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Unread 05-28-2022, 12:02 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 192
Default Mayakovsky’s “Brooklyn Bridge”

I’m posting this translation over here because it isn’t mine. It is masterful and worth musing on, as of course is the original, my favorite of Mayakovsky’s American poems. The translator, Theo Merrill Sparks, was an American entertainer, songwriter, poet and improbably prolific translator, judging from his 400 pages in Modern Russian Poetry (MacGibbon & Kee, 1966). He would have turned 100 this year. Mayakovsky’s basic form—jazzed up with irregularities, slant rhymes and stairstep lineation—is still the classic Russian iambic tetrameter. Sparks is even less regular and more sparsely rhymed, but he’s got enough to keep me grooving. I tinkered with a few lines, but the translation’s splendid breeziness is all his. Enjoy (and see if you can catch Mayakovsky’s factual error)!

Brooklyn Bridge

Hey, Coolidge boy,
give a shout of joy!
When a thing is good
                               then it’s good.
Blush from compliments
                                   like our flag’s calico,
even though you’re
                            the most super-united states
Like the crazy believer
                                who goes
                                               to his church
or retreats
                to a monastery
                                      simple and rigid –
so I
       in the gray haze
                               of evening
                         the Brooklyn Bridge.
Like a conqueror
                        on cannons with muzzles
                                                            as high as a giraffe
jabbing into a broken
                               city besieged,
so, drunk with glory,
                             alive to the hilt,
I clamber
                         upon Brooklyn Bridge.
Like a stupid painter
                             whose enamored eyes pierce
a museum Madonna
                              like a wedge.
So from this firmament,
                                  speckled with stars,
I look at New York
                           through Brooklyn Bridge.
New York,
               heavy and stifling
                                         till night,
has forgotten
                   what makes it dizzy
                                               and a hindrance,
and only
             the souls of buildings
rise in the transparent
                                sheen of windows.
Here the itching hum
                               of the ‘el’
                                             is hardly heard,
and only by this
                                soft but stubborn,
can you feel the trains
                                         with a rattle
as when dishes
                      are jammed into a cupboard.
And when from a mill
                               at the river’s edge
a merchant
                 transports sugar
                                         heaped in bins –
       the masts passing under the bridge
are no bigger
                    in size
                              than pins.
I’m proud
               of this
                         mile of steel.
In it my visions
                       are alive and real –
a fight
          for structure
                             instead of arty style,
the harsh calculation
                               of bolts
                                           and steel.
If the end
               of the world
                                 comes –
and chaos
               wipes out
                              this earth
and if only this
rearing over the dust of death,
       as little bones,
                             thinner than needles,
clad with flesh,
                      standing in museums,
                                                      are dinosaurs,
so from this
                            future geologists
will be able
                 to reconstruct
                                      our present course.
They will say:
                          paw of steel
joined seas,
                 prairies and deserts,
from here,
                           rushed to the West,
               to the wind
                                Indian feathers.
This rib here
                   reminds us
                                    of a machine –
             hands with a good enough grip,
while standing
                     with one steel leg
                                               in Manhattan,
to drag
           toward yourself
                                  Brooklyn by the lip!
By the wires
                  of electric yarn
I know this
                     the Post-Steam Era.
Here people
                             yelled on the radio,
here people
                            flew by air.
For some
              here was life
For others
               a prolonged
                                 howl of hunger.
From here
                the unemployed
jumped headfirst
                               the Hudson.
And now,
              strung on cables
                                      without a hitch,
my canvas extends
                            to the foot of the stars,
and I see:
                      stood Mayakovsky,
here he stood
                                syllable to syllable.
I look,
          as an eskimo looks at a train,
I dig into you,
                     like a tick into an ear.
Brooklyn Bridge.
       you’ve got something here.

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-28-2022 at 02:56 PM.
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Unread 05-28-2022, 04:31 PM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,462

Good to see this version again after — gulp — more than fifty years!
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Unread 05-28-2022, 06:11 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 192

Clive, so you’ve never forgotten this translation either. I came across it nigh on 40 years ago. Since then, I’ve seen a couple other versions, but they can’t touch this one. I’ve tinkered with a few lines that strayed from the original, but I’m afraid of cramping its jazzy style. Before I attempt anything by Mayakovsky, I have a lot to learn yet from this translation.


Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-28-2022 at 08:44 PM.
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Unread 05-28-2022, 06:52 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Hi Carl,

You mean the Chicago reference?

This is splendid, and will make me rethink my avoidance of Mayakovsky after a couple of brief dips into his work. I have mixed feelings about the C20th Russians, of whom my favorite is I think Mandelstam.

The layout, now, is fairly close to WCW's ternary interlineation, no? I wonder if the one influenced the other somewhere along the way, they are I think fairly contemporary. :-)

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Unread 05-28-2022, 06:55 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Carl, I hope you don't mind me putting Mandelstam's Stalin Epigram here? It's really why I love him.

The Stalin Epigram
Osip Mandelstam - 1891-1938

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

From Against Forgetting, edited by Carolyn Forché, translated by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown, published by W.W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved.
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Unread 05-28-2022, 08:33 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 192

John, Mandelstam is always welcome in my threads. A devastating epigram. I think the “cockroach whiskers” are especially famous. Amazing that he lived five years after writing it. I didn’t understand a few things in the translation, and they seem to be unclear in the original as well: 1) the verb translated as “go boom” is a neologism that’s open to interpretation; 2) the last two lines literally read: “Not an execution of his without raspberries / And the broad chest of an Ossetian.” Scholars think the Ossetian is Stalin himself, though of course he was Georgian. I found a whole article on the topic, but didn’t have time to get to the bottom of it. “Raspberries” also has some meaning that’s lost on me.

No, not Chicago. I believe there were still elevated trains in New York at the time. It may take a native New Yorker.

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Unread 05-28-2022, 09:44 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Hi Carl,

Very interesting about Mandelstam! I knew he died in the gulag after writing that piece, "of heart failure," they told his brother, but didn't know it took five years. Thank you for your insight into the Russian, which of course is totally unknown to me. The poem seems shrouded a bit in mystery.

Raspberries in British English are what is called in the US a Bronx cheer. I wonder...

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Unread 05-29-2022, 07:08 AM
W T Clark W T Clark is offline
Join Date: May 2020
Location: England
Posts: 891

Mandelstam is a great poet. His selected poems are one of the few books of poetry which I routinely return to.
Hart Cranes Brooklyn Bridge and Voyages is such another.
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Unread 05-29-2022, 03:40 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is online now
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 192

John, one of my guilty pleasures is old British sitcoms like “Are You Being Served?” so I’m more familiar with “blowing a raspberry” than I am with a Bronx cheer. I don’t think that’s what’s going on in Mandelstam, though. I’ve found two suggestions. One is that “raspberry” is criminal slang referring to an underworld hangout. The other is an idiom I’ve never heard, “Not life, but raspberries,” meaning something like “This isn’t life, it’s heaven!” On this view, Stalin is savoring the executions, like rolling raspberries on his tongue.

Various associations have been suggested for the neologism babachit’ (go bang), and the translator went for what seems like the strongest of these. The verb does sound like it’s made from the interjection babakh, which essentially means “bang” and is used to imitate loud noises like the firing of a gun.

The last line of the poem, “And the broad chest of an Ossetian” is the most controversial. Scholars generally agree that the Ossetian is Stalin himself. There were rumors that Stalin had Ossetian blood, which explained his barbarism, and critics have felt that such a false and even racist slur were unworthy of Mandelstam. Pasternak reportedly said, “How could he write that verse? He’s a Jew!” The article I found suggests that Mandelstam was also associating Stalin with the Ossetian villain of a popular Georgian novel. The parallels with Stalin were close enough that the book’s author and translator were later executed. In fact, the villain headed a band of cutthroats, which might lend credence to the criminal interpretation of “raspberry.” In short, as you say, it’s a bit of a mystery.

I don’t think I’m going to get much more traffic in this thread, so I’ll give you the answer: the Brooklyn Bridge spans the East River, not the Hudson.

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 05-29-2022 at 09:32 PM.
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Unread 05-29-2022, 06:44 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,461

Hi Carl,

I should have caught that about the Brooklyn Bridge! I've crossed it, after all. But anyway.

My wife, asked about raspberries, also gave your bed of roses meaning but had no handle on why Mandelstam would have said it. Russian is her first language. I like your alternative theory myself. And Are You Being Served is an interesting slice of time.

Maybe Mandelstam was referring to that novel - that would be nicer than assuming he was stereotyping. It's a bit more acid in that reading, and the poem is certainly that.

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