“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.
Feral,
crazed,
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


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

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
ISBN:
$
Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >

A Dilemma
A Dilemma by Joris-Karl Hyusmans
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .

Read More >

Walker on Water
Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .

Read More >

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura
The Nightwatches of Bonaventura by Bonaventura
Reviewed by J. T. Mahany

Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .

Read More >

Pavane for a Dead Princess
Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-Gyu
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .

Read More >