The Language of King David: On Translating Arseny Tarkovsky
Philip Metres, along with Dimitri Psurtsev, is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for their translations of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems in I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky. Read their translation of “Chistopol Notebook” here.
In an interview toward the end of her life, Anna Akhmatova called Arseny Tarkovsky the one “real poet” in the Soviet Union. In her words, “of all contemporary poets Tarkovsky alone is completely his own self, completely independent. He possesses the most important feature of a poet, which I’d call the birthright.” Twenty-five years later, in 1992, in an introduction to the complete works of Tarkovsky in Russian, critic Yuri Kublanovsky effused that:
Tarkovsky managed to keep his creative mind undamaged and free. What I mean, of course, is not just freedom from propaganda, but also the principal freedom, inner freedom, the one defined by [Alexander] Blok as the secret freedom of humanity. Somehow he never succumbed to the temptation of pleasing—not only the criminal authorities, but also to a more subtle temptation of pleasing the reading public—of tuning, half-consciously, while writing, to their demands.
In his poetic and spiritual freedom, Tarkovsky outlasted the slag and dross of totalitarianism. His poetry is the internal cinema of the Soviet era, an unscrolling testimony of the gentle ferocity of a soul surviving a deadly and soul-crushing period.
The last of the great twentieth century Russian poets, and still virtually unknown in the West, Tarkovsky emerged as the youngest force of the Silver Age poets he’d read (and often knew personally)—including Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Anna Akhmatova. Paradoxically, he did this by creating a bridge back to the Golden Age of Russian poetry during this bleak period. At the time, official Russian poetry was anything but independent, and the great poets had gone silent or underground under the rule of Stalin and Socialist Realism. Mandelstam had asked, famously,
My age, my beast, who could
Look into your eyes
And glue with blood
The vertebrae of two centuries?
After Mandelstam died, Tarkovsky carried on the great poet’s poetic and cultural surgery.
Yet Tarkovsky’s poems were always more than an extension of Mandelstam’s project. Vivid in its stunning musicality, teeming with Biblical allusions, Tarkovsky’s verse maintained its resolute allegiance to a poetic tradition that hearkened back to the origins of Russian poetry. Tarkovsky drew from the sound and vision of Alexander Pushkin—Russia’s Shakespeare—whose intoxicatingly primordial music transformed Russian poetry a century before. Tarkovsky’s poems exude a poignant gratitude, marked by a childlike wonder for nature, though they are set against the backdrop of heartbreak during one of the most tragic periods of Russian history.
I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky—the first collection of its kind published in the United States—gathers Arseny Tarkovsky’s astonishing poems, balancing between representing the canonical view of Tarkovsky’s finest work in Russian and choosing our most felicitiously translated versions in English.
Structured in roughly chronological order, the book’s three main sections correspond to cataclysmic historical and poetical change: “Butterfly in the Hospital Orchard,” “The Earthly Feast,” and “Gather My Wax When Morning Arrives.” Together, these poems tell the story of a poet who, despite terrible losses, endured and came to produce a uniquely mystical vision.
Alongside his masterful poems written during the Second World War is his gripping sequence “Chistopol Notebook.” Written in 1941 in Chistopol, an administrative center in Tartarstan where the Soviet Writers Union evacuated from Moscow during Nazi bombing, the poetic sequence oscillates between a depiction of the war and the poet’s grief and guilt over the suicide of the legendary poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who recently had become Tarkovsky’s friend. Against the backdrop of national catastrophe, when Russian losses were mounting and the prospects for a quick victory faded, Tarkovsky confronted his own personal tragedy.
In October 1940, after the publication of a book of his translations of the Turkmen poet Mämmetweli Kemine, Tarkovsky received a complimentary letter from Tsvetaeva, who had returned in 1939 to the Soviet Union after seventeen years in exile and poverty in Europe. Tsvetaeva wrote: “your translation is charming. What can you do [i.e. write] yourself? Because [translating] for another, you can do—everything. Find (and love)—and the words will be yours.” She invited him over to hear her recite her poems, and their friendship developed. However, Tsvetaeva, at forty-eight and nearly ten years his senior, wanted more than friendship, and Tarkovsky chose not to reciprocate.
Tsvetaeva, not a member of the Writers Union, evacuated to nearby Yelabuga, Tartarstan. Unable to find work there, she went to Chistopol in August 1941 and got a job washing dishes. After the arrest of her husband and daughter, and with meager means to provide for herself and her son George, she hanged herself on August 31, 1941. In a note to her son, she wrote:
Forgive me, but to go on would be worse. I am gravely ill, this is not me anymore. I love you passionately. Do understand that I could not live anymore. Tell Papa and Alya, if you ever see them, that I loved them to the last moment and explain to them that I found myself in a trap.
If Tarkovsky’s grief was not fierce enough, he would come to learn that her final poem, dated March 1941, employed the first line of “The Table Is Set for Six” as an epigraph—an aggrieved riposte to Tarkovsky’s rejection.
Tarkovsky’s “Chistopol Notebook” captures a poet unable to live with his failure to help Tsvetaeva. In the face of a doomed war and the tragedy of the suicide of a brilliant and tormented friend, Tarkovsky keens his great helplessness. The Chistopol poems themselves are remarkably diverse, particularly in terms of meter and style—from sonnets to folk poems, from elegies to nationalist verse.
Later, as a war correspondent at the front, tragedy struck Tarkovsky again. In 1943, on the front near Vitebsk, Tarkovsky was shot. Marina Arsenyeva Tarkovskaya, biographer and daughter of the poet, writes that he was shot by German soldiers. (Another uncorroborated source suggests that he, failing to answer a sentry, was the victim of friendly fire.) As a result of the bullet wound to the leg, Tarkovsky contracted gaseous gangrene, and would undergo six progressive amputations in a failed attempt to preserve his leg.
Over a decade later, Tarkovsky’s wound would become the ground for a new vision. As he writes in “Field Hospital”:
My lips were covered with sores, and also
I was fed by a spoon, and also
I could not remember my name,
but the language of King David came
alive on my tongue.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.