Essays and Reviews

Mayakovsky Maximum Access: poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky translated by Jenny Wade

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

with words.

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.

… Better

to twist off the canaries’ heads

so communism

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.

“Edmond,” Alexis Michalik’s Love Letter to Cyrano de Bergerac

by Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac was a French novelist who lived during the 17th century and inspired the most notorious play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. The love triangle between the shy, poetic and large-nosed Cyrano, his less articulate friend Christian and the charming Roxane, has been staged across the globe and adapted for cinema several times; as well as reworked into operas, ballet and other literary forms.

However the young director Alexis Michalik, through his theatrical background and experience behind and in front of the camera, brings to life a witty and enthralling ode to the author of Cyrano de Bergerac and his creative process.

Michalik’s first feature film, Edmond, is set in Paris in December 1897, exactly when the young French playwright was struggling for inspiration. Thanks to his admirer, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, Rostand meets the most famous actor of the moment, Constant Coquelin, who insists on acting in his next play and having it debut in just three weeks. But Edmond has a wife and two children to take care of, many bills that are due, and most importantly he has yet to write the pièce. However he eventually finds his muse who will inspire the famous ‘Cyrano de Bergerac.’

Director Alexis Michalik sublimely retraces Rostand’s use of verse, creating parallels between Edmond’s mundane activities and his poetry. The entire film is paced by rhyming couplets, with references to the classical alexandrine form, whilst homaging the great legacy of the Académie française. Michalik’s approach in intertwining the biopic with the fictional work, reminds of John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, but in this case the focus is on the genesis of the most famous story of the French Theater.

Michalik, who is also a stage actor and playwright shares some similarities with Rostand: they both had their first theatrical success at 29 years old. The contemporary metteur en scène turned réalisateur, notwithstanding his extensive career as a performer, did not choose to keep the role of Edmond for himself, casting Thomas Solivérès to play Rostand. Michalik opted for a cameo as Rostand’s rival: Georges Feydeau — who was much more successful than Rostand during the 19th century and was also known for being unsympathetic. By playing this role Alexis made a humble choice, mocking his position as an acclaimed author.

Olivier Gourmet performs majestically as the actor that Rostand cast to play Cyrano, Constant Coquelin; and the flamboyant Clémentine Célarié makes a stupendous Sarah Bernhardt. Lucie Boujenah is gentle and courteous in portraying Jeanne (who will inspire the character of Roxane), and Alice De Lencquesaing intensely embodies Rostand’s wife, Rosemonde, who is torn between jealousy and the demeanor that is required by the spouse of a writer of that time.

This film powerfully conveys the elements of dramedy of the original play, through the suave original score composed by Romain Trouillet. The music instills raw authenticity to the historical narration, making it a universal parable about an ambitious artist tackling with the turmoils of an ordinary man. The experience that is left with the audience is the desire to go back and read the original text and discover the nuances of the French hero par excellence: a man without beauty and ambition, but who placed his feelings above anything else…and with great panache.

With Edmond, Alexis Michalik enacts a magnificent cross-fertilization of the arts. He lyrically brings to life a work of metafiction in which theatre acquires a new dignity through motion pictures and where all the world is much more than a mere soundstage.

Glenda Jackson Reigns Supreme as a Gender-Blind King Lear

Review by Katherine R. Sloan

George Bernard Shaw declared that “No man will ever write a better tragedy than King Lear” and, according to many, he was absolutely correct. Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century masterpiece deals with tragedy in its most intimate form and is, at its core, about human failing, the unrealistic need for complete love and the quest for power. What is so unsettling are the crimes committed within a family where something akin to solidarity should exist but, to our appalling dismay, fails. Recently in previews for over a month at the Cort Theatre, King Lear officially just opened on Broadway April 4th and is a most exciting spectacle because of its lead actor: Glenda Jackson. Having Jackson play the role of not simply a man but the king—and one of theater’s greatest parts—is a gender role reversal perfect for 2019 (she brought the role to life two years ago at the Old Vic in London).

jackson as lear.jpg

After coming out of a twenty-plus year retirement and a career in politics, Jackson’s acting chops are just as compelling and captivating as we remember from her stunning films of the 1960s and ’70s. According to The New York Times she is still the “mightiest of them all.” Her performances in such films as Women In Love (1969) and A Touch of Class (1973) (both of which garnered her Best Actress Academy Awards) remain in the imagination as paradigms of daring female energy. Now that she’s 82 years old, Jackson possesses an even more palpable essence of power and prowess. Instead of a uniquely feminine energy, she brings a ferocity to Lear that is without gender and, ultimately, human. When she takes on a Shakespearean role we have complete faith in her vision and understanding of the part: we feel her greed, wrath, madness and, in the last minutes of the play, her heartbreak. As Jackson recently expressed while promoting the play, the ultimate tragedy of King Lear is the realization of love only when it’s too late (Lear dies of a broken heart upon holding Cordelia’s dead body in his arms). With over 1,000 lines, it’s staggering to behold Jackson’s boundless vitality and seemingly effortless projection of some of the finest sentences to exist in the English language.

Under the direction of Sam Gold (Hamlet for The Public Theater, Othello for the New York Theatre Workshop) with original music composed by Philip Glass and costumes designed by the legendary Ann Roth, this version of King Lear has classic, well-honed talent on display along with a great deal of inclusion and modern touches. Russell Harvard (who plays the Duke of Cornwall) is deaf so the use of sign language is employed throughout and, other than Ms. Jackson as Lear, a second male role is played by a female actor with Jayne Houdyshell as the Duke of Gloucester. Roth’s costuming choices add a wonderful flair of sophistication as Jackson dons smart tailored suits and shiny patent leather loafers (until Lear descends into madness and is dressed in torn pajamas and a garland for a crown) while Elizabeth Marvel (House of Cards, Law & Order: SVU) has tattoos on display as Goneril. The women all wear trousers and full-on pantsuits with tunics as short dresses paired with high-heeled boots instead of corsets throughout (although all three daughters wear more traditional, jewel-toned regalia during the first scene where Lear divides his kingdom among them).

The second most rewarding performance is given by Ruth Wilson (The Affair) as she, per tradition, portrays both Cordelia and the Fool. Her Fool is extremely reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp with a Cockney accent and, upon watching, is a delight as she has the energy and physicality of a teenage boy. Wilson’s Fool supplies comic relief but, as we discover later, also has a great deal of depth and is not foolish at all. On the contrary, Wilson’s Fool is quite brilliant. One of the directorial liberties taken by Gold is that he seems to be letting the audience in on the secret that, yes, Cordelia is the Fool.

glenda jackson and fool.jpg

This is never blatantly stated and no direct theatrical evidence points to the fact that these characters were written as one and the same by Shakespeare but that they are simply played by the same actor out of convenience (as they share none of the same scenes) although Lear does state, upon seeing Cordelia’s dead body, “And my poor fool is hanged.” This utterance serves as more than a hint that Cordelia is the Fool in disguise and that Lear knows this. In this production of Lear Wilson (as the Fool) removes her wig and reveals to us her true identity as that of the King’s daughter, Cordelia. This decision by Gold adds another layer to Cordelia’s steadfast, genuine love towards her father thus making the Cordelia/Lear relationship deeper and her subsequent death even more poignant and tragic.

This production of King Lear has all the Shakespearean elements that make going to the theater awe-inspiring, frightening and exciting. With the epic storm scene where Lear literally rages against the natural elements, a deceitful and carnal affair between Edmund (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame) and the two malevolent sisters, extreme violence (the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out is wonderfully done but not for the faint of heart) and death, there is never a minute where action and raw entertainment coupled with superb language are lacking. All of these happenings are just as Shakespeare wrote them but are modernized to be even more salacious at times (there’s a satisfyingly raucous sex romp between Edmund and Goneril) while some aspects are almost an afterthought (as Regan—played by Aisling O’Sullivan—is poisoned and dies in the background). The most overwrought part of the play comes at the end when Cordelia is hanged and, justifiably so, but, if just for a moment as she’s lowered onto center stage with a noose around her neck, it seems that, although very effective, this could have been done with a bit more finesse and subtlety.

Shakespeare is not easy-going theater: one’s ears must remain pricked throughout as tensions run high and complexities grow ever higher. One of the most refreshing aspects of true art is its ability to reflect the most intense, beautiful and terrifying characteristics of life and what it means for even the most powerful among us to be proved fallible. In his 1816 poem On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again John Keats writes of delaying his own writing in order to enjoy one of his greatest inspirations and, in the last line, states: “Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” This implies that Keats hoped for a more effective way of writing poetry and that King Lear was a work of art that could provide him what he needed in order to continue creating. Upon seeing King Lear on Broadway the audience is rewarded not only with one of the greatest spectacles ever written for the stage but, with Glenda Jackson as the lead, one of the most impressive and exhilarating portrayals of Shakespeare’s tragic king.

You’re Never Too Old to Blush (An Excerpt from a Memoir by Steve Cannon)

You’re Never Too Old to Blush (An Excerpt from a Memoir by Steve Cannon)

CHAPTER ONE (Spring, ‘62)

I arrived in New York from England in the spring of 1962. Existentialism was in the air and so was the theatre of the absurd. John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey was all the rage in England. In the downtown theatre scene, Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett were the talk of the town. It was also true for the three-penny opera with Lotalinia, Bobby Daren and Louis Armstrong singin’ “Mack the Night.”

Reggae Rock Movement

Reggae Rock Movement

Reggae rock exists as a subgenre of reggae that started in Southern California and rose to popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bands like Sublime and Slightly Stoopid became the leading forces of the reggae rock movement, whose lyrical focus on consciousness, love, and daily struggles incorporates elements of punk, rock, hip-hop, and root reggae. Artists within this genre were able to cultivate a movement that is both a reflection and combination of all these elements.

Alassio Wave Walking: a burgeoning tide-march born from female vision

Alassio Wave Walking: a burgeoning tide-march born from female vision

In the mesmeric Italian region of Liguria, a new sport has made its way through the waves, thanks to the empowering initiative of two women, one working in hospitality and the other engaged as an avid surfer. Maddalena Canepa and Lorena Rasolo have imported to the enchanting Alassio a competitive physical activity that was founded in 2005 in Northern France and introduced on the Côte d'Azur in 2014 by Sophie Chipon, a Professor at the Sorbonne, who felt the urge to enhance her coastal city with a new sport that is now expanding across the globe.

Sarà il caos — It Will Be Chaos, Exclusive Interview with the Filmmakers

Sarà il caos — It Will Be Chaos, Exclusive Interview with the Filmmakers

Partners in life and in filmmaking, Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo, have always made documentaries that would spread awareness on social justice, human rights, the environment, and the arts. Their most recent work, It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos) is an HBO documentary, in Association with Film2, that depicts how life in the South of Italy is thrown into disarray as refugees arrive by the thousands.

The Global Acclaim of an Arabic Poet - A Review of Adonis: Selected Poems

The Global Acclaim of an Arabic Poet - A Review of Adonis: Selected Poems

In an interview aired by the Louisiana Channel, Adonis recounts memories from a simple childhood. “There was no school in the village,” he reflects on his first home, a poor Syrian farming town. “There was no electricity either.” He sketches a portrait of an uncluttered life: one without cars, or high-tech gadgets, or formal education. What he had, he testifies with a wistfulness intrinsic to his work, was his culture. “And the essence of the old Arab culture,” he asserts, “is poetry.”

If to Create is to Live Twice James Baldwin has Nine Lives

If to Create is to Live Twice James Baldwin has Nine Lives

Albert Camus said that to create is to live twice and, in the case of James Baldwin, this is especially evident in 2019. Why, do you ask, has Baldwin’s fiction recently been adapted into an Academy Award nominated film by Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) while his life has inspired the art exhibition God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin curated by Hilton Als at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City (along with accompanying film screenings). The 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House) was a runaway success and it seems that our appetites are barely whetted for more.

Memorializing Melancholy - A Retrospective on the Beginning of Barry Jenkins' Trilogy of Black Masculine Intimacy

Memorializing Melancholy - A Retrospective on the Beginning of Barry Jenkins' Trilogy of Black Masculine Intimacy

Jenkins’ latest feature, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, concludes what can be considered a Trilogy of Black Masculine Intimacies. All three of Jenkins’ features assume a position about intimacy, more specifically a position about the shared romantic, albeit often warped, intimacies of Black men.

Rick Moody and the Role of Writer and Innovation on Upcoming Political Action

Rick Moody and the Role of Writer and Innovation on Upcoming Political Action

Rick Moody—acclaimed novelist, short story writer, essayist and incredibly socially and politically-conscious individual—was kind enough to speak with us regarding the impact of innovative technologies (most specifically social media) and their effects on upcoming political elections. He also discusses literature, the impetus to combine politics and aesthetics in his prose, his 2016 Election Diary and political involvement by those who dwell outside of the “process.”

A Candle for Amos Oz: The Passing of an Artist, Academic, and Activist

A Candle for Amos Oz: The Passing of an Artist, Academic, and Activist

When my mother first received the breaking news of Amos Oz’s passing, gasping as the Haaretz news headline slid across her iPhone screen, I could sense her shock from opposite Starbucks. Glancing back from the barista counter, in line for our drinks and watching her expression absorb grief from the report, I read her lips as she mouthed the headline: “Amos Oz, Author and Peace Advocate, to Be Laid to Rest.”

Review of 'Sly Bang' by Larissa Shmailo

Review of 'Sly Bang' by Larissa Shmailo

What do you do when there is a, “Army of serial killers, mad scientists, and ultra rich sociopaths” after you? 

Why, you summons your alter, “Larissa Ekaterina Anastasia Nikolayevna Romanova, tsaritsa of all the Russias,” and embark upon Larissa Shmailo’s cornucopiac literary odyssey, Sly Bang, of course.

We deserve more than a corny, highly processed past: Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda”

We deserve more than a corny, highly processed past: Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda”

During the 2016 election, I worked at a large, well known national nonprofit. The organization was firmly part of the political establishment, and among my colleagues, getting tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s frequently sold-out musical “Hamilton” was a marker of social status on par with visiting Cuba in the wake of the warming of Cuba-US relationships. I personally never really understood the appeal of Hamilton. It was everywhere, so I had of course listened to parts of the soundtrack, but it never appealed to me. Overdone. Corny. Yet it sparked something in others.

A Lesson In Love: Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk

A Lesson In Love: Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk

The first time I saw Kiki Layne perform, I was 17 years old. She was playing Oya in a production of “In The Red and Brown Water,” and I was running props backstage. I remember seeing her in this powerful role and thinking, “Wow. She is going to be famous. She has to be.” When I saw that this year, she was starring in Barry Jenkins’ newest feature film, I knew that “If Beale Street Could Talk” would be a must-see movie. I settled into a plush movie theatre seat last week and was drawn into a delicate, honest, and dynamic romantic drama that James Baldwin would have been proud to witness.

Searching for American Truth

Searching for American Truth

Over the past several years there has been a number of American history books that have taken up the task of providing the reading public with a grand narrative of who and what we are as Americans.

Mysticism contained: af Klint’s Paintings for the Future

Mysticism contained: af Klint’s Paintings for the Future

The af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim is a sublime encounter, simultaneously entirely familiar yet alien and unexpected. Born in 1862, af Klint was a painter preoccupied with mysticism. One of the first women to receive a higher education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, she painted commercially for money but pursued mysticism throughout her life. As a teenager, she “participated in spiritistic séances but gave them up due to their lack of seriousness” and in her 30’s she and four other female artists founded a spiritual group that met once a week. The group made contact with spiritual beings which culminated in af Klint channeling the messages she received in a collection of 193 paintings, the majority of which are shown in this exhibition.

Centering the Black Woman

Centering the Black Woman

A common refrain in current activism is “Listen to Black Women”. When the latest traumatic news cycle starts, a chorus of commentators and thinkers invariably chime in, trying to either explain or deny or commodify the moment we find ourselves in. A pervasive response? Listen to black women. This moment is a deep and long overdue reckoning that will take years to unfold - it has of course been building for hundreds of years and is so nuanced so as to require a continual deep engagement etc. But for guidance - what do we listen to? And how?

Hieroglyphics 3rd Eye Vision Review

Hieroglyphics 3rd Eye Vision Review

Hieroglyphics is an Oakland based hip-hop collective that has always thrive to dismantle music by tackling the social consciousness through their scrupulous wordplay. With their extensive knowledge of hip-hop, Hieroglyphics focused more on the lyrical flow rather than the gangster life and always positioned themselves as the alternative to the mainstream and this is best exemplified with their first studio album, 3rd Eye Vision.

Finding Modernism in Venice

Finding Modernism in Venice

Canals filled with turquoise water instead of streets bustling with cars and bicycles come to mind when I think of Venice. Joseph Brodsky’s essay Watermark (1993) resonates deeply with the visitor, as does a watery dream conjured by Robert Altman: I was immediately reminded of his film, 3 Women (1977) upon arrival. Brodsky only visited Venice in December for he longed to celebrate the beginning of a new year with “a wave hitting the shore at midnight.” He explained “that, to me, is time coming out of water.”  Brodsky also described the city as being “part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers” and he described the canal-side structures as “upright lace.” Brodsky, born in Leningrad, was exiled from his homeland due to his “having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism . . . except for the writing of awful poems” (Brodsky went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987). He thought of Venice as the closest incarnation of Eden and “the greatest masterpiece our species produced.”