Vladimir Mayakovsky
The Backbone-Flute

[ Notes ]

'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? 
                               (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2)


To all whom I like, or have liked in the past,
Whom, as icons, I keep in the cave of my soul,
I raise, like a party guest raises a glass,
My skull, with verse filled whole.

I keep thinking more often: should an ounce of lead,
As a period, at the end of my story go?
So, tonight, not knowing what lies ahead,
I am giving a farewell show.

Memory! Assemble in the halls of my mind
All my beloved, in lines unending.
Pour mirth from eyes into eyes, like wine;
Fill the night with long-ago weddings.

From body to body pour the joy,
And may no-one forget this last concert of mine.
Tonight, as a flute, I will employ
My very own spine.


I crush miles of streets with my sweeping stride.
Where can I go, this inner hell nursing?
What omnipotent Hoffmann up in the sky
Conjured you up, you accursed one?

The streets are too narrow for the merriment's squall.
The celebration ladled out a dressy human flood.
I think. And out of my skull slowly crawl
Thoughts, sick and dried-up, like clots of blood.

I, the wizard of all that is gay,
On this day of festivities am all alone.
Why don't I just end it all right away,
By smashing my brains out on the Nevsky cobblestones?

I used to blaspheme, yelling, "God doesn't exist!",
But God from the depths of Hades uncovered
Her whom even a mountain couldn't resist,
And commanded: "Love her!"

God is pleased, as he watches the long-suffering man
Lose his humanity, and succumb to his fate.
God rubs together his little hands:
"I'll show you, Vladimir, just you wait!"

And it was he -- who else? --
Your true identity to conceal,
Who put real sheet-notes on the piano, by stealth,
And gave you a husband equally real.

And if your bedroom I were to near,
And make the sign of the cross over your sinful lair,
The crackling of the devil's flesh I would hear,
And sulfurous smoke would fill the air.

But instead, through the night, until maybe five,
Horrified that you were taken to his bed again,
I thrashed about and into verse carved my cries,
Like a jeweler gone half-insane.

I should go play cards, and in some Chardonnay
Bathe the groan-weary heart you broke.
I don't need you! I don't want you! Either way,
I know that, soon, I'll croak.

If it's true, my Lord, that indeed you reign,
And that it's you who wove the carpet of stars,
And that this torturous, daily-increasing pain
Was sent by you, from afar,

Then put on your judge's robe and wait
For me to be your visitor.
I'm a punctual man, so I won't be late.
Listen, o Grand Inquisitor!

I will keep my mouth shut. Not a single wail 
Will my bitten-through lips emit.
Tie me to a comet, as to a horse's tail,
And let the stars' sharp points scrape me to bits.

Or, when my soul departs from its host,
And, dimly frowning, appears before your court,
Use the Milky Way as a gallows-post,
And hang me for my many torts.

Draw and quarter me, if you prefer,
And to wash your righteous hands I will humbly offer.
But -- please, please! -- get rid of her,
That damned woman you made me fall for!

I crush miles of streets with my sweeping stride.
Where can I go, this inner hell nursing?
What omnipotent Hoffmann up in the sky
Conjured you up, you accursed one?


And the sky, which the smoke turns from blue to ashen,
And the clouds, like scraggly refugees,
I will light up with my very last passion,
Bright, like a consumptive's glowing cheeks.

Even if the war, drunk on blood, is like Bacchus swaying,
Let me some words of love intone.
My joy will drown out the baying
Of the masses who've forgotten their hearth and home.

Listen, people, get out of your trenches!
Your combat you can later restart.
Dear Germans! I know that Goethe's Gretchen
Is in your hearts.

A Frenchman dies on a bayonet with a smile,
And with a smile crashes a shot-down pilot,
If they remember all the while
Your kiss, Verdi's Violet.

But I don't care about that rosy meat
Which centuries will gnaw and deaden.
Tonight, kneel down before a new pair of feet!
I sing thee, rouged up and red-headed.

From these days, as grisly as the tip of a spear,
Once the decades have grayed my hair,
Perhaps just you and I will still be here,
As after you from city to city I tear.

If, given away, across the sea you were bound,
Or if you hid in the rabbit-hole of the night,
I'd kiss into you, through the fog of London town,
The street-lamps of my lips, set alight.

If across the sweltering desert you lead your caravans,
Where the lions sleep not,
For you I will place, under the wind-blown sand,
My cheek, like the Sahara burning hot.

You infuse your lips with a smile,
You stare -- the torero's so lovable!
And I'll suddenly throw my jealousy into the aisle
With the dying eye of a bull.

Absent-mindedly onto a bridge you veer,
Thinking it must be nice underneath.
But it is I, the Seine, who down there appear,
Calling you and baring my rotten teeth.

With another, your troika will set ablaze
All the trendy pleasure estates,
But from above, I'll torment you with the moon's rays,
As, bare naked, I wait.

I am strong, and my services might be required --
They might order me: go die in the war!
Then your name, as I expire,
Will be caked on my lips, by a cannonball torn.

Shall a crown or St. Helena be, for me, the last word?
Having saddled the waves of life's hurricane,
I am equally qualified to be king of the world,
Or in chains.

And if king they chose me to anoint --
To stamp your sweet little face
On the sunny gold of my coins
I would order my race.

And over where to the world a pale tundra lays claim,
Where the river fights the Northern gale,
Onto my shackles I will scratch Lily's name,
And kiss it in the darkness of my jail.

So listen, you, bristling in a beastly fashion,
Who believe that the sky is still bleak!
This might be the world's very last passion,
Lit up like a consumptive's glowing cheeks.


I'll forget the year, the month, the day.
Sheet of paper and pencil, welcome me!
Commence, of words enlightened by pain
Superhuman alchemy!

Today, when I entered your abode,
I could feel that things were not well.
You hid something in your silken robe,
And of incense spread the smell.

Glad to see me?  
An icy "very."
Fevered with despair, my mind is screaming,
As confusion breaks through reason's barrier.

Listen, no matter what, you can't hide the corpse.
Drop your horrible words onto my head!
For your every muscle, like a megaphone, still blares forth:
"I'm dead! I'm dead! I'm dead!"

No, answer! (I can't just go home in disgrace!)
And spare me your lies!
As two open graves, into your face
Have burrowed themselves your eyes.

The graves grow deeper -- there's no bottom to this!
Any moment, from life's stage I might fall down.
I've stretched my soul like a tightrope over an abyss,
And teeter upon it, juggling verbs and nouns.

I know that love has tired him out,
And boredom I can see outright.
In my soul, let your youth once again sprout,
Reacquaint your heart with the body's delights.

I know that, with women, one must always pay.
But you shouldn't mind if, for now, since I'm broke,
Instead of chic Parisian gowns, I dress you up today
In tobacco smoke.

The Good News of my love I will spread around,
Like an apostle, down a million roads.
You'll be crowned for all eternity -- and in your crown,
Like a rainbow of convulsions, will glimmer my odes.

Like Pyrrhus' elephants with their heavy tread
Stampeded to victory through enemy lines,
So my genius burst into your head --
But it's all in vain: you will never be mine.

Rejoice, rejoice, you've finished me! Maybe I shall, 
Given the anguish I'm in,
Run straight to the nearest canal
And plunge myself into the water's vile grin?

Your lips, against mine, felt callously cold.
At the touch, my passion took a step back,
As if my repentant lips kissed the frozen basalt
Into which a monastery had been hacked.

I heard doors.
He came in, refreshed by the joy of the street.
I almost split in half, with a roar,
I yelled to him: "So be it!

I will leave. She'll be yours. Keep her in silk bedecked,
To make sure her shy wings remain furled.
Lest she fly off, weigh down her neck
With heavy strings of pearls!"

Oh, the night after!
I tightened and tightened the knot of despair.
From my weeping and my laughter
The room grimaced, deathly scared.

And the vision of you that I carried away,
As if burned by your eyes into the carpet, still shines;
Just as some Bialik of our day
Would dream up a dazzling queen of Hebrew Zion.

In agony, before the one I let slip out of my hands
I knelt face downwards on the floor.
Compared to me, King Albert, having lost all his lands,
Was like a birthday boy, showered with gifts galore.

O flowers and grasses, turn golden in the sun!
Be like spring, o elemental forces of the Earth!
Of all poisons, I want only one:
To drink and drink verse.

You who tortured my soul into delirium,
You who stole my heart and left it in tatters --
Please accept this gift, my dear; I am
Not sure I'll ever think of anything better.

May this date as holy be forever observed!
Crucifixion-like magic, don't fail!
Come see, everybody, how with words
To paper I've been nailed.




- The epigraph: not attached to the original, but seems 
very likely to have been an influence.
- The formatting: I preferred to use straight quatrains, 
rather than follow Mayakovsky's style. Rendered his way,
the text would look something like this.

© Serge Elnitsky, 2016

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