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

Mayakovsky's is one of the more recognisable faces of the Russian Revolution. While Lenin bestrode the platform, leaning forward to emphasise his points to the crowd, all captured on movie film, in this volume Mayakovsky is deceptively still and solid, darkened eyes beneath a heavy brow and woollen cap. He inhabits Rodchenko's playful photomontages which interpret, rather literally, the tortured progress of the poet's own 'Ballad of Reading Gaol', proceeding to Christmas Eve, and culminating in a concluding section revealingly entitled Application on Behalf of.... please, comrade chemist, fill it in yourself.

The rhythm seems to echo Oscar Wilde's own relentless rumble, which is captured very well in this feisty translation:

The music of the ballad sure ain't new -
but if its words are words of pain
and its words describe the pain again
the ballad too renews its old refrain.

Lily Brik, wife of Mayakovsky's publisher, Osip Brik, was, it seems, the most immediate cause of the poet's pain. That's What, a loose translation of the Russian 'Pro Eto', literally 'about this', is 'dedicated to her and to me'. Lily also inhabits Rodchenko's montages, so he seemed to know what Mayakovsky's theme really was, even if the poet was more suggestive and less explicit.

Arc have produced a handsome Russian-English edition of this personal epic of the early years of the Revolution, first published in the LEF journal (Left Front of the Arts) in 1923. George Hyde adds a lively note on Translating Mayakovsky's 'That's What'. His co-translator, Larisa Gureyeva, is the granddaughter of V.M. Molotov-Skryabin, co-signatory of the notorious pact with Germany of 1939.

Hyde writes of the 'permissive' 1920s in the early Soviet Union. Following the recent splendid exhibition of Rodchenko and Popova at the Tate Modern, there are increasing signs of a growing interest in the early, tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution.