Seeing Anne Carson on Monday is like surprising a gazelle climbing a hill on the savannah. It is like coming across a stand of three or four birch trees suddenly in a forest of maple. “I always sound so together,” she jokes at the microphone after she is introduced. We take a wrong turn from Charles street. I lead Caroline (who I have met incidentally) to the rear of the building, where there is no door, near the dumpsters. But inside the chapel I realize that the rear of the building is precisely where the reading is located—its four massive stained glass windows look out over that back parking lot. I want to take a picture of Carson standing at the foot of those windows and dwarfed by the light passing through them. But the architects of the building, who may have anticipated smartphones over one hundred years ago, ensured that the light would be low enough that the windows would always be dazzling by contrast. This is so no one inside forgets about God even when they allow their mind to wander. I see on the screens of phones raised in front of me that they are only able to pick up those four wide blocks of light. Carson reads us a story about a woman who is a forsenic splash expert who with the help of a corvid friend named “Shortpants” annoys local mafioso. It is somehow both paranoid and earnest. The protagonist reads verbal patterns like a poet. I imagine writing my own story, beginning somehow with that wrong turn. “Looking up they saw the chapel where the reading would take place. In the window a white face suddenly turned away. Impossible to say with any certainty who it was.” In the hallway outside the chapel they are selling a selection of Anne Carson’s books, including one that has yet to be released. But Anne Carson is standing about ten feet in front of the table, standing next to but not talking to one of the event’s organizers. She looks bored and casual. She is after all just a human being killing time for the same reason we are. But it is impossible not to feel scrutinized. I purchase a single book and find my seat. It’s Monday and soon we will be listening to a woman who I imagine has meant something to all of us. I keep wishing I was reading her on the page and vow to spend more time with her. A poet later claims on Instagram that they fell asleep in the second row. And as Carson introduces herself she says that her great-grandfather, one of the founders of the university, died when he accidentally mixed too much lead into his shampoo. “You may find his portrait downstairs,” she tells us. But I don’t.
The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva was an outsider everywhere. She was forced to emigrate to Europe after the Soviet revolution because her husband had served in the White Army, but she never quite fit in with the rest of the crowd of Russian émigrés in Paris. Her poetry was considered too radical in form by those in emigration in Paris, and too conservative in content by the poets of post-revolutionary Russia.
Making matters worse, while in emigration Tsvetaeva’s husband began to involve himself with a Soviet front organization. Because of his alleged involvement in a string of murders performed by the group, the “Union of Friends of the Soviet Fatherland”, her husband was eventually forced to return to Russia, abandoning Tsvetaeva in Paris and further alienating her within the émigré community, who were not eager to associate with those sympathetic to the Soviet government. It did not help matters that Tsvetaeva’s family was desperately poor in France, and at times they survived entirely on four to five francs a day in income from bonnets made by Tsvetaeva’s daughter.
Given her biography, it’s probably not surprising that for Tsvetaeva art and isolation were intimately related. “Love”, as she describes it in her semi-fictional essay “My Pushkin”, has an inherent “absent” quality. It is primarily concerned with objects that are not there, and that the primary viewer is isolated from. According to Tsvetaeva, a cat cared for for three days and never seen again is love, a drummer boy that goes off to war and does not come back is love, and her naphthalened Paris dolls packed back in a trunk and put away are love. The love comes from yearning for the lost object.
Tsvetaeva claims her conception of love is common to all poets: when as a little girl she is asked by her mother which of her dolls she likes the most, Tsvetaeva answers that her favourite is “the one from Paris,” because of “her passionate eyes.” But the feeling of passion is not in the doll itself, instead it is something that the young Tsvetaeva has ascribed to it when she looks in the doll’s eyes, thinking of the word “Paris,” and of the mysterious naphthalene, and by “the inaccessibility to me [Tsvetaeva] of the doll.” The passion is constructed by the poet’s imagination, and because of the absence or inaccessibility of the object, reality cannot interfere with that passion. “All poets,” experience this phenomenon, she explains, “and then they shoot themselves because the doll isn’t passionate!”
At the age of six Tsvetaeva watched a concert which included a scene from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, where the “absent” nature of love was demonstrated for her by Tatyana and Onegin. Onegin comes to speak to Tatyana while she is sitting on a bench, and instead of joining her there he makes Tatyana stand and meet him. The reluctance of Onegin to sit is evidence to Tsvetaeva that Onegin did not love Tatyana: “and only because of [this] did she love him so much, and only because of [this] did she chose him to love… because secretly she knew that he would not be able to love her.” The two of them together, even though only one feels love for the other, and only because the other does not love back, is “love”.
As Tsvetaeva explains, without absence love is diminished much like a poem is diminished by bombarding it with factual questions:
[…] every “why” demands and passes judgement on a “that’s why,” and thereby weakens the integrity of the whole process, turns the whole poem into an interval, fastening our attention on a final external purpose which a poem ought not to have. An insistent question turns poetry into a riddle and a problem, and if every poem in itself is a riddle and a problem, it is not that riddle, for which the right answer is at hand, and not that problem, to which the solution is in a textbook.
Asking too many questions about a poem decreases the power of the poem because with every question asked, an answer is provided which defines an aspect of the poem and reduces the reader’s individual imagination. It is the absence of the object that defines not only Tsvetaeva’s concept of love but also her concept of poetry. This is clearly addressed when she describes falling in love with Pushkin’s poem To The Sea. In the poem Pushkin, who has been denied his request to leave Russia, bids farewell to the “free element” of the sea. Rather than recognize this “free element” as water, Tsvetaeva the child equates it with poetry itself: “it’s verse […] but why farewell? Because, when you love you always bid farewell. It is ony [sic] then that you love, when you bid farewell”.
The poem builds an image of the sea that for the young Tsvetaeva is so transcendental it cannot hope to be matched by reality. When her mother announces that they will be going to the sea because of an illness she has, she can have no idea that in “pronouncing to the sea… she was giving a promise that she couldn’t keep.” The sea is not anything like Tsvetaeva imagines it to be. As she confesses, for the young Tsvetaeva imagining the sea, it exists on a semiotic level, beyond language, and she can name nothing concrete about it at all, because she is so young she hasn’t learned about it in school yet or from any other source–only from Pushkin’s poem. For her, the sea literally is farewell, love, poetry. The experience of actually seeing the sea for the first time proves to be so unsatisfying that Tsvetaeva declares that her sea, “the sea of my and Pushkin’s To the Sea could only be on a sheet of paper–and within.”
Tsvetaeva’s understanding of absence might help explain her unwavering loyalty to her husband, who abandoned her frequently. When he was fighting with the White army, leaving her alone in war-ravaged Moscow with their two children (one of whom, during the five years she was left there, died of starvation), Tsvetaeva wrote in her diary: “If God performs a miracle and leaves you among the living, I shall serve you like a dog.” The entire time he was away, she hadn’t known whether he was living or dead. She echoed her sentiments later when he returned to Russia amid claims that he was a Soviet agent, blind to the fact that through his actions (unknown to her until he was revealed) he had jeopardized their life together and forced her return to Soviet Russia: “And here am I, about to go–like a dog.”
But for Tsvetaeva a life of chasing after an errant husband was perhaps better than the alternative. She advises young women to be like Tatyana in “the enchanted circle of her own loneliness in love,” in order to be “a thousand times happier than that other heroine of ours [Anna Karenina], the one who from the fulfillment of all wishes had nothing left but to lie down on the rails.” Imagination can defeat isolation, but perhaps only up to a point. Her return to Russia was far from happy, because her husband was killed in a purge before she even arrived. The Soviet poets and writers she knew in Russia refused to visit her, for their own reasons, and only a few years later she hung herself.