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Anthology: Art is Politics is Life

Michael Almereyda, ed., Night Wraps the Sky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

During a layover in Zurich, I skimmed a free magazine offered at the gate and noticed a page devoted to hip and trendy Barack Obama t-shirts. As another election draws near, the international audience that came to detest us for our laughable president and his splintering war seems to be giving us the chance to do what we’re good at: produce celebrities.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that critics of Barack Obama say he is too popular; a charismatic speaker with a magical-sounding message that might prove to be just another coin trick. As a country, we’re at such odds with our government that the idea of a likeable candidate feels unnatural to some bruised and weary voters who are poised to yank the entertainment out of politics.

Enter Night Wraps the Sky. The book is a forceful tribute to the die-hard communist and incendiary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who unfalteringly believed that artistic performance was the medium that would open the gates for an ideological revolution. Not only did he believe it, but he had the entire country and party convinced as well. Mayakovsky was something of a superstar in his time, but editor Michael Almereyda makes a strong case in this long overdue anthology (in English translation) that the Russian Revolution’s representative poet was motivated entirely by political sincerity and socialist ambition. Though the deliberately selected primary sources and poems occasionally hint that Mayakovsky was compelled by a tormented Russian temperament, Almereyda successfully portrays a country and an ideology so raw that only a poetic persona of epic proportions could bring it to the people.

Despite the editor’s deliberate angle, multiple aspects of Mayakovsky as a writer and a person emerge from the collection. In his introduction, Almereyda explains that the writer displays, “a kind of proto-punk ferocity, a still burning aura of tough guy tenderness, soulful defiance.” In other words, Mayakovsky was a hipster. Mayakovsky, in his autobiography, recalls that he only became a poet when fellow art school student David Burliuk told him he was a genius. A reticent artist looking for affirmation? Not according to Almereyda, who interprets that event as evidence that Mayakovsky wrote to fulfill the needs of the people and the revolution.

The volatile, emotional and human sides of the poet/performer are certainly treated in the collection, but they are not the heart of the book. Concerned that even the best English translation cannot sufficiently convey the existentially staccato rhythm of the Russian language, Almereyda works hard to ensconce Mayakovsky’s work in supplemental material that sets a tone of political intensity and angst. He invites us to see Mayakovsky’s work as a linguistic bridge leading the Russian lower class from illiteracy to enlightenment, and this analysis does well to illuminate both Mayakovsky’s writing and his theory of futurism.

Just when Almereyda has inclined us to the notion that agitprop can be noble, sincere and effective, Night Wraps The Sky accounts for the simultaneous unraveling of Mayakovsky’s life and Lenin’s communism. But Almereyda refuses to vilify the poet’s commitment to propaganda; rather, the book is a tribute to the seemingly alchemistic dynamic between art and politics. Almereyda’s underlying agenda—almost apart from Mayakovsky—is to show the bold possibilities for art as political machination.

Accounts of unconventional and all-consuming love affairs, especially the ménage a trois with Osip and Lili Brik, serve to paint Mayakovsky as a wild and perturbed soul, but in Night Wraps the Sky, we get the impression that communism was woven into his fibers as intrinsically as the need for food, love or human connection. It is from this assertion that we derive the essence of Mayakovsky’s true singularity.

These days, we’re not willing to admit that artists effect change or believe that politicians create beauty. The release of Night Wraps the Sky comes at a time when we have something to learn from this self-martyred poet. A relationship between artistic performance and social productivity is one we should not reject.


Rachel Balik

Rachel Balik is not a mommy blogger, but aspires to be a posh 20-something.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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