The Sealey Challenge: Listen! Early Poems 1913-1918

a white hand holds LISTEN! EARLY POEMS 1913-1918 by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a small orange book in front of yellow flowers.

The introduction told me that the poetry in this City Lights Pocket Poets book would surprise me, since I probably knew the poet’s work from his epics. Elaine Feinstein was right: I was definitely (wonderfully!) surprised by Listen! Early Poems 1913-1918, early poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky selected and translated from the Russian by Maria Enzensberger. I mean, I’d never even heard of Mayakovsky. I knew neither his lyrics nor his epics, and went into this reading knowing only that I thought the City Lights Pocket Poets edition was really pretty. Mayakovsky, brought to me through Enzensberger’s translation, was a wonderful surprise.

I don’t often read Russians, although I’ve always been fond of Russian classical music, and I guess I assumed Listen! would share more than a bit with, say, Tchaikovski’s Queen of Spades, which I saw at Lyric in the Beforetimes and absolutely loved. (It’s hella dark.) Instead, Listen! is often laugh-out-loud funny, ranging from the absurd (and absurdist) to the sly, winking and nudging and teasing and joking. The first lines of the first poem included here are pretty great: “Upon the cobbles / of my foot-clobbered soul,”1 Mayakovsky writes, and I mean, I think plenty of people have had foot-clobbered souls, whether they want to think about it that way or not.

But even in these snarky, funny poems, Mayakovsky is capable of great tenderness. The poem “Listen!,” which gives this collection its name, calls stars “speckles of spit” and imagines a conversation with God: “In tears / he kisses God’s sinewy hand / and begs him to guarantee / that there will definitely be a star.” It’s a funny image, and a brilliant one, and then it segues into increasing tenderness, as Mayakovsky reminds us: “Listen, / if stars are lit, / it means there is someone who needs it.”2 Who needs it? It doesn’t matter. Someone out there needs that light, and so it is there.

The “Prologue” from The Backbone Flute,3 meanwhile, is something sad and wistful, as Mayakovsky speaks of suicide, of death and bones and a toast to the living and the left-behind. (Given his eventual end, it seems like a sad, tender premonition.) And, closing out the collection, “Concern for Horses,” written in 1918, brings tenderness and compassion to a horse who has struggled and fallen in a Moscow street, ending finally with hope as the horse, surging up and returning home, has decided that “it was still a colt / and life was definitely worth living again.”4

It’s worth noting that Mayakovsky gives his name to several poems, which I assume is a bit of tongue-in-cheek joking with his reader. There are several selections from Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, most of which are hilarious. In the “Prologue,” for instance, he writes “I am dauntless, / my dislike of sun-rays carrying through time. / With a soul strung as the nerves of a wire, / I am the lord of electric bulbs.”5 What can I say? it’s hilarious, it’s perfect, and, as someone not best fond of the sun, I feel like I need this sucker in cross-point over my bed.

City Light’s edition is really cute: it’s orange! I love orange! And it’s small and fun to read, filled with images from roughly the era of the poetry included. I’m not sure I always understood the images, but since I’ll be reading this again, I suppose I’ll have a chance to get to know them better as I read and re-read. In any case, they’re an enjoyable (albeit sometimes oblique) companion to Mayakovsky’s words.

I came to Listen! with no familiarity at all with Vladimir Mayakovsky, and precious little knowledge of Russian literature as a whole. Listen! was so much more than I’d expected, alternately hilarious and tender, and I am glad to have stumbled across it in the Seminary’s poetry section, and glad to have had this chance to get to know a poet of whom I’d never heard.

1 p. 19, lines 1-2

2 p. 50, 51, lines 11-14, lines 2-3 and 27-28.

3 p. 53-54

4 p. 60, lines 58-59

5p. 27, lines 26-29

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