BOOK: Poetry that's needed - like dessert

MARINA TSVETAEVA: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell by Lily Feiler Duke University Press £32.95
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WHEN Marina Tsvetaeva read her poems aloud in the 1930s, wrote an admirer, "one felt each of them was an irrevocable assertion of something vitally essential - that she backed each line with her life." Reared on the lofty plains of duty and self- denial,forbidden to write poetry because of her mother's musical aspirations for her, Marina Tsvetaeva found her creativity only by expurgating her mother's gift - "a gift that would have suffocated me or turned me into a transgressor of all human laws"


Fleeing from this "monstrous alliance of the unloving with the unloved" to her gypsy wet-nurse and the room of her elder half-sister Valeriya, she discovered sex, luxury and the Devil, who gave her strength but not the self she had lost. Permanently tiedto her mother, whose impossible romantic standards and tortured emotions taught her two daughters to sacrifice instinctual gratification to the higher cause of the soul, she learned to expose what her mother was hiding - "only her rebellion, her pa s sion, her yearning have become a scream within us".

Lily Feiler's startling insights into Tsvetaeva's life and poetry are enriched by her reading of Alice Miller, Lacan and Winnicott. Immediately after her mother's death, 14-year-old Tsvetaeva gave up the piano and, with the "inner awkwardness" of the ab a ndoned child, began writing poetry about separation and death. Feiler sketches in the stormy events then gripping Russia, chiefly in order to establish Tsvetaeva's distance from them. Deaf to the chaos of the 1905 revolution, she lived her 16th year with out people, reading the Symbolist poets in search of a new meaning of life and falling in love with Napoleon. Three years later came sexual liberation at an artists' community in the Crimea, marriage to Sergei Efron, the birth of their daughter, Alya,a n d her lesbian love affair with her fellow-poet Sofia Parnok. Refusing to see anything beyond her romantic preconceptions of her lover, she anticipated the "gypsy passion of separation", then, as in future affairs, took her revenge by reshaping the past t o establish her superiority, and wiping the pain by embracing a fantasised motherhood.

In November 1917, seven months after the birth of her second daughter, she returned to Moscow. Despite her disgust with the cruelty of the Bolsheviks, with her office job and the chaos of her crowded flat, Tsvetaeva's poems of White Guard heroism, with their syncopated rhythm and sparse syntax, speak of a new passionate intensity of being and the blushing sexuality of beautiful young men: "Everything is lost! Then - everything is easy!"

Uncovering or inventing lovers' souls for them, she dreamed up the face of her yearning, and despised "love without fantasy". As poetry struggled with everyday life, her diaries and letters reflected her every mood. Feiler is a sensitive guide through all Tsvetaeva's lacerating self- revelations: her strength, which became her controlling weakness; her burning desire for absolute communication, which existed only in her imagination and for which no sacrifice was too great. The author's terse and eloquent translations of Tsvetaeva's poems of the '20s expose the "heartbeat of a poet confronting her own limitless desires". She offers a particularly sensitive reading of Tsvetaeva's long interior journey "On A Red Steed", with no Muse, just a controlling Genius-Devil-Rider w ho orders her to liberate herself from the pleasures of women in the cause of a higher "Love".

Travelling in 1922 with her daughter Alya to meet Efron in Berlin, she left "a world where my poems were as necessary as bread, for a world where poems are needed like dessert". In the course of the next 16 years, which she spent living in Berlin and in the suburbs of Prague and Paris, she experienced the pain of new loves, passions for unknown people, epistolary love affairs and the complex menage a trois of her "perfect love fantasy".

When Efron switched his support from the White cause to that of the Soviets, Tsvetaeva, homesick in her Paris suburb, was unable to fit the picture of the world into the terms of her own emotional needs. Exhausted by squalid rooms, febrile emigre politics, fights with landladies and modest readings of her works, she increasingly saw herself outside time, society, even outside life itself. In "Poem of the Air" and "The House", she described a self unable to find its home. Mythologising the past and looki ng to an unknown future, she turned to prose, the works of other poets, autobiography and self-analysis, writing of her childhood that "what from the threshold seemed madness becomes the measure of things".

Shortly after she returned in 1939 to Russia, Alya and Efron were arrested, and she never saw them again. In this life of impermanence, hunger and disorientation, Feiler shows Tsvetaeva's courage in dedicating the first poem in the cycle "The Demesne of the Swans" to her jailed husband. But as her son Mur first tyrannised and then turned against his mother, her poems finally accept the necessity of death. On 31 August 1942, in the remote village of Yelabuga in the Tatar republic, to which she had been evacuated after the Nazi invasion, she hanged herself. No one, not even Mur, accompanied her casket to the cemetery.

Feiler does not flinch from Tsvetaeva's grandiosity and contempt, her shrill self-absorption, her use of poetry to justify her vampire-like maternal egotism. She describes her dangerous intimacy with her daughter Alya, denied a childhood and rejecting her mother in her twenties; her heartbreaking neglect of her second daughter, Irina, who died at the age of three, hungry and unmourned; her insights into her own projections, and her simultaneous denial of them; Maxim Gorky's view that "she is not a master of language. Language is her master." Yet it is the great strength of this remarkable and scholarly biography to show how Tsvetaeva's "poetry of proper names", free of literary groups yet charged by their playful energy, rises a bove the limits of ordinary life and love to widen our experience of both.