“Beyond the wall, trenches.”
—Vladimir Mayakovsky, I, Myself, “Roots of Romanticism,” (trans. Katya Apekina)
Written in 1922 toward the end of the Russian Civil War, I, Myself is Mayakovsky’s episodic recollection of his life in prose poems. “Roots of Romanticism” remembers the young Mayakovsky’s home “in the territory of the most ancient Georgian fortress near Bagdadi.” Standing on top of a hill, Mayakovsky inhales his surroundings and daydreams about the Russia he sees in the distance. While this sentence nails Mayakovsky’s romanticism in the single word beyond—and beautifully so for its suggestion that “the wall” is a natural feature of the young man’s landscape—it also captures the essence of Mayakovsky’s ferocity and flare for the incendiary. Make it past your childhood, he says, past Bagdadi and its fortress wall, and what waits for you? Trenches—a brilliant translation in the way the word bites and its two syllables nearly rhyme in English. The word’s stress, hard and trochaic, speaks to the dynamic that makes Mayakovsky’s voice so arresting: its rise and fall. Scale a wall in triumph and you land in the trenches of war. It’s a sentence that’s both a rallying cry and a taunt. In four words, we hear the young Mayakovsky begin to incite us with the voice that will make him a legend. And what’s beyond the trenches, you ask? Not a fortress, but a forest. No more trenches, but jackals.
Danniel Schoonebeek’s essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in American Poet, Publisher’s Weekly, and Tin House.