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Dipping into Poetry

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I’ve been realising lately, as you might have noticed, that I do have a bit of a problem with unread books… And digging about has made me realize just how many of them are poetry books. I have a problem with reading this too, in that I find that I set out to read a whole volume in one go and that just isn’t working for me. It may be because the self-imposed discipline of writing about everything I read here means that I think I have to read a book, write about it and then move onto the next one. But that isn’t conducive to reading poetry I’m finding and so I may have to take a more dipping-in kind of approach.

And this is just a few of the titles I have on my shelves which are tempting me at the moment… It’s far from all of the poetry books I own – in fact, if I hauled all of them out of their other categories (Russians, Plath, Hughes, women etc etc) I reckon they’d take up a decent sized bookcase. *Sigh*.

As it’s my books we’re talking about there are of course going to be Russians. This is just a few of them: my lovely huge Mayakovsky book; Akhmatova; an Everyman collection Youngest Child gave me; a fragile early collection OH gave me; a Penguin post-war Russian poetry collection I’ve had since my teens; and the rather splendid Penguin Book of Russian. And yes – all very dippable.

There are Americans too… All the classic names I should be reading – or at least dipping into. I picked up the Frost and Lowell myself, but oddly had never owned Whitman until OH cleverly gifted me a copy.

Some 20th century greats: my beloved Philip Larkin (and actually I could probably happily sit down and read that one cover to cover); an old fragile Eliot I’ve had since the 1980s; and two Ezra Pounds. I know Pound turned into a reprehensible fascist, but some of his early stuff is amazing.

Some bits and bobs, now. Trakl comes highly recommended; Anne Sexton is essential; and Adrian Mitchell is a favourite British poet. If you’ve never seen the footage of him reading “To Whom it May Concern” aka “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, go and search it out – it’s stunning, powerful stuff.

And finally, Daniil Kharms. Is this poetry? I don’t know, but what I’ve read of it is fragmentary and beautiful and intriguing, so I’ll count it in.

So I’ll be reading poetry, and I might share the odd thought or poem, but I can’t see myself doing regular reviews of fully read poetry collections or anthologies. I think by taking away any restrictions on myself and allowing myself this freedom, I’ll actually get a lot more poetry read and enjoyed. Off to do some dipping! 🙂

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Amongst the Russians

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I had a lovely little jaunt to London at the weekend, mainly to catch an exhibition I desperately wanted to see before it shut; but I also managed to take in some minor shopping and a nice bit of socialising with family, which was a pleasant bonus! 🙂

One nice thing about the train journey is the chance to read, and I made my way through this slim volume whilst travelling; it’s absolutely marvellous, and I’ll get round to writing about it eventually, but it’s definitely another winner from Pushkin Press.

This was the exhibition in question, and as you can see from the dates I was running out of time to get to it. I’d hoped to see the show in December when I was up for the Tove show with my friend J. but we ran out of time – and to be honest, Russian art isn’t necessarily her thing so although she puts up with my obsession very patiently, I decided it was best for me to see this one alone.

And it probably was, actually, because it was a powerful show which I got quite emotional about in places (one particular photo of Mayakovsky on his deathbed, which I won’t share here for fear of triggers, reduced me to a jelly). The exhibition is drawn from the magnificent collection of David King, which the Tate acquired in 2016, and there are some stunning posters, photographs, artworks and mementos.

Particularly effective was the room “Ordinary People” which looked at the impact of Soviet ideology on individual human beings. The Mayakovsky picture was here, as well as one of him with the director Meyerhold (about whose fate, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I can’t think about without wanting to scream). The centrepiece of the room was a glass covered table containing mug shots of those who were victims of the terror and the secret police. Pull out drawers contained a guide to who they were, ranging from ordinary students to former colleagues of Lenin to the poet Mandelstam. It was a chilling and moving memorial.

Evidence of my current topic of interest – iconoclasm!!

So I came out of the exhibition impressed, stunned and thoughtful, and it was probably a good thing I had a bit of a walk along the South Bank to clear my head before meeting up with Middle Child and her Partner for lunch! They were up in London for the weekend as a pre-birthday celebration for her, so we ended up in a lovely veggie/vegan place in Soho called Titbits (as they are both vegan too).

The idea is you choose what you like from the buffet style selection and then pay by the weight of your plate. The food was gorgeous – I’m not used to having so much vegan choice – and I had a bit of an appetite after the amount of walking I’d done (I do enjoy flaneusing around London).

Middle child refuses to be photographed…

After lunch and a wander round the local Wholefoods store, I hit Foyles while the other two went to drop off shopping. I was in search of some of the new little Penguin Moderns which were due out last week, and had come armed with a list. Alas, Foyles hadn’t had them in yet, which was a bit of a blow… I did, however, pick up one book (which I thought was reasonable – as Marina Sofia phrased it so nicely recently, it’s unlikely that I would get out of a bookshop unscathed…)

I’ve read about this pioneering work of speculative fiction a couple of times recently, and so figured I would give it a try. Apparently a precursor to “Nineteen Eight Four”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and just about everything, it deals with a future world based on a Nazi victory and the total subservience of women. As the (female) author wrote this in 1937 she must have been remarkably clear-eyed about the way the world could turn. So I’m intrigued…

The afternoon was a little damp, so basically the rest of the day was spent in the pub with Middle Child, Partner and my Little Brother, who is now back in the country in the bosom of his family after working in Spain for a year. We had a lovely catch-up, and he had even brought me a gift from a Spanish market:

Isn’t it gorgeous???

I did of course treat myself at the Tate – the exhibition book was just lovely and I have a bit of a passion for picking up art postcards wherever I find them..

“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is one of my favourite images ever.

So a lovely day out, mixing art, shopping, reading and family – I don’t think I could better that combination! 🙂

Carpe Librum! or, in which I fear for the foundations…

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(of the house, that is….)

Yes. I’m afraid the sorry state of the book piles continues with yet more arrived chez Ramblings… and here is the latest bunch:

Pretty, aren’t they? But not small…  And probably not much I can say in mitigation, although there *are* yet more review books:

All of these are titles I requested and want very much to read – in fact, I’ve just finished “Malacqua” which was quite stunning and it’s going to take me a while to work out what I want to say about it. I’ve started the M. John Harrison and the first few stories have been outstanding, so I’m very excited about that one. And “Locus Solus” just sounds – very intriguing…..

Ahem. As I am prone to say, damn you Verso Books with your money-saving offers! Currently, the publisher has 50% of ALL of their books (so I make no excuse for using shouty capital letters because that’s an offer worth shouting about!). Yes, I know I have the e-book of “October”, but I loved it so much I wanted the tree version. And I’ve wanted “Night Walking” for ages too, and this was the time to buy it. 50% off. With a bundled e-book if one is available. Go check out Verso. Now!

This was a beautiful and unforeseen treat, in the form of the wonderful Seagull Books catalogue. It’s known to be a work of art in its own right and I was over the moon when the publisher kindly offered to send me a copy. It has masses of content including contributions from such blogging luminaries as Melissa, Joe, Anthony and Tony, so I plan to spend happy hours over the Christmas break with it. Plus they publish Eisenstein – how exciting!!!

As for this – well, it came from The Works over the weekend when I was browsing for Christmas gifts. I picked it up because it looked pretty, imagining I would find it a bit sappy or soppy, stuffed with twee verse. Well, there *are* the usual romantic love poems (the classics, which is no bad thing) but there were some powerful pieces I didn’t know, including one by Marina Tsvetaeva. I was hesitating till I looked at the last poem in the book, by Owen Sheers, and it was so stunning I had to buy the book…

And finally – a little bit of madness in the Oxfam:

This weighs a bloody ton, frankly, and I ended up lugging it round town for hours. But – it cost £1.99 and how could I resist pages like this:

and this????

Mayakovsky! A Bulgakov picture I’ve never seen! And so much more! I confess OH looked at it a little askance and sighed, but it was a no-brainer. My shoulder is still recovering, however…

So – I’m definitely still seizing the book – time for another clear out, methinks…. =:o

“Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

You might be sensing something of a theme here on the Ramblings….

… because I do seem to be reading rather a lot of books set in or about Soviet Russia! I guess that’s kind of inevitable in the anniversary year of the 1917 Revolution, and I’m not complaining as it’s fairly obvious to even the most casual reader that I do have an interest in that country and its literature. However, I’ve been circling “The Noise of Time” for a little while now, slightly apprehensive and unsure if I should read it, mostly because of my well-known discomfort with fictionalised real lives, and also because it’s about Shostakovich, whose work I absolutely love (despite knowing very little about music in a technical way).

Dmitri Shostakovich is probably one of the most well-known Russian composers of the 20th century and he does tend to attract a little controversy, being either regarded as a puppet of the regime or a man who survived by saying one thing and meaning another. Barnes obviously subscribes to the latter view, and his portrait of the composer is nuanced and compelling.

But one of life’s many disappointments was that it was never a novel, not by Maupassant or anyone else. Well, perhaps a short satirical tale by Gogol.

“Noise” focuses on three pivotal points in Shostakovich’s life where he reaches a critical point – times when survival could well be in doubt. Each of these years – 1936, 1948, 1960 – is twelve years apart and a leap year, and the superstitious composer is very aware of this. In the first section of the book we find him waiting outside the lift in his building, a small suitcase in his hand; for Shostakovich is convinced he is about to be arrested, taken in the night as so many of his friends and colleagues have been, and he wishes to be prepared and orderly rather than grabbed in his pyjamas. As he waits, he reminiscences and ponders on his past; his relationship with his family, previous loves, and the fact that the failure of his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has led to him being denounced and vilified.

He did not want to make himself into a dramatic character. But sometimes, as his mind skittered in the small hours, he thought: so this is what history has come to. All that striving and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and it all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away.

Through a quirk of fate Shostakovich survives 1936 and when we next encounter him he’s returning from a politically motivated propaganda visit to America. This has been stressful, as he’s been made to spout speeches and soundbites written for him by the authorities, as well as encountering hostile émigré Russians. By now, the composer knows that to speak out would mean trouble for both him and his family, and instead irony is the best defence against tyranny – particularly useful when dealing with a functionary sent to give him a little political education.

The final section focuses on an older Shostakovich, dealing with declining health and a final indignity. Living through the thaw that followed Stalin’s death, everyday life has become slightly easier; however, this brings its own problems and the composer is faced with having to make a choice which will completely compromise him morally and is one of the hardest things he ever has to do.

The Composer

Barnes draws on two major works for his portrait of the composer: “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” by Elizabeth Wilson, and “Testimony”, Shostakovich’s memoirs as related to Solomon Volkov. Both of these books are on Mount TBR and I’m well aware that the latter has also been controversial, with differing claims about its authenticity. Nevertheless, the voice that Barnes gives to Shostakovich here is one I found entirely convincing and the book is a compelling, fascinating and very moving read. Barnes captures brilliantly in his narrative the effects of living a life in constant fear; the daily horrors, the wish to escape and just be left alone to create your work. Despite his dismissal of himself as a “worm”, Shostakovich’s narrative is wryly witty in places, a dark humour that was probably a necessary response to years of living under the iron heel of tyranny.

In the old days, a child might pay for the sins of its father, or indeed mother. Nowadays, in the most advanced society on earth, the parents might pay for the sins of the child, along with uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, colleagues, friends, and even the man who unthinkingly smiled at you as he came out of the lift at three in the morning. The system of retribution had been greatly improved, and was so much more inclusive than it used to be.

The title of this book is also that of a collection of memoirs by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and it’s also a thread that runs through the narrative. On the surface you couldn’t find two more different Soviet artists than the poet and the composer. Mandelstam spoke his mind about Stalin during the height of the purges, was betrayed and paid the ultimate price of madness and death; Shostakovich, by contrast, considered himself a coward and often failed to speak out, instead trying to negotiate a path through the stormy waters of the Soviet regime. It was a life endured with constant ups and downs, one day in favour, the next day out, and I would argue it took a certain moral resilience to live that way. How he actually managed to cope with constant fear and uncertainty while producing stunning works is a bit of a miracle; and actually living with the daily stress of not knowing if you’ll be denounced or arrested or tortured or killed takes its own kind of courage. And despite the portrait given here, Shostakovich *did* speak out in support of other artists and also produced work attacking anti-Semitism; so he was not without courage.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. This was what he held to.

Four Russian Geniuses

There’s a wonderful photograph, which I’m reproducing here, which basically shows four Russian geniuses in 1929. Clockwise from the top left you have Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Meyerhold, and Shostakovich. Mayakovsky would commit suicide a year later; artist Rodchenko managed to survive until 1956; the great man of the theatre Meyerhold was tortured and executed in 1940; but somehow Shostakovich made it through until my lifetime, dying in 1975 – a link to that Soviet past that lasted into the modern world.

A Very Brilliant Author

So “The Noise of Time” turned out to be one of the best reads of the year so far, and a book that I’m so glad I picked up. It deserves all the plaudits it received: not only does Julian Barnes paint a sympathetic and suggestive portrait of a great composer who survived a terrible regime against all the odds, he also provides a frighteningly vivid depiction of what happens to art under totalitarian rule. That’s becoming a running theme on the Ramblings, one which is particularly relevant to our world today; and I can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially if you need to be reminded of what we have to avoid.

Dispatches from the Revolution

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Sometimes a book comes along that you just know is going to be perfect for you; and “1917”, just published by Pushkin Press, is certainly the right one for me! It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I have something of an interest in Russian literature and culture, and this reaches back a long way with me, since I first studied the Russian Revolution at the age of 12 or 13. This engendered my lifelong fascination and so a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the country’s year of change is something I was quite desperate to read!

1917

1917 was indeed a year of turmoil for Russia, with not one but two revolutions taking place: in February/March the royal family was overthrown and a provisional government put in place; and in October/November the more famous conflict occurred, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power. This was eventually followed by a bloody civil war which tore the country apart and continued until 1921, when the old guard of the White Army were finally defeated. During the relatively liberal decade that followed, there were many accounts which looked back on the uprisings, but those featured in this excellent book are all between 1917 and 1919 (when the tide really turned in the Civil War, in favour of the Red Army), so they’re from right in the eye of the storm.

Expertly collected (and often translated) by Boris Dralyuk (who also translated the volume of Babel’s “Odessa Stories” I reviewed recently), he’s keen to stress the importance of contemporary reactions to the conflict. The book features an amazing range of authors espousing a variety of viewpoints, and all witnessing the conflict at first hand. Some embraced the revolution, some were horrified and rejected it, but all responded with lyrical passion. The various works are grouped thematically with erudite and informative introductions providing context and the first half of the book concentrates on poetry.

Remember this – this morning, after that black night –
this sun, this polished brass.
Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass
but what had always burned within your heart!

(from Russian Revolution by Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Boris Dralyuk)

From well-known names like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Esenin and Akhmatova to names new to me like Vladimir Kirillov, Alexey Kraysky and Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, there’s a wonderful array of work on view here. The marvellous Mayakovsky, often thought of as the poet of the Revolution, earns a section to himself, and his complex reactions to the conflict are covered. But central to the poetry section, and crucial, are Alexander Blok’s two great works “The Twelve” and “The Scythians” – starkly powerful, the former is rendered brilliantly by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler. As someone who sometimes struggles to read collections of poetry, I found this one gripping and absorbing, with such a wonderful range of imagery and human emotion.

The second section is prose – short fictions, journalism and responses from such luminaries as Teffi, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and the great Bulgakov. I was pleased to see an evocative piece by Kataev which was new to me, a powerful story called “The Drum”. Dralyuk draws on an astonishingly wide range of works, pulling in as many peoples and creeds affected as he can. For example, Dovid Bergelson wrote in Yiddish and his imaginative piece “Scenes from the Revolution” is memorable. Teffi, of course, is her usual pithy, outspoken, no-nonsense self and her pen portrait of Lenin is devastating; her satirical story “The Guillotine” chilling.

And what of my beloved Bulgakov? He closes the book with an early piece entitled “Future Prospects” – his first piece of writing, in fact – which looks ahead with desperate hope. Bulgakov was at the time a White Army supporter and with our benefit of hindsight his optimism seems misguided and tragic – or perhaps born of desperation as the world around him crumbled.

dralyuk-2013-1

Boris Dralyuk dedicates this collection to the memory of his grandmother, and he does have a very personal connection to the Revolution through his grandparents which you can read more about here. I can’t praise enough the work he’s done compiling and translating this wonderful book; needless to say, “1917” not only lived up to my expectations, it exceeded them. I could simply sit here and churn out superlatives, but that’s not really constructive. This is a book that captures a moment in time when the world was changing, in rich, beautiful and sometimes visceral writing. Tellingly, a character in “The Soul’s Pendulum” by Alexander Grin comments on the perspective of history, and it is this missing perspective that gives the works their immediacy, capturing the chaos and uncertainty of a society in flux. It’s easy for us to look back now, a hundred years on, and see the events of that time as a structured thing, with a beginning and an end; living through them was an entirely different experience, but it’s one that can be glimpsed through the pages of this wonderful collection. “1917” was an entirely absorbing, moving and exceptional read, and it’s definitely going to be high on my list of books of the year.

The joys of modern bookshopping…

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Reading the Sergei Dovlatov book really got me thinking, particular the section on his connection with the Cherkasov family. I’ve always been a huge fan of Eisenstein’s films, watching”Battleship Potemkin” back in my teens and moving onto the others when they appeared on TV. They were among the first I bought when domestic videos became available, and I have several on DVD too. One of the most stunning visually is “Ivan The Terrible”, which starts Cherkasov in the titular role, and I recall back in the day researching the actor. It transpired that he’d written a memoir, “Notes of a Soviet Actor” but in those pre-Internet days, access to old and obscure books was not easy.

ivan

Cherkasov as Ivan

However, reading “The Suitcase” reminded me of the book, and I had a little search online. The very lovely Abebooks had several copies, and one was a reasonably priced UK seller. It sounded like potentially a nice edition, as it’s from the Foreign Languages Publishing House, and my version of “Aelita” from them is very pretty. So I sent for it – and it arrived – and it is really lovely!

cherkasov-cover

The dustjacket, although a bit aged and grubby, is pretty much all there, which is an achievement for a start! And the insides are in very nice condition:

Title page

Title page

Like “Aelita” this book has little illustrations at the beginning of each chapter:

opening-illustration

And it also has copious illustrations – here’s one of my favourite shots from Ivan:

ivan-profile

However, one of the most exciting things for me is that there’s a whole chapter and plenty of pictures about the time Cherkasov played Mayakovsky!

playing-mayakovsky

I’m not sure I was actually aware that he’d taken on that role, and boy, I wish I could see it! As you can see, it looks like he really got into the part…

cherkasov-mayakovsky

I doubt I’d ever have had the chance of tracking down a copy of this book in the past, and it’s easy to take for granted  how nowadays we have so much available at the click of a button or two. As it is, this is one of those books I’ve had off and on my mental wishlist for decades, and to finally find such a beautiful copy is a real treat. Good old Foreign Languages Publishing House – I shall have to investigate their books further! 🙂

Rediscovering Mayakovsky

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Down unshaven plaza-cheeks
flowing like an unneeded tear,
I
may be
the last poet.

The Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is an author I’ve written about here on the Ramblings before; a long time favourite of mine, when I first stumbled across his work over 35 years ago I was lucky enough to be able to borrow his work from the local library. A wonderful old tome from 1965, collected and translated by Herbert Marshall, contained all kinds of wonders by and about Mayakovsky; and 35 years later, thanks to the wonders of online shopping, I own my own copy – but that’s another story.

volodya_selected

However in the interim his work, which is notoriously difficult to render into English, has been tackled by a surprising number of different translators in different ways and with differing results (and I know that Marshall has also had his critics). A new volume from Enitharmon Press entitled “Volodya” aims to bring together a broad selection of these different renderings in order to give a more rounded view of the poet and his work – which is a laudable aim, and one which seems to me to have succeeded!

It’s actually surprising how many translations of Mayakovsky’s work have been made, although as VM scholar Rosy Carrick (editor of this edition) points out in her excellent introduction, many of them have a particular agenda. She cites specifically “Night Wraps the Sky”, a volume I read pre-blog and wasn’t particularly taken with; the translator excluded many of Mayakovsky’s politically charged works, which gives a terribly unbalanced view of a man committed to the revolution. Personally, I particularly fell out with “The Stray Dog Cabaret”, a collection where the translator actually *changed* the poet’s words, adding extra bits to his verse! So what Carrick is aiming for here is a more even-handed treatment, and it’s a laudable goal.

progress mayakovsky

My Progress Press Mayakovsky books

Many of the translations of VM’s works are out of print, particularly the long, elegiac work “Vladimir Ilych Lenin”; my copy of the latter is a little Progress Press Russian-produced English language hardback, but this seems to be very pricey online if you want a copy. Similarly, a pivotal work, “How Are Verses Made?” is obscure and not currently in print. The wide cross-section of works and translations featured here certainly redresses the balance and presents Mayakovsky’s politicised verse alongside his more personal works; and it really paints a wonderful picture of a powerful poet, bursting with life which he placed at the service of the revolution, with enough left over to have a lively emotional life! Interestingly enough, one of the translators cited as having provided comprehensive volumes of his works is Dorian Rottenberg; several of his translations are featured here, and indeed it’s Rottenberg who translated my copy of “Vladimir Ilych Lenin” and another Progress Press book I have, “Poems”. It’s his rendering of “What about you?” that I’m most used to:

What About You?

I splashed some colours from a tumbler
and smeared the drab world with emotion.
I charted on a dish of jelly
the jutting cheekbones of the ocean.
Upon the scales of a tin salmon
I read the calls of lips yet mute.
And you,
                could you have played a nocturne
with just a drainpipe for a flute?

Interesting to note that he renders here the word often given as “backbone” instead as “drainpipe”!

Excitingly enough, Carrick has translated some works herself, and there are several items never available to Anglophones before. I was particularly pleased to see a full version of Mayakovsky’s speechifying from an evening dedicated to celebrating 20 years of his work; Herbert Marshall’s translation, acknowledged by Carrick as the best, was incomplete, so she’s melded this with missing bits rendered by Rottenberg to come up with a complete version – quite fitting really! And it’s poignant to think this was the poet’s last public appearance…

Translating poetry is *always* going to be a very individual art, and probably each translator could come up with a different and satisfying version. The array of names involved is impressive, and I recognised several from other books I have in my collection, though others were new to me. I confess I’m not entirely at home with Edwin Morgan’s renderings of the poems in Scots vernacular; because despite having been born in Edinburgh, I need help in translating them again! And if I’m honest, I would have liked to see more of Marshall’s translations, as these are the ones I’m familiar with, having read them first. But that’s personal taste, and there’s no denying that “Volodya” is an excellent way to get a flavour of what Mayakovsky’s work is like and which translations might be best for you – and fortunately there is nothing from “Night Wraps…”

My copy of the Marshall book

My copy of the Marshall book

The book features a wonderful selection of photos as well as images of Mayakovsky’s agitprop work, which is another aspect of his work which shouldn’t be forgotten. The final picture we get of the poet from “Volodya” is a much more rounded one than you would get from other, more selective works and it’s an ideal place to start exploring his writing. Enitharmon Press and Rosy Carrick have done all lovers of Mayakovsky’s work a great service by collecting his work together in this way, and I can’t recommend the book highly enough! 🙂

(Many thanks to Enitharmon Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

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