“A Mayakovsky Bestiary”

Maria –
Don’t you want me?
You don’t want me!
“A Cloud in Pants” (p. 103), Vladimir Mayakovsky

Big man with a big voice, Futurist, prisoner in solitary confinement, graphic designer, propagandist, early Soviet film star, Poet, suicide. There is no comprehensive collection of Mayakovsky’s poetry available in English and in response to the lack Michael Almereyda has assembled “a Mayakovsky bestiary.” Night Wraps the Sky: Writing By and About Mayakovsky is a scrapbook assemblage of prose and poetry, a carefully edited montage of language and imagery—imagine a book-length Rodchenko collage with the atmosphere of a black and white silent film. Mayakovsky’s more autobiographical and better known poems including A Few Words About Myself, with the scandalously infamous opening of “I love to watch children dying,” are presented in a single language edition with fresh translations by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur and Matvei Yankelevich.

Early on, John Berger’s spot-on essay explains how the stars aligned for the young Mayakovsky as he was discovering his way in life. Pushkin wrote language and plot which combined the colloquial with the erudite and Mayakovsky— combining the low brow with high brow—is a direct descendant of this tradition. After the Revolution, as part of the sweeping reforms that the new government was imposing, the Russian language itself was simplified. A growing literate proletariat audience found Mayakovsky’s muscular verse to be accessible and stirring. “Then he reads his poems. The whole hall, opponents and supporters, cools into an attentive, tense silence. With unrivaled mastery Mayakovsky recites. His famous voice rings out bold and sincere, filling every nook and cranny of the museum hall. Even the attendants, who have heard many, many things in that hall, listen spellbound.”

He was dynamic, street-smart and handsome. He understood how to Talk Dirty and Influence People as Lenny Bruce would say, though Vinokur compares him to Eminem. Whether intuitive or intentional, wielding his larger than life being and his booming voice, Mayakovsky understood performance and crowd psychology.

Mayakovsky carried the Revolution in his coat pocket and wrote leftist political poetry as he carried Lili Brik in his heart. Completing the triad forming an already open relationship, Mayakovsky met Lili and Osip Brik in July, 1915 which he classified as “Happiest Date” in his journals. Lili Brik began establishing herself as Mayakovsky’s muse. In Lilichka! written in 1916, the poet celebrates his love for his Little-Lili but even through the coarse of the celebration there is an overt desperation present; a foreshadowing of loss that can derive only through uncertainty. He could command an auditorium of people but Mayakovsky could not control Lili or his own seeming obsession with the Briks.

In the bleary front hall,
my arm, broken by trembling,
doesn’t fit into the sleeve.
I’ll run out,
throw my body into the street.
lacerated by despair.

The imagery is reminiscent of early Akhmatova’s famous poetic moment, from the collection Evening, where silently and internally shattered but self-contained a woman places her left glove onto her right hand. Mayakovsky has none of Akhmatova’s tempered restraint. He is feral but he loves too. What is the difference? “Acmeism [Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Gumilyov] was an apartment with a window that looked out on an imagined green and blue landscape from Italy, and an old library with very few books; Futurism [Mayakovsky, Shklovsky, Lili and Osip Brik] was a house with a red-haired dog, a Mexican blanket, and thin paper for printing magazines.”

While post-Revolution Russia seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux, Lenin’s death served as the water-marker denoted that all things ahead were deeper and murkier. By the time Mayakovsky was to have his twenty year retrospective, Stalin was solidly in power. “His exhibition Twenty Years of Work, which opened on February 1, 1930 . . . was boycotted by all official writers’ groups, and was visited almost exclusively by students. He paced the empty rooms, with a ‘sad and austere face, arms folded behind him.’”

Perhaps the most important thing that Almereyda brings across is showing how Mayakovsky has survived through time. Regardless of the lack of a comprehensive selection of his poetry in English, he has been able to influence the English speaking world in addition to the Russian.

. . . always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.
A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island, Frank O’Hara, 1958

Night Wraps the Sky: Writings By and About Mayakovsky
Edited by Michael Almereyda
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pgs, $27.00

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Night Wraps the Sky: Writings By and About Mayakovsky
By Michael Almereyda
Translated by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur, and Matvei Yankelevich
Reviewed by Margarita Shalina
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