When I found out I was being placed in Elabuga for my teaching assistantship in the fall, the name was nothing more to me than than a humorous string of syllables (think boogie-man, the Ooga-Booga man from Crash Bandicoot). But upon doing some research into the city, I discovered that one of its claims to fame is that it was the death place of the renowned poet Marina Tsvetaeva.
Happening upon this information was one of those satisfying full-circle moments for me, since the first poem I ever read in Russian (and attempted to translate), was by Marina Tsvetaeva. Age 13 was the year that my passion for the Russian language was ignited, and I still remember vividly the lessons I took, held inside the home of a tall Muscovite named Natasha. For homework one night, Natasha gave me to translate what is perhaps Tsvetaeva’s most famous poem. It was far beyond my level at the time, but that didn’t stop me from eagerly flipping through my massive Russo-English dictionary in search of the keys that would unlock the meaning of the mysterious text. Below is the poem in both Russian and English translation:
Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.
Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной –
Распущенной – и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.
Мне нравится еще, что вы при мне
Спокойно обнимаете другую,
Не прочите мне в адовом огне
Гореть за то, что я вас не целую.
Что имя нежное мое, мой нежный, не
Упоминаете ни днем, ни ночью – всуе…
Что никогда в церковной тишине
Не пропоют над нами: аллилуйя!
Спасибо вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что вы меня – не зная сами! –
Так любите: за мой ночной покой,
За редкость встреч закатными часами,
За наши не-гулянья под луной,
За солнце, не у нас над головами, –
За то, что вы больны – увы! – не мной,
За то, что я больна – увы! – не вами!
3 Мая 1915
I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.
I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.
With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.
Translated by Ilya Shambat
One of the reasons that this poem is so well known is that it makes a musical cameo in the classic Russian New Year’s movie, Ироны Судьбы (The Irony of Fate). The film begins with a group of Russian men enjoying an New Year’s Eve at a Moscow баня (bath house) and getting drunk. This would hardly be noteworthy, except for that the men get so drunk that the conscious ones can’t remember which one of their passed-out friends was supposed to board a plane to Leningrad. And being good friends, they do their best, but they still put the wrong friend on the plane.
When the hungover Zhenya arrives in Leningrad, he is still not sober enough to realize that he’s not in Moscow. So he flags down a taxi and gives him his “home address.” The driver brings him to his “home,” and Zhenya passes out on a bed as soon as he arrives. (Note: such a mistake was possible because Soviet-era city planning was big on uniformity; i.e., Moscow and Leningrad had many of the same street names and identical housing complexes). Zhenya is surprised to awake to a beautiful woman screaming at him to get out of her apartment…and so it begins. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but here is the clip in which Nadia (the woman who lives in the apartment), sings lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem. Hint: it’s a happy ending.
This movie is near and dear to my heart because of the ironic role it once played in my travels, what I like to call “The Irony of Gate.” At the end of my study abroad in 2010, I sat sick with strep throat in my hotel room while the rest of the group went to stare at Vladimir Lenin’s waxy corpse. To keep myself occupied, I watched The Irony of Fate, unaware that I would soon become Zhenya. On the way back to America, I managed to get on the wrong plane, giving my parents and group mates the fright of their lives. While on a layover in Frankfurt, I got separated from my group and approached what I thought was the correct gate. Esteeming German efficiency and attention to detail as infallible, when the gate attendant let me on, I boarded with complete confidence. And then I waited. And waited. And no one in my group came. The loudspeaker confirmed my growing doubts, “Service to Newark, New Jersey.” I was supposed to be going to JFK. I’ll never forget the flight attendant’s reaction when I told her my plight; she looked over her shoulder and said to a male attendant in a grave tone, “we have a situation.” A situation indeed, but thankfully one that I can now laugh about. Eight hours later, I arrived in America fatigued, but unscathed, and feeling a little guilty for giving everyone close to me such a scare.
I can laugh at it now, but I definitely hope my travels to Elabuga go much more smoothly than my little misadventure three years ago…