If anyone were to trace my footfall in the poetry library in order to mark out my poetic “city state”, the map would show repeated visits to the collections of Akhmatova, Brodsky, Cavafy, Eliot, Rilke, Seferis, Tsvetaeva and Yeats. Poetry in my native Serbian remains a secret spot on the map. The names of my favourite Serbian poets – Crnjanski, Lalic, Dis – mean so little to the Anglophone reader that I hesitate even to mention them here. Theirs is the poetry I don’t need to revisit between the covers of a book because it lives inside my head. Instead, their lines arrive in unbidden snatches – when I am walking, taking a shower or making lunch – like palimpsest echoes of an earlier life.
Russian poetry occupies a substantial quarter of this “city state”, a home from home. Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva are its chatelaines. If I were forced to choose one, it would probably be Akhmatova, but I reread Tsvetaeva’s Novogodnee (“New Year’s Greeting: An Elegy for Rilke”) at least once a year.
Rainer Maria Rilke and Marina Tsvetaeva never met. They corresponded between May and December 1926. Rilke’s “Elegy for Marina” was written in June 1926, to accompany his gift to her, a copy of Duino Elegies, one of my favourite collections. In return, Marina’s elegy for Rilke, written in her Parisian exile on receiving the news of his death (he died of leukaemia on 29 December, having never told her that he was seriously ill) is a lament, an extended ululation which never fails to shake me to the core. It follows few poetic rules, but it defines a metaphysics of mourning.
Tsvetaeva’s contemplation of the meaning of life, language, loss and love is too profound to do it justice in a blog. Joseph Brodsky only partly succeeded in analysing Novogodnee in his glorious seventy-page essay “Footnote to a Poem”. Such is the complexity of Tsvetaeva’s verse that you can only ever succeed in part. Like the epiphanies that grow out of a painful life -- and few have known as much pain as Marina Tsvetaeva -- the poem is both staggeringly simple and resistant to periphrasis. It is also probably untranslatable from Russian, though its English translations are solid enough.
The international translator who succeeded most fully, I believe, is the novelist Danilo Kis. His Serbian rendition of Novogodnee is one of the most beautiful poems of my mother tongue. I hear Tsvetaeva, even when I read her in Russian, through a gravelly, cigarette smoke stained gauze of Danilo Kis’s voice.
Kis haunts my memories of my native Belgrade, propping up the bar of the Writers’ Club, or arguing something in one of the editorial offices of the many literary magazines which flourished on a shoe string in the dog-days of socialism. He was a symbol, an encapsulation of a writing life I had wanted to lead, a life now imbued with all the melancholy of a “future in the past”, a future which never happened.
I met Brodsky once, in London, quarter of a century ago. Although our conversation was brief, I managed to eulogise Tsvetaeva’s poem, praise Danilo Kis’ translation most effusively, and not even refer to his “Footnote”. I no longer remember how we arrived at the topic. I suspect that I was no good at small talk with a poet whose verse had meant so much to me, yet I was also too self-conscious to flatter him. But this memory too is somehow in keeping with Novogodnee... it embarrasses me no more.
Bio: Vesna Goldsworthy (née Bjelogrlić) is a Serbian writer and poet who lives in England. Her books include Chernobyl Strawberries, Inventing Ruritania, The Angel of Salonika (2011), a collection of her poems. Her novel Gorsky was published in 2015. In 2010, she presented a BBC radio 4 programme on finding one's voice in a foreign land. She won the Crashaw Prize in 2011 and is from Belgrade. She is a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University. Previously she worked for the BBC Serbian Service as a journalist.
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© 2015 Vesna Goldsworthy