We come closer: hills and waves of sacks, in between them sighs, scarves, backs. There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously– in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)
The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva is known for her highly emotional writing, her flagrant love affairs, and her tragic suicide at the age of 48. While Marina married a fascinating fellow, Sergei Efron, who deserves a post in his own right, married love did not soothe her. She spread her love like butter across the poetic landscape, cultivating love affairs with Sofia Parkon, Osip Mandelstam, Konstantin Rodzevich, Rainer Maria Rilke, and an epistolary romance with Boris Pasternak that lasted for over a decade. What drove Marina to these affairs as a wife and a mother of two children? Her husband, Sergei, gave his opinion in an anguished letter to a friend following Marina’s obssessive relationship with Rodzevich:
“Marina is a woman of passions…. Plunging headfirst into her hurricanes has become essential for her, the breath of life. It no longer matters who it is that arouses these hurricanes. Nearly always (now as before)– or rather always– everything is based on self-deception. A man is invented and the hurrican begins. If the insignificance and narrowness of the hurricane’s arouser is quickly revealed, then Marina gives way to a hurricane of despair. A state which faciliates the appearance of a new arouser. The important thing is not what but how. Not the essence or the source but the rhythm, the insane rhythm….. Everything is entered in the book. Everything is coolly and mathematically cast into a formula. A huge stove, whose fires need wood, wood, and more wood.”
Efron is not concerned about Marina’s potential for serious love in these affairs– he is concerned with her destructive use of men and passion as fuel for her writing. As he notes in this letter, Marina was a chronic journal-keeper. All the fabrics of her daily life and love can be found woven through her journals, or “notebooks”. It is these notebooks which house her most visceral and raw writings.
Earthly Signs is a collection of Marina’s notebook writings from the period of 1917 to 1922, including her first-hand accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution, in which she witnessed the round-up and exile of the Russian bourgeosie and intellectual class. Her husband, Sergei, actually fought to defend Russia from the Bolshevik takeover as a member of the White Army. Marina’s notebooks reveal the chaos and confusion– the deification of Communist utopia, the struggles for new existence, the dawn of a new era in which words (and language) would be squeezed for every drop of meaning and subtlety before being resurrected as promises of salvation.
At one point during her husband’s absence, Marina did not have enough food to feed her children. There were no jobs for poets in the wake of the Revolution– especially not for poets who had reservations about the glories of political utopia. Lacking food, shelter, and property, Marina placed her daughters, Alya and Irina, in a children’s home where they would receive proper nourishment and care.
The excerpt below is a record of a conversation between Marina and a Jewish lady on the train. It embodies the stereotypical caricature of Jews so popular in the time period immediately preceding Hitler’s ascension to power in Germany. It is valuable as a testament to the complexity and inconsistency of these stereotypes, as well as the popular opinions of Bolshevism in the wake of the Revolution. The Jewish lady (referred to as “She”) is a socialist sympathizer who nonetheless seems more concerned about the gold Marina might have left behind than the children she abandoned. After all, under socialism, the state will take care of the children– there will be no scarcity of crying mouths to feed– but gold, money, and wealth will be rare, therefore extremely valuable. The socialism intended to destroy class and “crass materialism” will, instead, generate a whole new upper class of apparatchik and nomenklatura whose love for money and material wealth become the stuff of absurdity.
She, almost cheeky: “And where did you leave your gold things? How can you leave gold behind and just take off?”
I, distinctly: “I not only left my gold, but…. my children!”
She, amused: “Ach, ach, ach! You’re so funny! Are children so valuable? Everyone leaves their children nowadays, they set them up somewhere. What children, when there’s nothing to eat? (Sententiously): “There are shelters for children. Children are the property of our socialist Commune…”
(I think to myself: “just like our gold rings…”)
In February of 1920, not yet three years old, Marina’s daughter, Irina, died of malnourishment or starvation in the children’s home. It is not clear what happened to Marina’s gold. What happened to the socialist utopia, however, is beyond dispute.