young to renounce
                                                             everything
I might have offered,
                                                             which was nothing
after all but words.
                                                             So few are left,
mostly your letters
                                                             where the censor
has never disguised
                                                             your long anger,
your longer desire,
                                                             to be any
woman’s child but mine.
                                                             I pity him,
poor bureaucrat, who
                                                             felt no duty
to destroy your lines
                                                             entirely,
lines he must have known
                                                             would sear my hands.
I pity myself,
                                                             who no longer
knows the luxury
                                                             of guilt. Let me
tell you what I’ve learned
                                                             of poverty:
things are as they are.
                                                             I pity you,
all of us, condemned
                                                             to the extreme
penalty: to have
                                                             only coarsest
emotions left. Don’t
                                                             share your sorrow,
tell me how things are.
                                                             Tell me truly,
do they allow you
                                                             a rope to hang
your clothes? I have one
                                                             before me now,
my loyal, frayed god
                                                             who says perhaps
there may be an end
                                                             to this dying,
a day when fires blaze
                                                             again, and pain
goes to ground. Perhaps,
                                                             Alya, even
we may join hands then.

Before Her Suicide: Yelabuga, 1941

1. I Have Heard The Wind

Yes, I have heard the wind call me bitter
even in spring, and have seen my name scrawled
in vacant margins of a long, gray sky.
And those sharp sprigs of the new wheat,
do you think I do not know at whom their fingers point?

Do you think I do not know who I am?
That is the one lesson the world teaches,
a harsh, difficult language, learned by rote . . .
Listen, there is a flight of jays,
their harsh cry. Do you think I do not know my voice?

There is a taste of dark tea, overbrewed,
the burnt crust of my tongue. There is a prayer
prayed in bitterness for those who vanish.
I have heard the wind fall silent.
Do you think I do not know a blessing when it comes?

2. For The Orthodox

Grandfather, I thought of you at prayer even
as I prayed because I could not love a god
who did not have your face. I think if I lived
again, I would be just a man who harvests
his own wheat, whose sabbaths are given to Christ,
who believes those torn, tender features are more
than just a likeness of his own sufferings.
An old, poor man who feels the presence of God
stirring his beard. Oh, it would be good
to be again a true believer. Not Marina,
the poet, who finds nothing left in this world . . .
But the quiet priest who leads the orthodox
as they kneel, those worn candles, sure of their light,
surer that they have everything to die for.

 

Jordan Smith is a teaching fellow in the Writers' Workshop at University of Iowa. (4/1981)


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