Caroline Lemak Brickman

new year: a translation

ISSUE 26 | GOOD SEX | MAR 2013

Illustration from a Japanese fireworks catalogue, n.d.

Rainer Maria Rilke and Marina Tsvetaeva never met, but they wrote to each other intensely from May 1926 until Rilke’s abrupt death in December. His death, on the heels of this passionate, short-lived (“impossible,” says Sontag, “glorious”) correspondence, left the Russian poet wrecked. She composed an elegy to him in the form of a New Year’s greeting. A last love letter, a testament, a belated farewell to her newfound mentor, her newlost lover—and perhaps most significantly, her personal poetic deity. “Hence the intensity of Tsvetaeva’s diction in Novogodnee,” remarks Brodsky, “since she is addressing someone who, in contrast to God, has absolute pitch.”

Rilke began the Duino Elegies with the words, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?” Tsvetaeva intercepts this cry and takes it further, forcing his hypothetical into her concrete world, uglier than his because it is one where he is lost. As Rilke hoped to be heard, Tsvetaeva hopes to cry out. “When beginning to speak, and—if it ever comes to this—when beginning to speak of oneself,” pronounces Brodsky, “one does so as if confessing, for it is he—not a priest or God but another poet—who hears you.” Tsvetaeva calls on the voice of her poet. She calls on his forms: elegies, letters, prayers. “To hell with the native Russian tongue, with German,” she calls, “I want the tongue of an angel.”

A word on sex. Almost immediately following the most explicitly erotic part of the poem, when an imagined New Year’s toast becomes an orgy of flowing rhymes, drink, and bodies, Tsvetaeva declares:

it’s probably hard for me to see because I’m down in a hole.
it’s probably easier for you because you’re up on high.
you know, nothing ever really happened between us.

Two things happen here. The first is that there’s something weird about this progression: [I’m alive and in hell] plus [you’re dead and in heaven] results in [and it meant nothing anyway!]. His situation “up on high” is contingent on her, in a hole, picturing him there—just as her situation in hell is determined by his death. And yet the synthesis achieved by these antitheses is nothing.

The second thing that happens is that Tsvetaeva goes on to characterize the nothing between them: “purely” nothing, she calls it, “simply” nothing, “apt” nothing. A nothing that still had the potential to turn into nothingness, as she’s only realized upon his death. She makes something of it. This business of turning the nothing between them into the name of their love is Tsvetaeva’s real alchemy of desire. Less creatio ex nihilo than the Galilee wedding water become New Year’s Eve champagne.

Of course, using language to soar also works the other way around, and Tsvetaeva constantly uses language to crash. The joy of something from nothing distorts easily into the despair of nothing from something, and the tension between these two poles—between desire and grief—are what keeps this poem taut. She’s alone on New Year’s Eve and her poet is dead. The fabric of reality is rent and a metaphysical miracle is required. Like the reader, Tsvetaeva must simultaneously hold two things in her mind which, if both were true, would break her mind—and if both were not true, would break her poem. Rilke is here and Rilke is gone.

new year


happy new year—happy new light, new world—happy new edge, new realm—happy new haven!
a first letter to you in the next—
the place where nothing ever happens
(barely even bluffing ever happens), place where roughing,
rushing ever happens, like Aeolus’s empty tower.
a first letter to you from yesterday’s
homeland, now noland without you,
now already one of the
stars... and this law of leaving and left, cleaving
and cleft,
this claw by which my beloved becomes a name on a list
(oh him? from ’26?),
and the has-beens transform to the unhappened.

shall I tell you how I found out?
not an earthquake, not an avalanche.
a guy came over—just anyone (you’re my one):
“really, a regrettable loss. it’s in the Times today.
will you write an article for him?” where?
“in the mountains.” (the window opening onto fir branches.
the bedsheet.) “don’t you read the papers?
and won’t you write the obit?” no. “but—” spare me.
aloud: too hard. silently: I won’t betray my Christ.
“in a sanatorium.” (heaven for hire.)
what day? “yesterday, day before yesterday, I don’t remember.
you going to the Alcazar later?” no.
aloud: family stuff. silently: anything but Judas.


here’s to the coming year! (you were born tomorrow!)
shall I tell you what I did when I found out about—
oops... no, no, I misspoke. bad habit.
I’ve been putting quotation marks around life and death for a while now,
like the empty stories we weave. wittingly.

well, I didn’t do anything. but something did
happen, happened shadowless and echoless,
now, how was the trip?
how did it tear, did you bear, did it burst
your heart asunder? astride the finest Orlov racehorses
(they keep up, you said, with the eagles)
was your very breath taken, or worse?
was it sweet? no heights, no falls for you,
you flew on real Russian eagles,
you. we have blood ties with that world and with the light:
it happened here, in Rus, the world and light
matured on us. the rush is up and running.
I say life and death with a smirk,
hidden, so you’ll kiss me to find out.
I say life and death with a footnote,
an asterisk (a star, the night I long for,
fuck the cerebral hemisphere,
I want the stars).


now don’t forget, my dear, my friend,
if I use Russian letters
instead of German ones, it’s not because
they say that these days anything will do,
not because beggars can’t be choosers,
not because a dead man is a poor one,
he’ll eat anything, he won’t even blink.
no, it’s because that world, that light—
can I call it “ours”?—it isn’t languageless.
when I was thirteen, in the Novodevichy monastery,
I understood: it’s pre-Babelian.
all the tongues in one.

anguish. you will never ask me again
how to say “nest” in Russian.
the sole nest, whole nest, nothing but the nest—
sheltering a Russian rhyme with the stars.

do I seem distracted? no, impossible,
no such thing as distraction from you.
every thought—every, Du Lieber,
syllable—leads to you, no matter what,
(oh to hell with the native Russian tongue, with German,
I want the tongue of an angel) there is no place,
no nest, without you, oh wait there is, just one. your grave.
everything’s changed, nothing’s changed.
you won’t forg—I mean, not about me—?
what’s it like there, Rainer, how are you feeling?
insistent, surefire, cocksure,
how does a poet’s first sighting of the Universe
square with his last glance at this planet,
this planet you got only once?

the poet gone from his ashes, spirit left the body
(to split the two would be to sin),
and you gone from yourself, you gone from you,
no better to be Zeus-born,
Castor ripped—you from yourself—from Pollux,
marble rent—you from yourself—from the earth,
no separation and no meeting, just
a confrontation, the meeting and the separation

how could you see your own hand well enough to write,
to look at the trace—on your hand—of ink,
from your perch on high, miles away (how many miles?),
your perch of endless, because startless, heights,
well above the crystal of the Mediterranean
and other saucers.
everything’s changed, nothing will change
as far as I’m concerned, here on the outskirts.
everything’s changed, nothing is changing—
though I don’t know how to send this extra week’s letter
to my correspondant—and where do I look now,
leaning on the rim of a lie—if not from this to that,
if not from that to this. suffering this. long suffering this.


I live in Bellevue. a little city
of nests and branches. exchanging glances with the guide:
Bellevue. the fortress with the perfect view
of Paris—the chamber with the Gallic chimera—
of Paris—and further still...
leaning on the scarlet rim,
how funny they should be to you (to whom?),
(to me!) they must be funny, funny, from fathomless heights,
these Bellevues and these Belvederes of ours!

I’m listless. losing it. the particulars. urgency.
the new year’s knocking at the door. what can I drink to?
and with whom? and what indeed to drink? instead of champagne bubbles
I’ll take these wads of cotton into my mouth. there, the stroke—God,
what am I doing here? what auspices—what am I supposed to do,
this new year’s noise—your death echoes, Rainer, it echoes and it rhymes.
if such an eye as you has shut,
then this life isn’t life, and death’s not death,
it’s dimming, slipping away, I’ll catch it when we meet.
no life, no death, okay so some third thing,
a new one. I’ll drink to that (spreading straw,
strewing flowers for the 1927th thing,
bye 1926, what a joy, Rainer, ending
and beginning with you!), I’ll lean across
this table to you, this table so big no end in sight,
I’ll clink your glass with mine, a little clink,
my glass on yours. not tavern style!
me on you, flowing together, us giving the rhyme,
the third rhyme.

I’m looking across the table at your cross:
how many places on the margins, how much space
on the edge! and for whom would the shrubbery sway,
if not for us? so many places—our places,
and no one else’s! so much foliage! all yours!
your places with me (your places with you).
(what would I do with you at a rally?
we could talk?) so much space—and I want time,
months, weeks—rainy suburbs
without people! I want mornings with you, Rainer,
I want to begin the mornings with you,
so the nightingales don’t get there first.

it’s probably hard for me to see because I’m down in a hole.
it’s probably easier for you because you’re up on high.
you know, nothing ever really happened between us.
a nothing so purely and simply nothing,
this nothing that happened, so apt—
look, I won’t go into detail.
nothing except—wait for the beat,
this could be big (first one to miss
the beat loses the game)—here it comes,
the beat, which coming beat
could have been you?
the beat doesn’t stop. refrain, refrain.
nothing except that something
somehow became nothingness—a shadow of something
became its shade. nothing, that is to say, that hour,
that day, that home—and that mouth, oh, granted
courtesy of memory to the condemned.

Rainer, did we scrutinize too hard?
after all, what’s left: that light, that world
belonged to us. we’re a reflection of ourselves.
instead of all of this—that whole light world. our names.


happy vacant suburb,
happy new place, Rainer, happy new world, new light, Rainer!
happy distant point where proof is possible,
happy new vision, Rainer, new hearing, Rainer.

everything got in your
way. passion, a friend.
happy new sound, Echo!
happy new echo, Sound!

how many times at my schoolgirl’s desk:
what’s beyond those mountains? which rivers?
is the scenery nice without tourists?
am I right, Rainer, rain, mountains,
thunder? it’s not a widow’s pretension—
there can’t be just one heaven, there’s bound to be
another one, rainier, above it? with terraces? I’m judging by the Tatras,
heaven has to look like an amphitheater. (and they’re lowering the curtain.)
am I right, Rainer, God’s a growing
baobab tree? not a Louis d’or?
there can’t just be one God? there’s bound to be
another one, rainier, above him?

how’s writing in the new place?
if you’re there, there must be poetry. you
are poetry. how’s writing in the good life,
no table for your elbows, no forehead for your strife,
I mean your palm?
drop me a line, I miss your handwriting.
Rainer, do you delight in the new rhymes?
am I getting the word rhyme right,
is there a whole row of new rhymes,
is there a new rhyme for death?
and another one, Rainer, above it?
nowhere to go. language is all learned up.
a whole row of meanings and consonances

goodbye! see you next time!
we’ll see each other—I don’t know—we’ll sing together.
happy land I don’t understand—
happy whole sea, Rainer, happy whole me!

let’s not miss each other next time! just write me beforehand.
happy new soundsketch, Rainer!

there’s a staircase in the sky, lined with Gifts.
happy new ordination, Rainer!

I’ve got them in my palm so they won’t overflow.
over the Rhone and over Raron,
over the clear sheer separation,
to Rainer, Maria, Rilke, right into his hands.

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