I have loved this poem for years now - even before I knew anything about the life of its author. And even though I'm still not quite sure what she means by "dusty purple" (her art? her passion? her memories? the majesty of her inner fire?), nor what her dusty staff is "when all light's rays are shed" (her enduring stubbornness? her hope beyond hope?), nor what is the "law of blessings and law of stone" (the gospel of Jesus and the Ten Commandments? grace and justice? the sudden miraculous serendipity that walks hand in hand with relentless reason and unforgiving consequence?)
But I love this poem because, even without knowing exactly what she means - I know what she means.
After WWII, Marina Tsvetaeva faced starvation in Moscow - even mistakenly (and tragically) placing a daughter in a state orphanage where she thought the girl would be better fed. She and her surviving daughter fled to Berlin, where she was reunited with her husband. They moved to Prague, where their son was born, then settled in Paris where she contracted tuberculosis. Then faced ostracism when her husband was revealed as a spy for the Soviet secret police.
Without other options, Tsvetaeva followed her husband to Moscow, but in Stalin's USSR found all doors closed to her. Her sister had already been imprisoned and the two sisters never saw each other again. Friends, afraid for their own lives and reputations, refused to help. Within a few years her daughter (who had increasingly turned against Tsvetaeva) was also imprisoned and Tsvetaeva's husband was shot for espionage. Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to an area where she could not find work to support them. She spent the last months of her life desperately looking for any kind of job. Some believe she was at last forced by a squad of secret police to hang herself. She lies in an unmarked grave.
Not so encouraging reading for our Thanksgiving Feast?
But this story traces the shapes of all the things I fear most - the monsters of my nightmares - torn by war, not being able to feed my children, losing the people I love, estrangement, doors closed against me, betrayal, despair - and still, in the face of all these nightmares, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote this poem.
I Bless the Daily Labor
I bless the daily labor of my hands,
I bless the sleep that nightly is my own.
The mercy of the Lord, the Lord’s commands,
The law of blessings and law of stone.
My dusty purple, with its ragged seams—
My dusty staff, when all light’s rays are shed.
And also, Lord, I bless the peace
In others’ houses—others’ ovens’ bread.
A poem which still lives.
Which still carries on, whispering her words into my ears, and now yours, lighting a small and comforting fire on other hearths many years and many miles from her own.
Blessings on all of you,
wherever you are, whoever you are.
Peace to your houses.
May you have peace as your daily bread.