Mayakovsky’s Backbone flute
05 September, 2017
Vladimir Mayakovsky is considered one of the Russian Futurism’s leading figures and is known as the Poet of Revolution. There is no other writer, in fact, linked as much as him with Russian Revolution. Mayakovsky wrote a lot: plays, propaganda slogans, essays, sketches and, of course, poems. Poems about Revolution, about Soviet patriotism, about himself, about love. His enormous talent, sensibility and lyric intensity are particularly visible in love poems. I might be a hopeless romantic but…really, who could resist such a deep, tormented demonstration of love? Кроме любви твоей, мне нету моря (But for me, there’s no sea except for you love). This is an excerpt from “Lilichka! (Instead of a letter)”, dedicated to Lilya Brik.
Lilya Brik (born Kagan), one of the most famous women in Russian and Soviet culture, was the wife of the writer and literary critic Osip Brik, who financed the publication of Mayakovsky’s futuristic poetry collection ‘Cloud in Pants’. Lilya and Mayakovsky had a passionate and dramatic love affair, which influenced Mayakovsky’s poetry throughout his life, but the woman remained married to Osip Brik. Mayakovsky and the Briks had an unconventional relationship, they were inseparable, lived together in one flat, travelled as a family.
Lilya Brik inspired Mayakovsky’s greatest love poems. My favourite one is “The backbone flute” (Флейта-позвоночник), in which the poet expresses his love’s madness, frustration and pain. I really wanted to write a post about it and share with you “The backbone flute”, or at least a part of this passionate, intense, devastating beautiful poem!
Пусть не забудется ночь никем.
Я сегодня буду играть на флейте.
На собственном позвоночнике.
Может быть, от дней этих,
жутких, как штыков острия,
когда столетия выбелят бороду,
бросающийся за тобой от города к городу.
Будешь за море отдана,
спрячешься у ночи в норе –
я в тебя вцелую сквозь туманы Лондона
огненные губы фонарей.
В зное пустыни вытянешь караваны,
где львы начеку,-
под пылью, ветром рваной,
положу Сахарой горящую щеку.
Улыбку в губы вложишь,
тореадор хорош как!
И вдруг я
ревность метну в ложи
мрущим глазом быка.
Вынесешь на мост шаг рассеянный –
хорошо внизу бы.
под мостом разлился Сеной,
скалю гнилые зубы.
С другим зажгешь в огне рысаков
Стрелку или Сокольники.
Это я, взобравшись туда высоко,
луной томлю, ждущий и голенький.
понадоблюсь им я –
себя на войне убей!
запекшееся на выдранной ядром губе.
Let no man forget this night.
Listen to me, I will play the flute.
On my backbone tonight.
Perhaps, from these days,
Horrifying like the bayonet’s edge,
When the centuries bleach my beard silver,
Shall remain unchanged,
And I, —
Running after you from city to city.
You will be wedded beyond the sea,
In the lair of the darkness, you’ll hide–
Through the London fog, I will kiss tenderly
With the fiery lips of the streetlamps at night.
If your caravan stops in the deserts’ expanse,
Where the lions are keen and quick–
Under the wind-blown sands,
I will place my Sahara-like burning cheek.
Wearing a smile,
you will see
a fine toreador on the ground!
Will fling my jealousy into the crowd
With the bull’s dying eye.
If you carry your faltering steps to a bridge,
How good it would be beneath–
It is I,
The Seine flowing under,
Who beckons you,
Baring my rotten teeth.
If with another, with the sparks of the hooves,
You light up the Strelka or the Sokol’niki,
Then it is I, tempting you with the moon,
Climbing up higher, naked and calling you.
In the war, they will need someone strong,
they’ll command me:
get killed, cold-blooded!
The last thing I utter–
Your name shall be
On my shrapnel-torn lip, blood-clotted.
(Translation by Andrey Kneller)
Since “The backbone flute” is quite long, I only posted my favourite strophes, the ones that made me fall in love with the poem. You can find the entire poem translated to English here: http://www.unlikelystories.org/old/archives/backboneflute.html.
What else could I add? The poem speaks for itself!
If you want to know more about Mayakovsky
Vladimir Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Baghdati (Georgia). In 1911 he joined the Moscow-based literary group Hylae which gave birth to Russian Futurism. The movement rejected traditional elements and welcomed social change. In his early poems Mayakovsky didn’t use traditional metrical structures and introduced street language, considered unpoetic in literary circles at the time. In 1915, Mayakovsky published “A Cloud in Trousers”, his first major work. In the same year he fell in love with Lilya Brik. In 1917 in Petrograd, Mayakovsky witnessed the Bolshevik insurrections of the Russian Revolution. From that moment the poet greeted the revolution with a number of poetic and dramatic works, painted posters, wrote didactic booklets for children, wrote scripts for motion picture. In 1930, disappointed by love and disillusioned with Soviet reality, Mayakovsky committed suicide in Moscow, raising speculation about the nature of his death. Mayakovsky was maybe the most important figure of the Soviet literary scene; Stalin declared him the “best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch”. His poems and technical innovations influenced a lot of Soviet poets, especially in the 1930s.