On Akhmatova’s Couch: “Relative Genitive: Poems with Translations from Osip Mandelstam & Vladimir Mayakovsky,” by Val Vinokur


by Jonathan Stone

In a way, Relative Genitive should get three reviews: as Val Vinokur’s translation of eighteen poems by Osip Mandelshtam, as Val Vinokur’s translation of seven (mostly longer) poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, and as a collection of thirty eight poems by Val Vinokur. However, the artfulness with which Vinokur fuses and navigates those three identities warrants an appreciation of the book as a cohesive whole. As the inaugural volume of the Poets & Traitors Press (an endeavor founded by Vinokur with a keen academic eye on the roles of poet and translator), the book intermixes its voices and courageously, brazenly, meaningfully blurs the boundary between translator and author.

Mandelshtam and Mayakovsky were two of the brightest luminaries on the literary scene in the early twentieth century. Their work is fundamental in defining Russian art from the 1910s to the 1930s. No understanding of Russian literature, avant-garde aesthetics, Soviet culture, or twentieth century poetry is complete without coming to terms with Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky, and the poetic schools they represent. Mayakovsky’s Futurism (and its extension as the poetry of the Soviet 1920s) was an oversized presence that loudly asserted a love for urban life with the many voices, forms, and personalities that constituted modernity. Mandelshtam was a quieter yet no less powerful or profound figure. With his fellow Acmeists, he articulated a longing for culture and the aesthetics of the Classical and neo-Classical worlds that, after 1917, erupted with a poignancy that mirrored his own sad fate.

During their mainly overlapping lives Mayakovsky (1893-1930) and Mandelshtam (1891-1938) shared many spaces – physical, social, aesthetic and symbolic . So how does Vinokur fit into this mix? A Russian-American academic who left the Soviet Union at a young age in the late 1970s and forged a successful career as a scholar, teacher, translator, and writer, Vinokur injects memory, biography, and cultural nuance into every facet of the book. Take your pick of metaphors: he’s the conductor gracefully harmonizing the strings, brass, and percussion; he’s the juggler with many balls in the air skillfully keeping them all afloat at once; he’s the craftsman expertly weaving the various threads together; he’s the editor thoughtfully structuring and contextualizing multiple texts. But in the end, Vinokur is the poet and the translator – the voice and the conduit that realize the full artistic potential of all three writers.

While Vinokur is responsible for every word in the book, he adroitly sidesteps the danger of flattening out the three voices captured in Relative Genitive. He toggles between the boisterous, stentorian boom of Mayakovsky, the fluid mellifluousness of Mandelshtam, and his own urbane tone (with such tongue-in-cheek declarations as “If Derrida was my Daddy I would have been raised/ by Lionel Jospin” (65) without losing their distinct identities or discrete personalities. There is no confusing Vinokur’s blend of veiled literary references of “RE:” (which opens “To all the titular councilors I’ve loved” (32) and goes on to nod towards Gogol and Chekhov) with the first lines of Mandelshtam’s stately ode to Notre Dame, “Where a Roman justice judged another race/ Stands a basilica, exuberant and primal” (84). Yet both emphatically trade in cultural capital that defines their readership and showcases their own erudition. In the midst of these moments of high-brow allusions, we encounter Mayakovsky. He elbows his way into to the conversation  and demands to be seen and heard:

My flesh is smoking, a smothered searing.

Lightening running up and down my body.

Pressed and clutched by a million volts.

My lip bumps into the telephone furnace.

And through the drill holes

of the house,

Ploughing up

Myasnitsky St.,

ripping apart

the cable,

the number

flies like a bullet

to the switchboard girl. (28)

Vinokur mixes and mingles these works to create a complexly structured book that puts all three poets in contact with each other. The identity of the author is subtly noted at the bottom of each page (and indicated in the table of contents), but it is a testament to Vinokur’s talent as a translator that they are readily distinguishable even without that apparatus just from the tone and style of the poems.

Vinokur utilizes imagery and diction to convey the particularities of each author. He frequently dispenses with reproducing the rhyme or rhythm of Mandelshtam’s fairly traditional poetic forms, but compensates with an austerity that captures the precision and structure of Mandelshtam’s verse. In “Silentium,” Vinokur give us

The bosom of the sea breathes calmly,

But the day gleams like a lunatic,

While pale lilac foams

In its blackened azure bowl. (59)

/Спокойно дышат моря груди,

Но, как безумный, светел день,

И пены бледная сирень

В черно-лазоревом сосуде./

Vinokur follows the stanza quite closely and remains faithful to the images Mandelshtam conveys. But the translation is not literal or prosaic – it subtly transforms the noun “foam” into a verb; “gleams” instead of the more standard “shines” is very much in keeping with the restrained precision of the original; and “blackened azure” is an elegant choice for the normal in Russian but awkward in English double adjective. A similar impulse guides his treatment of Mayakovsky.

The wind stripped

street, an ice

shod slide.

A horse crashed

on its rump, and

right away

one slack-jaw after another

came down Kuznetsky

in bell-bottoms to have a look-


crowding round,

a jingle jangle of laughter (62)

/Ветром опита,

льдом обута

улица скользила.

Лошадь на круп


и сразу

за зевакой зевака,

штаны пришедшие Кузнецким клёшить,


смех зазвенел и зазвякал/

Here Vinokur honors the layout and structure of Mayakovsky’s poem while distantly echoing his mastery of consonance and rhythm. Even the oblique Bob Dylan quote is part and parcel of the poem’s street scene and controlled chaos that Vinokur conveys.

The overall message of Relative Genitive is that the translator is a poet and an interlocutor with his subjects. Vinokur’s short introduction sets this up as a physical stance by asserting a place on the same couch in Anna Akhmatova’s apartment on which both Mandelshtam and Mayakovsky slept. The intimacy of this position bundles its metonymic origins with a metaphoric significance.  “This book is like Akhmatova’s couch. I thought that if both Mayakovsky and Mandelstam could sleep on the same piece of furniture, then my poems could hold the space between my translations of both poets – so radically different in temperament, style, and outlook” (14). Vinokur proposes a running conversation with his two subjects. But his more sustained and nuanced interactions are primarily with Mandelshtam. True, Vinokur’s poems sometimes mimic Mayakovsky’s form and echo his interest in street life and popular culture (Vinokur includes a run of poems of riffing on gameshows and reality TV of the “Naked and Afraid”,  “Shark Tank,” and “Real Housewives” varieties). But Vinokur’s struggle with his own identity, his search for a sense of place, and his belief in the capacity of poetry to bridge cultures and backgrounds resonates most distinctly with Mandelshtam.

Vinokur deftly turns Mandelshtam’s reaction to the 1917 revolution, “A horror high wandering flame” and its vague association with the fall of Icarus (“The wax of immortality is melting,” 22) into his poem about love on the following page with a final stanza that is both the essence of Mandelshtam and the soul of Vinokur:

The wax, the sun, whatever, Icarus,

never mind: the goal was to fall well, to

stick the landing on the thick and

labyrinthine loam of everything that’s human,

unalienable, wrong, a constellation of corrections

waiting to be made. (23)

The conversational ease of a twenty-first century American (“never mind”) harmonizes with the precise imagery of an Acmeist (“labyrinthine loam of everything that’s human”), a dollop of Eliot’s Prufrock (“a constellation of corrections/ waiting to be made”) and the eloquence of Jefferson’s ageless command of English (“unalienable”). The Russian, the American, the scholar, the immigrant all find a balance in the conversations Vinokur has fashioned. In Vinokur’s “Pigeon Milk,” one of the strongest poems of the collection, the poet returns after many years to his father’s house in Russia as an “amerikanetz.” The poem ends on a question: “And like a prodigal patriarch, Father asks: / ‘What the devil have you been doing /over there?’ ” (57). Relative Genitive is the extended answer to that question.

Vinokur, Val. Relative Genitive: Poems with Translations from Osip Mandelstam & Vladimir Mayakovsky. New York: Poets & Traitors Press, 2018.

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