I recently acquired Marina Tsvetayeva’s Selected Poems, a Penguin Modern European Poets, from a second-hand dealer off Ronald Ngala Street. The book is an old affair, coming undone at the spine and every time I turn a page it seems it the leaf will tear off at the seam. On the gently yellowing cover is a young Marina, maybe in her early twenties, and thereafter a biography and a foreword. The brief biography concludes: ‘at the outbreak of the war with Germany, she was evacuated to Yelabuga, and there, alone and unable to find work, she hanged herself in 1941’. But the reason I’m writing this is because of the long foreword that follows, which is basically an attempt to define the poet’s work in relation to her life.
I was happy to get the book; it’s not often that you will find a poetry book along Nairobi streets. I also have Wislawa Szymborska’s Nothing Twice Selected Poems. I pick this book for comparison because apart from publishing the translated poems along their original (in Swedish), it offers an afterword. What I am aiming at is the effect reading Marina’s bio and foreword had on my relationship to her poetry, and the reason I now prefer reading poems with no titles and as if the aouthors were inknown. I knew some of them were written for her husband and a lot for her country when she was in exile. On the other hand, when I approached Wislawa’s poetry I did not even know she was a woman (although this does not matter in the greater sense of things). Before I meet a poet as a person I want to see what their work can offer me, what it can do for me, the possibilities of meaning before lif; if at all there is meaning before life. I want the poetry to have no relations to the portrait of the author on the cover (although, I admit, I kept referring to Andrea Levy’s face when I read the novel ‘Small Island’, but for a sinister reason I do not wish to share here at the moment).
I come to poems as a child, a whitespace of non-being, wth no memory of the past and no expectations for the future, expecting to learn, to forget, to remember and inevitably master out the poet’s technique as I get more accustomed to the pattern of lines and their effects. And therefore, in a way, ascribe towards being, towards elevation (what does that even mean?). Seems like too much to expect from poems but
But mostly I read because I am bored.
Who the poets were and their political affiliations have no significance to me. That they are now dead does not matter. The fact that the foreword says Marina opposed the Russian revolution, was exiled, killed herself, already preempts my expectations of the kind of poems I expect to read. That I know about her life gives me a frame of reference whenever I feel the need to break away from one of her poems to reflect on its meanings. But with a foreword I cannot trust this person who offers me poetry as if our lives were a shared experience and my longings and pains are not too different from her own. When I read Wislawa I had no idea who she was and the closest I got to her roots were the translations. I go into her poems expecting a voice, not a person. I have read so many of the letters of Rilke (Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1892-1910) and the letters to a young poet, that I feel like I know the man personally as a man, father, husband, and for that reason I am always reluctant to read his poems. I suspect his poetry will not take me where his letters have.
All that said, to hell with prefaces, biographies, the foreword and afterword. And portraits of poets.