The Good Treatment of Horses – V. Mayakovsky

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 15/?

I have a firm and well-founded opinion that Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was, pardon my French, an asshole. Most of his post-Revolution poetry glorified the Soviet state and was in turn propped up by it (my 1955 edition of his collected works has in the fawning introduction such phrases as “A class enemy, in a review of Mayakovsky’s play, wrote with a pretension at irony…”).

The poems that aren’t directly propagandistic tend to reveal an enormous self-centredness: “Tamara and the Demon,” for example, has him self-insert into Lermontov’s famous poem “The Demon” and essentially insist that he is better than the Demon, and Tamara should pour him a glass of wine (there are very obvious reasons I read that poem, and equally obvious reasons I turned away from it in disgust). Even prior to the Revolution, he has such gems as “Nadoelo [I Got Fed Up]” which is a rant about stepping out into a cafe and seeing, oh horror, two fat people, which ends, “When all is settled in heaven and hell / and the Earth draws what had been and what had not been / Remember / Beautiful people / vanished from Petrograd in 1916.”

There are only two poems, in essence, that I’ve read of his that I’ve liked, and both of them are now in this series: “Listen!”, the first one, and the poem below, “The Good Treatment of Horses.” (My mother, who had grown up around horses, dislikes that one too; she says that even with a show of empathy, Mayakovsky’s narrator centres it around himself as “only I”, and it trivializes the fact that if a horse has fallen and doesn’t get up immediately, something is very seriously wrong. That is also a firm and well-considered opinion.)

In 2013, over lunch at the University of Chicago’s Workshop on Semantics Variation, I found myself reciting this poem, in Russian, to a number of linguists including Paul Kiparsky, a Stanford linguist who is possibly the most prominent linguist working on poetry. I hadn’t been sure at all whether I had it memorized, but it was there inside me as all the linguists at the table watched, most of whom knew no Russian at all. The whole experience was kind of magical. That evening I translated the poem. 

The Good Treatment of Horses

The hoofs came tripping,
Sang to the cobbles:
With wind slipping,
With ice hobbled,
Slippery street,
And onto her rump
The horse crashed —
And instantly, the gawkers and chatters,
Who come to Kouznetsky for their trouser covers,
And laughter rang and rattled:
“A horse fell, see! See, the horse fell over!”

All Kouznetsky laughed
And only I
Didn’t add my voice to its cry and hue.
I came up and saw —
The horse’s eyes…
The street tipped over
And flowed askew…

I came up and saw
Tear after tear
Slide along the muzzle and hide in the hair.

And as if one common animal longing and fear
Gushed out of me and into thin air…

“Oh, please, horse, don’t.
Oh, please, horse, listen:
Why are you thinking that, how are you worse?
Darling, we all are a little bit horses,
Each one of us is, in some way, a horse.”

Perhaps she was too old, and needed no coddling;
Perhaps even my thought she thought vain…
But the horse lunged up
Stood without tottering,
And walked on again.
Redhaired child, tail swishing silly…
She came back happy,
Stood in her stall.
And it seemed to her she was still a filly
And life and work worth doing after all.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1918; translation Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2013

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