Cvetaeva's Magdalina: From Outcast to Beloved

Brian Johnson, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In the first poem of the "Magdalina" cycle, Cvetaeva constructs a narrative through which the poet undergoes a physical and spiritual transformation akin to demonic exorcism. This paper proposes to trace this narrative and its arc of transformation and demonstrate how the poet, Cvetaeva, literally becomes the Mary Magdalene of her own imagination and undergoes the spiritual transformation ascribed to Mary Magdalene in the poem.

As the poem opens, the poet establishes a distance in time from herself and an unknown other, and then moves herself into that time through use of the conditional mood. The description of what the poet would have done in "evangelical times," the purchasing of oil and anointing of Jesus' feet, in essence describes the actions taken by Mary Magdalene. The voice of the poet continues in the conditional mood until the two figures, the poet and the Mary Magdalene described by the poet, merge in the imperative mood, in the word "flow!" At this point, the poet, now in the present tense, assumes the identity of Mary Magdalene and undergoes a physical reaction, a foaming of the mouth accompanied by tears and sweat. Hereafter, in the present tense, the poet describes her physical contact with the unknown other, a transparent Christ figure, introduced at the beginning of the poem.

Just as the poet undergoes a physical transformation and becomes her imagined Mary Magdalene, the poet undergoes the spiritual transformation ascribed to Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene's transformation was from an outcast to beloved of Christ, and Cvetaeva traces this transformation in a narrative of symbols that underlie the narrative of Mary Magdalene's anointing of Christ's feet. The poet describes herself as outcast from her society and separated from her unknown other by commandments and bonfires. She describes herself in terms of sickness and demonic possession that eventually are purged physically in foam, tears and sweat. Yet these images of physical illness also indicate a spiritual malady, one that is based in a sexual attraction to the unknown other and simultaneously draws the poet to her beloved and separates her from him because of the sinful nature of the attraction. It is this underlying theme of spiritual transformation form sinner to beloved, as well as the sexual nature of the poet's attraction to the unknown other that this paper wishes to illuminate in addition to a close reading of the physical transformation of the poet into Mary Magdalene. The paper will utilize other criticism on this cycle to further illuminate the subject.