I know your grain by heart

Dark Elderberry Branch has traveled from my bedside to my purse to my kitchen table since I purchased it several months ago. I’m so glad Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky  (who are both wonderful poets in their own right) chose to translate the work of this incredible Russian writer, Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941). I posted another part of this particular poem last year, so if you like this selection, journey backwards….

from “The Desk (1)”

Thirty years together–
clearer than love.
I know your grain by heart,
you know my lines.

Wasn’t it you who wrote them on my face?
You ate paper, you taught me:
There’s no tomorrow. You taught me:
Today, today.

Money, bills, love letters, money, bills,
you stood in a blizzard of oak.
Kept saying: For every word you want
today, today.

God, you kept saying,
doesn’t accept bits and bills.
Nuh, when they lay my body out, my fool, my
desk, let it be on you.

you and your olives, me and my rhyme

I discovered the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) through the March 2012 issue of Poetry and the translations done by poets Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky. It was difficult for me to choose just one because she has such a beautiful range of work, so I encourage you to visit that issue and read some more.


from “The Desk”

Fair enough: you people have eaten me,
I—wrote you down.
They’ll lay you out on a dinner table,
me—on this desk.

I’ve been happy with little.
There are dishes I’ve never tried.
But you, you people eat slowly, and often;
You eat and eat.

Everything was decided for us
back in the ocean:
Our places of action,
our places of gratitude.

You—with belches, I—with books,
with truffles, you. With pencil, I,
you and your olives, me and my rhyme,
with pickles, you. I, with poems.

At your head—funeral candles
like thick-legged asparagus:
your road out of this world
a dessert table’s striped cloth.

They will smoke Havana cigars
on your left side and your right;
your body will be dressed
in the best Dutch linen.

And—not to waste such expensive cloth,
they will shake you out,
along with the crumbs and bits of food,
into the hole, the grave.

You—stuffed capon, I—pigeon.
Gunpowder, your soul, at the autopsy.
And I will be laid out bare
with only two wings to cover me.

These words are my life.

The official welcome to National Poetry Month will arrive tomorrow. Until then, I give you this poem by Jean Valentine (1934-). When I first read this, I kept it open in a tab on my browser for days, appreciating it in a different way with each re-reading…definitely a good reminder to not simply scan but truly savor the poetry I encounter.

Picture of Jean Valentine


The hornet holds on to the curtain, winter
sleep. Rubs her legs. Climbs the curtain.
Behind her the cedars sleep lightly,

like guests. But I am the guest.
The ghost cars climb the ghost highway. Even my hand
over the page          adds to the ‘room tone’: the little

constant wind. The effort of becoming. These words
are my life. The effort
of loving the un-become. To make the suffering

visible. The un-become love: What we
lost, a leaf, what we cherish, a leaf.
One leaf of grass. I’m sending you this seed-pod,

this red ribbon, my tongue,
these two red ribbons, my mouth,

my other mouth,
—but the other world—blindly I guzzle
the swimming milk of its seed field flower—