Mothers, Daughters, Mothers
November 22, 2009
In a few weeks I'm going to Illinois to see my niece Ellie for the first time.  I'm sitting up late tonight trying to imagine my younger sister as a mother.  It's not easy.  To me she's still the girl whose biggest aspiration in life was to own the newest Strawberry Shortcake doll.

In search of insight, I've taken down off my bookshelf the poems of the Russian modernist Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941).  During the 1910s, she wrote a series of remarkable lyrics about and for her daughter Ariadna Efron (1912-1975).  She was in her twenties, and she was busy discovering the world and her genius.  Life, literature, and love were closely intertwined:  she had affairs with the poets Osip Mandel'shtam and Sophia Parnok, and she wrote giddy verse about both relationships.  The name "Ariadna" itself gives a glimpse into Tsvetaeva's state of mind at the time.  She named her daughter after the Cretan princess who taught Theseus how to escape the Labyrinth.  No obstacles, no mazes, above all no gender norms would imprison her or her child.

The first poem in her sequence "Stikhi o Moskve" [Poems about Moscow] (1916) is especially memorable.  I won't even try to replicate her sound play or meter.  It's beyond me.  In quick precise steps she dances between two extremes, heavy-handed rhymes and no rhymes at all.  What I can suggest in translation is her telegraphic syntax, her quick leaps of thought, her word play, and the intensity of her passion:

Nad vsei Moskvoi--
Skol'ko khvatit ruk!--
Voznoshu tebia, bremia luchshee,
Derevtso moe

V divnom grade sem,
V mirnom grade sem,
Gde i mertvoi mne
Budet radostno,--
Tsarevat' tebe, gorevat' tebe,
Prinimat' venets,
Moi pervenets!

Ty postom--govei,
Ne sur'mi brovei,
I vse sorok--chti--
Sorokov tserkvei.
Iskhodi peshkom--molodym shazkkom--
Vse privol'noe

Budet tvoi chered:
Peredash' Moskvu
S nezhnoi gorech'iu.
Mne zhe--vol'nyi son, kolokol'nyi zvon,
Zori rannie
Na Vagan'kove.

* * * * * * *

Over all Moscow--
How many hands grasp!
I lift you up, best burden,
My weightless

In this wonderful city
In this peaceful city
Where even dead I
Would be glad--
To czar you, to grieve for you,
To take the wreath,
O my first-born.

Fast before communion,
Do not darken your brows,
And honor all forty
Times forty churches.
Stroll over--with young small steps--
All the free
Seven hills.

It will be your turn.
Also--to your daughter
You’ll hand over Moscow
Tenderly bitterly.
For me--willing sleep, peeling bells,
Early dawns
In Vagan’kov.

The poem opens with an aerial view of Moscow.  Tsvetaeva "lifts up" her "best burden" a.k.a. Ariadna, a gesture that both introduces the child to the metropolis and lets her survey her future inheritance, the "wonderful city" in which her mother lives and writes.  The verb here, voznosit', is more typically used in the cliché voznosit' molitvu, to "lift up a prayer," and there is more than a hint of the sacred in the moment.  This tone is maintained, too, through later word choices, such as the use of the Old Church Slavonic grad instead of Russian gorod for "city" and the archaic pronoun sem in place of the modern etom.  

Tsvetaeva's thoughts turn to the future.  In the second stanza, she imagines herself remaining guide and guardian for her vulnerable "sapling"-like child no matter what might come.  Not even death will keep her from her duty.  She will protect her from harm ("czar you"), she will share her sorrows ("grieve for you"), and she will share her happiest moments (prinimat' venets, "to take the wreath," is a shorthand reference to the Orthodox marriage ceremony).

Of course, she can only hope, not guarantee, that she will always be there.  In the third stanza, she directly addresses Ariadna.  At first, she gives practical advice ("Fast before communion") and tells her to respect authority ("honor all forty / Times forty churches," the proverbial number of churches in Moscow).  It's as if she sees the Church as a possible surrogate parent, in case anything should happen to her.  Finally, she dares to shift from instructor and protector to mentor.  She tells her daughter to explore, to meander throughout, the semikholmie, the seven hills of Moscow.  She should be "free" to enjoy the city, uncover its wonders, and, in effect, take her mother's place as the city's celebrant.  Such wandering is risky--and who wants to put her own child at risk?--but daughters become adults, and one must let go.

That sets the stage for the final stanza.  Tsvetaeva again confronts the question of her own mortality.  This time, however, she is able to position herself within a female lineage.  Ariadna will someday "tenderly bitterly" contemplate her own daughter's future.  Tsvetaeva will be buried in Moscow's Vagan'kov Cemetery, where, we know, her own mother Maria Alexandrovna Meyn, a concert-level pianist, was interred.  Consoled by this vision of a matriarchal tradition, the poet will be able to go "willingly" to her vechnyi son, her "eternal sleep."  Every woman in the Tsvetaeva family will have her chered, her "turn," to roam (iskhodit') and delight, before handing over (peredat') to a new generation the keys to the kingdom (tsarevat').

My sister's life doesn't resemble Tsvetaeva's, and they share little beyond integrity, self-assurance, and a satirical streak.  I wouldn't in a thousand years wish on my niece the terrible hardships endured by Ariadna Efron (starvation, exile, political persecution, the premature needless deaths of both parents and her younger sister Irina).  But the poem "Clouds--around" helps a lummox brother think about something he'll never experience, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the mystery of daughters who then have their own turn at motherhood.

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