Sunday, April 16, 2006

Brooklyn Bridge

Soviet writers loved technology. No third-rate Communist writer of the thirties or forties would have felt complete without praising output levels in tractor factories or paeons to pig iron production in the five-year plan, works interesting now only for their humour value.

Although its subject is a bridge, Mayakovsky's poem "Brooklyn Bridge", while bubbling with enthusiasm, never looks ridiculous. Mayakovsky, who wrote the poem during a six month visit to the USA in 1925, writes as a tourist lost in wonder viewing the marvel of his age.

There is a certain irony in a staunch Communist acclaiming the technology of the ultra-capitalist United States, and Mayakovsky, never one to shirk a problem, approaches it in his first lines -

Give, Coolidge,
a shout of joy!
I too will spare no words
Blush at my praise
Go red as our flag

He then launches into a full-on acolade, using, as he too often does, a military metaphor.

As a crazed believer enters a church,
retreats into a monastery cell, austere and plain
so I, in graying evening haze
humbly set foot on Brooklyn Bridge.
As a conqueror presses into a city all shattered,
on cannon with muzzles craning high as a giraffe
so drunk with glory, eager to live
I clamber, in pride, upon Brooklyn Bridge

If I worked for the New York Tourist Board, I'd consider making the next lines into a slogan -

As a foolish painter plunges his eye,
sharp and loving, into a museum madonna
so I, from the near skies bestrewn with stars,
gaze at New York through the Brooklyn Bridge

I've never been to New York, but I imagine his description of the quietness, even ghostliness, of the city no longer applies

New York, heavy and stifling till night,
has forgotten its hardships and height;
and only the household ghosts
ascend in the lucid glow of its windows
Here the elevateds drone softly.
And only their gentle droning
tells us: here trains are crawling and rattling
like dishes being cleared into a cupboard

Mayakovsky now drops in one of his other preoccupations, how he and his era will look to succeeding generations. This angle gives Mayakovsky's work a sharp immediacy as, from the grave, he directly addresses the reader. He invokes the dinosaurs as a metaphor for mortality, another recurrent theme.

If the end of the world comes
and chaos smash our planet to bits,
and what remains will be this
bridge, rearing above the dust of destruction;
then, as huge ancient lizards are rebuilt
from bones finer then needles, to tower in museums,
so, from this bridge, a geologist of the centuries
will succeed in recreating our contemporary world.
He will say - that paw of steel
once joined the seas and the prairies;
from this spot, Europe rushed to the West,
scattering to the wind Indian feathers

Mayakovsky now moves on to describing his own, ultra-modern world

By the cables of electric strands,
I recognize the era succeeding the steam age -
here men had ranted on radio
Here men had ascended in planes.
For some, life here had no worries;
for others, it was a prolonged and hungry howl.
From this spot, jobless men
leapt headling into the Hudson

A bit of a research error here, as the jobless men would have needed exceptionally strong leg muscles to plunge into the Hudson from the East River-spanning Brooklyn Bridge.

And he brings things to an end by namechecking himself, standing on the Bridge composing a poem.

I see: here stood Mayakovsky,
stood, composing verse, syllable by syllable.
I stare as an Eskimo gapes at a train,
I seize on it as a tick fastens to an ear.
Brooklyn Bridge -'s quite a thing.

Now I no longer writer poetry, but if I ever make it to New York, I might just heading up to the bridge to compose a line or two, because I don't have too many heroes whose footsteps I'd like to follow, and it would indeed be quite a thing.

The Bedbug and Selected Poetry


Anonymous Dick said...

That must have gone down well with Uncle Joe. Strange: both Mayakovsky & Brecht - big time reds, the two of them - had a thing about America.

7:31 am  
Blogger doppelganger said...

Vygotsky claimed that the Uzbeks would never understand tractors as they had no appropriate language to constitute such an understanding. It would be interesting to see if a tractor shaped void thus existed in their cultural landscape....

9:05 pm  

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