In a decade when few prominent artists or writers are truly engaged in politics, particularly in this country, it is difficult to imagine a poet so much at the center of things as Vladimir Mayakovsky was during the Russian Revolution. It was a time of intense literary and artistic production, and as leader of the second wave of Futurism, Mayakovsky worked to change the way people created, understood and participated in art. But he was an ever-contradictory figure, one who would embrace Pushkin while also calling to destroy the static art of the past, and his poems’ lyricism and unapologetic internationalism — with nods to Whitman and Rimbaud — set him well beyond the polemical.
The message we get from Almereyda’s edition on the poet (the first to provide new translations in over 30 years) is that Mayakovsky’s legacy has been stifled. Disenchanted by Stalinist reforms, he took his own life in 1930. Despite his apparent dissatisfaction with the results of the revolution, his old Bolshevik comrades made a martyr of him, but the sophistication and vitality of his later poetry seems to have been glossed over or ignored. Still, he would be an inspiration to generations of American poets, as William Carlos Williams adopted the fragmented long lines, and Frank O’Hara and Ron Padgett mimicked his exuberant sound. But the Hirshman/Ehrlich translations that have since been available to English readers fall flat on the page compared with the work of Almereyda’s new translators. The texture and bluntness of Mayakovsky’s aggressive verse was buried in subtlety, and it’s exciting to see it restored.
Night also creates a narrative of Mayakovsky’s life. Considerable attention is paid to the ménage a trois between him, his publisher and his publisher’s wife, who lived together for several years. Though much of the text comes from biographies and memoirs, along with original essays by the editor and his colleagues, the most heartfelt and enriching entries are reprints from John Berger and Boris Pasternak, who both write of Mayakovsky with a level of empathy and critical lucidity that is difficult for the others to match.