Over 40 years
at the cutting edge
of poetry publishing
[Twitter] [rss feed] [Facebook]

Review: Pro Eto - That's What, by Vladimir Mayakovsky

The eyes of Mayakovsky's lover and muse, Lily Brik, bore out at you from the cover of this important new edition of Mayakovsky's long poem, Pro Eto. Lily Brik occurs elsewhere in the book; in the text, which she haunts, but also in the astonishing photomontages for the poem by Alexander Rodchenko, which are published here for the first time. The photomontages are now a sepia ochre, but, somehow, that makes them even creepier. Rodchenko captures the montage effect of the text with cut-ups of landscapes, polar bears, seated and standing figures in various melancholy poses, and above all, telephones!!

For Mayakovsky in this text, the telephone seems to symbolise the tensions of physical intimacy. Lily was the wife of Mayakovsky's publisher, Osip Brik, and the telephone seems a metaphor for the difficulties of that relationship, with the presence of the lover's lips at the other end, but a yawning distance between the people;

It's me, mirrored
in the phone's iron.

Grab him,
send him some memos
from the
All-Union Executive Committee

The useful notes at the end of the book tell us that the 'All-Union Executive Committee' was the organ that oversaw the elimination of 'enemies of the revolution'!! In another section called 'Turning beary all over', Mayakovsky satirises the Russian bear's claims to strength and self-sufficiency, and also his own part in that myth making,

he can whine, bear-like,
to the last when
then just lie down

in his beary lair
scrabbling with his twenty claws.
A leaf falls.
Like an avalanche.
It disturbs him.

Mayakovsky had a difficult relationship with the Russian revolution too. When it came, he embraced it and became its Poet Laureate; Stalin gave him liberties he squashed in others. However, the contradictions that Mayakovsky found in the revolution, often lead him to leave Russia, either to seek solace in the arms of other women, or out of despair at the politics. In 1930, at the age of 37, he took his own life.

Russian is a difficult language to translate as it is highly inflected and has few of the function words that English has, i.e. articles and prepositions. This means that the original language is dense and rhythmically impacted, and in English it can seem vatic and gestural. This is less of a problem here since the text is so charged and emotional, anyway. The text is spattered with exclamation marks! George Hyde's introduction also tells us that Mayakovsky had his own version of 'sprung rhythm' and advised his readers to listen for the 'dull roar' as sounds turn into words that turn into meaning.

The text is organised into four sections: an introduction 'What's This - That's What'; Part 1 'The Ballad of Reading Goal' - evidently Mayakovsky also thought of himself as involved with a 'love that dare not speak its name'; Part 2 'Christmas Eve' - Mayakovsky felt that Christmas was a time when pasts and presents fused in the self-abandonment called the family; and a final part 'Application on behalf of ...(Please, comrade chemist, fill it in yourself)'. In them, he moves from despair, to surreal humour, fist-shaking anger, through sensual detail and satire. Given the way British politics has once more bemired itself in sleaze, double-dealing and all-round cackhandedness, this is a wonderfully timely, necessary book.