Review by Peter Bushyeager
Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is a giant of 20th century literature who defined “literary rockstar” decades before the term existed. He starred in films, propagandized relentlessly for the Soviets, and ended his own life in 1930, feeling betrayed and exhausted by the Revolution he had so passionately espoused. His persona and life story are dramatic, but far more compelling is his poetry, which is vividly brought into the 21st century thanks to Sensitive Skin Press’s Mayakovsky Maximum Access.
The bilingual volume offers 24 of Mayakovsky’s best-known works ably translated into English—and with copious notes and an essay— by Jenny Wade. Mayakovsky Maximum Access is not a dry, scholarly book, although Wade’s keen scholar’s insight shapes it. She has obviously lived for some time with Mayakovsky’s work and has a graduate degree in Russian Literature, so she has in-depth knowledge. But she’s not simply a source of information. She’s also an enthusiast with a well-tuned ear for translation who wants to share and enhance an appreciation of Mayakovsky’s achievements. She makes sure that the hallmarks of this poet’s oeuvre— irrepressible passion and energy, pugnacity, melancholy, wit, and poetic innovation—come through loud and clear.
Deck the night with weddings of bygone days.
Pour gaiety from body to body.
Let no one forget this night.
Today I will play the flute—
my own backbone.
—from “Back Bone Flute”
Wade’s approach brings “Back Bone Flute,” one of Mayakovsky’s longer poems, to life. I’ve read this poem before in versions that weren’t quite as immediate as hers, and although I knew the poem was inspired by his intense, troubled love affair with Lilya Brik, I was missing many nuances that Wade’s nimble translation and detailed notes bring to the fore.
Rather than the usual symbol for poetry—a lyre that, in ancient tradition, orders the forces of nature—Mayakovsky chose the flute, Dionysus’ instrument of passion and madness, for his central image. His choice of “backbone” echoes contemporary Osip Mandelstam’s lines from “The Age,” where the poet “must bind together the broken vertebrae of two centuries” and “bind together the joints of nodular days with a flute.”
The opening stanza of “Backbone Flute”:
To all of you
who I love or have loved,
watched over by icons in the cave of my soul,
I raise my skull, filled with poetry,
like a chalice of wine before the table
matches perfectly with the final stanza, which appears after nine pages of linguistic and emotional twists and turns:
Color today’s date a holiday.
Come into being,
Magic equal to the crucifixion.
You all can see—
I’m nailed to the paper
Wade succinctly summarizes the symmetry in this way: “the chalice/the cross; the skull overflowing with poetry/the paper to which the poet is nailed.”
Wade’s commentary helps us realize that this poem, although passionate and a bit unhinged, is quite carefully considered and calibrated. Her notes also include the backstory of the poem’s creation, which adds a special edge. Lilya Brik, the subject of the poem, dutifully reviewed and blessed each ardent stanza as it was written!
Mayakovsky Maximum Access highlights each stage of the poet’s high-wire life. Alternating between all-embracing, seemingly grandiose declamation; outright propaganda; and desperate, pathetic loneliness, Mayakovsky’s writing was always ready to generate intensity.
In the beginning, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution; his innovative, iconoclastic spirit and aesthetic seemed to dovetail perfectly with Soviet politics. “Khrenov’s Story About Kuznetsk Construction and the People of Kuznetski” is one of his better propaganda pieces. It celebrates the heroic construction of a Siberian industrial city. Structured around the echoing chorus “Four years from now we’ll have a garden-city,” the poem talks about the Siberian cold and other hardships, and ends with the confident “I know there will be a city. I know a garden will bloom, when there are people like this in our country, our Soviet land!” The poem was recited to the workers to motivate them to continue construction despite having their hands frozen to frigid iron scaffolding. From all reports, it was highly effective.
Ultimately, however, Mayakovsky lost faith in both communism and his practice as a poet, became alienated and isolated, and committed suicide. “About Trash” presents his disenchantment.
Bourgeois threads have tangled the revolution.
to twist off the canaries’ heads
is not beaten down by canaries!”
“Unfinished”, his final sequence of poems, summarizes his state of mind in a poignant, understated way.
the sea goes away again
the sea goes away to sleep
As they say the incident is closed
love’s boat has crashed on convention [. . .]
Look how silent the earth is
Night has laid a starry yoke on the sky
In hours like these you stand and speak
to centuries to history and to the universe [. . .]
I know the power of words. It looks like a trifle,
a petal fallen under the heel of a dance,
but a man in his soul, his lips, his bones
—excerpts from “Unfinished”
Mayakovsky Maximum Access earns pride of place in my collection of Mayakovsky translations. For those familiar with his work, it offers added insight and a fresh immediacy. For those new to his poetry, it provides a concentrated selection of some of his best works, accompanied by commentary that humanizes Mayakovsky’s accomplishments by placing the poems in a clear context. This book is a key addition to the Mayakovsky canon for English-speaking audiences.