About That

Vladimir Mayakovsky, About That
(Moscow: Gosizdat, 1923)

            The phone’s raised. 
                                    If hope had been
it’s gone now.
                        Unerringly aiming
the telephone muzzle
                        points between 
my eyes
            half-begging and half-complaining.
I feel I could yell
            at the slow-moving bitch.
Can’t you move faster?
            Don’t stand like Dantés.
Quick, shoot through the cable.
                        Now what’s the hitch?
At least
            this torture
                        could last a bit less.
More terrible than bullets, 
                        the cable swelling, 
dropped by the cook
                        between two yawns,
like a swallowed rabbit         
                        in a python’s belly
from there to me
                        a dread word crawls.
And dreader than words, 
                        from times immemorial
when male won female
                        by rule of might, 
out of the cord
                        came jealousy crawling, 
a cave-dwelling monster,
                          a troglodyte.

From a section subtitled ‘The duel’ in Part 1, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. This translation, entitled ‘It’, is by Dorian Rottenberg, in Vladimir Mayakovsky: Poems (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1927)

The theme of Mayakovsky’s epic poem is love. And not just any old romantic love, but a titanic force that brings jealousy as well as joy, upheaval as much as consolation; love so powerful it can reshape the universe. It is no wonder that he devoted 200 of the poem’s 1810 lines to a frustrating telephone conversation with his lover Lily Brik because this paradoxical, transformative love finds its technological counterpart in the telephone—a tool for connection but a reminder of distance; an emissary of salvation and damnation; a familiar prop but also a proxy for the duelling pistol used by the cad D’Anthès (misspelled in this so-so Soviet translation) to kill the poet Pushkin in 1837, and for the revolver Mayakovsky often pressed to his own head and which ultimately ended his life in 1930. This domestic object with world-spanning capabilities proves the perfect device for the poet’s favoured technique of juxtaposing intimate reality—Brik’s actual phone number, 67-10, is given—with fantastical metamorphoses and demiurgic manipulations of time and space; a momentary wait is stretched out to an eternity embracing dinosaurs and future resurrection and the short distance between the lovers’ homes, exploded by the earthquake of the call, becomes a universe. 

About That was and is famous as much for its illustrations as its poetry. These were provided by the artist Alexander Rodchenko, one of the leaders of the influential avant-garde Constructivist group and a longtime collaborator with Mayakovsky, and represent a landmark in the development of photomontage as an art form. To see some of these images (including those featuring a telephone), please visit this British Library blog post.

by James Rann