CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Cloud in Trousers
translated by Jonathan Brent and Lyudmila Sholokhova
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930) was a prominent Russian Futurist poet, playwright, and artist whose works reflect the turbulent period of Russian history that coincided with World War I, the October Revolution of 1917, and the building of a new socialist society in the Soviet Union. He began writing poetry systematically during his eleven-month incarceration in Moscow’s Butyrka prison (1908–1909) and wrote his first futuristic works in 1911–1914, including the manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (coauthored by David Burliuk, Viktor Khlebnikov and Alexander Kruchenykh). Soon after, he participated in “futuristic tours” to various cities of the Russian empire, giving public poetry readings and lectures with Burliuk, Vasily Kamensky, and other artists. The shocking effect of the artists’ performances was reflected in Mayakovsky’s famous poem “Cloud in Trousers,” of which the introduction and Part I appear here in a new translation.
Mayakovsky began composing “Cloud in Trousers” in early 1914 and finished it in July 1915 in Kuokkala (now Repino), a resort on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, near Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The autobiographical protagonist is a new apostle of Christ who announces his defiance of tradition, and the poem was originally entitled “The Thirteenth Apostle.” However, that title was rejected by the Russian censor. Mayakovsky recalled, “When I came with this work to the censors, I was asked, ‘You don’t want to go to a forced-labor camp, do you?’ I said, no way, under no circumstances. So they crossed out six pages, including the title.”1 When asked by the censors how he could connect lyric poetry with rudeness, Mayakovsky replied, “All right, if you want—I will be wild, if you want—I will be tender, not a man, but a cloud in trousers,” giving rise to the poem’s new title.2
Separate portions of the still-unfinished poem appeared in February 1915, in the Petrograd literary almanac Strelets: sbornik pervii, and in Mayakovsky’s article “About Different Mayakovskys,” published in the Journal of Journals in August 1915. These fragmentary publications included the subtitle tragedy, which was replaced by tetraptych3 in the first, blue-penciled edition, published by Osip Brik in September 1915. In 1916, the poem was published with fewer censor’s cuts in Mayakovsky’s collection Prostoe kak mychanie [Simple as Moo]. Its uncensored parts appeared in the periodical New Satiricon in March 1917.
In 1918, the Association of Socialist Art published the complete original version. For that edition, Mayakovsky wrote an extra introduction (not included here) wherein he inserted special structural subtitles to the four parts of the poem, as “four cries of the four parts”:
Off with your love
Off with your art
Off with your regime
Off with your religion
Mayakovsky dedicated “Cloud in Trousers” to his mistress Lilya Brik, the wife of his publisher Osip Brik, whom he met in 1915 when he had already completed the poem. Their lifelong affair had a profound effect on his work, especially his love lyrics. However, the plot of “Cloud” was inspired by his romantic relationship with Maria Aleksandrovna Denisova. The heroine is named Maria not only because of this personal association, but because Mayakovsky considered Maria to be the most feminine and symbolic name. The image of Maria in the poem combines features of several romantic acquaintances of Mayakovsky with the saintly virtues of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalena. Post-revolutionary Soviet interpretations understood the poem as a lyrical composition, but Mayakovsky himself proclaimed “Cloud” to be “a catechises of contemporary art.”
In the 1920s, Maykovsky worked as a journalist for numerous leading Soviet newspapers, traveling extensively around the Soviet Union and abroad. In 1923, he established the leftist art group and magazine publisher LEF. Contributors to the magazine included Boris Pasternak, Viktor Shklovsky, Sergei Eisenshtein, and Isaak Babel. He wrote several major plays in the late 1920s, which were produced by the innovative Meyerhold Theater in Moscow and were met with sharp criticism.
Hounded relentlessly by the watchdogs of Soviet literature and beset by personal disappointments, Mayakovsky shot himself in his Moscow apartment on April 14, 1930. In 1935, Stalin declared that “Mayakovsky was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet era.”
dreaming on a softened brain
like a blown-up lackey on a greasy couch,
I’ll taunt with a bloody scrap of heart,
mock to my full, insolent and caustic.
Not one gray hair is in my soul,
no old man’s tenderness!
The world shakes from the might of my voice,
I go—a handsome,
You put your love on violins.
The vulgar put love on kettle drums.
But to turn yourself inside out, as I,
and become nothing but lips
this you can’t do!
from the drawing room, you cambric,
proper bureaucrat of the angelic league.
And the one who calmly flicks her lips
like a cook the pages of her cook book.
If you want—
I’ll rage from meat
—and, like the sky changing its tones—
if you want—
I’ll be irreproachably tender,
not a man, but—a cloud in trousers!
I don’t believe there’s flowering Nice!4
Again they praise themselves through me,
men stale like a hospital,
and women worn out like a proverb.
You think it’s malaria raving?
happened in Odessa.5
“I’ll come at four,” Maria said.
left the windows
into a night horror,
The candelabras sneer and neigh
at the senile back.
You wouldn’t know me now:
A sinewed colossus
What could such a clod want?
But the clod wants much!
Because for me it’s nothing
that I’m bronze—
and the heart’s—cold iron scrap.
At night I want to bury my sound
I hunch at the window,
melt the little pane with my forehead.
Will love be or not?
big or tiny?
Big, how from such a body:
It must be small,
a submissive baby love.
It cringes from the blaring horns.
Loves the clink of harness bells.
Still and still,
burying my face in the rain
against its pitted face,
spattered by the thunder of the city’s surf.
Midnight, racing with a knife,
to Hell with him!
Twelve o’clock fell
like a head from the executioner’s block.
Gray raindrops wailed together
massed into a grimace,
as the chimeras wail
on the Parisian Cathedral of the Mother of God.6
What, still not enough?
Soon my mouth’ll rip itself apart with a scream.
a nerve jumped
like a patient from his bed.
at first, barely-barely,
it paced around,
Now with another two
race in a tap dance of despair.
Plaster crashed on the ground floor.
the nerves’ legs give way!
And the night oozes and oozes around the room,—
the waterlogged eye can’t pull itself from the ooze.
Doors banged suddenly,
as would the hotel’s
sharp, like “so there!”
tormenting your suede gloves,
I’m getting married.”
Okay, so get married.
I’ll make it.
You see—how calm I am!
Like a dead man’s
But I saw only one:
that had to be stolen!8
And they stole.
Again, in love I’ll go and play around,
the arch of my brows lit by fire.
Even in a house burned to the ground
homeless bums sometimes live!
You taunt me?
“Your emeralds of madness are fewer
than a beggar’s kopeks!”
by taunting Vesuvius!9
but the most horrible
have you seen it?—
am absolutely calm?
And I feel—
is tight on me.
Someone stubbornly pushes out of me.
Your son is beautifully sick!
He has fire of the heart.
Tell his sisters, Lyuda and Olya,—
he has nowhere to go.10
even a joke,
vomited from his scorching mouth,
leaps like a naked prostitute
from a burning brothel.
smells of burnt flesh!
They herded ’em.
No beetle-crushers! 11
Tell the firemen:
Climb gently up the burning heart.
I’ll roll out my tearing eyes like barrels.
Let me lean against my ribs.
I’ll leap out! Leap out! Leap out! Leap out!
You can’t leap out of the heart!
On the burning face
from a crack in the lips,
out popped a charred kisslet about to jump.
I can’t sing.
In the chapel of my heart the kliros12 is catching fire!
The scorched figurines of words and numbers
from the skull,
like children from a burning building.
to seize heaven,
the burning arms of the Lusitania13.
To the trembling people
in the apartment quiet
a hundred-eyed glow explodes from the harbor.
moan through centuries
that I burn!
1. From Mayakovksy’s “Talk at the Komsomol House of Krasnaia Presnia,” given at the evening celebrating the twentieth anniversary of his literary activities, March 25, 1930. In Collected Works: Moscow, 1955–1961: Vol. 12, Articles, Notes, and Talks (November 1917–1930), page 436.
2. Ibid. Mayakovsky also notes that, when published, his book didn’t sell well. The main consumers of poetry were young ladies and well-to-do women, who wouldn’t buy the book because of its title. When they inquired about Cloud they would be asked “In trousers?” At this, they would run away.
3. Mayakovsky applied the genre “tetraptych” in the poem under the influence of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, who was the first to use tetralogy (tetraptych) for cycles of his tragedies.
4. A reference to the beautiful Nice Flower market at Cours Saleva in Nice; a picture of delight that Mayakovsky rejects.
5. A reference to an encounter with Maria Denisova on the trip with other Futuristic poets to Odessa, January 16–19, 1914. Maria liked Mayakovsky, but wasn’t inclined to share his poetical ideas and Bohemian life style. She later married a promising young engineer and went with him to Switzerland, where she studied painting and sculpture before her divorce and return to revolutionary Moscow. After taking part in the civil war of 1918–1921, she married an important military commander and continued to work as a sculptor. Maria Denisova committed suicide in 1944.
6. A reference to the chimeras added to the façade on the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris during the restoration campaign of 1843–1864. The chimeras had both a practical and symbolic meaning: They served as drainpipes for the water and bore the medieval reminder that the end of the days was nearing. For practical reasons, the chimeras often had open mouths that contributed to their horrifying wailing expressions.
7. A possible reference to Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, which was one of Mayakovsky’s favorite novels. Mayakovsky considered Martin Eden his own reflection.
8. A reference to the painting Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), which was stolen from the Musée de Louvres in Paris on August 21, 1911 by the Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
9. The Italian city of Pompeii was buried during two days by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
10. A reference to Mayakovsky’s mother Aleksandra Alekseevna and his sisters Lyudmila and Olga.
11. Slang for a kind of heavy boot.
12. The choir’s location in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. It originates from the Greek word for “lot,” since initially those who were selected to chant and recite were chosen by lot.
13. The British ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, during the German military’s campaign against Britain in World War I. In eighteen minutes, 1,198 people out of 1,959 were killed.
Jonathan Brent’s books include Stalin’s Last Crime and Inside the Stalin Archives. He has translated poems by Joseph Brodsky and is currently writing a biography of Isaac Babel. The executive director and CEO of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, he teaches at Bard College.
Lyudmila Sholokhova is the author of the catalog Phonoarchive of Jewish Musical Heritage and coauthor of the multivolume edition of Historical Collection of Jewish Musical Folklore 1912–1917 (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine). She is a head librarian of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.