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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Tuesday, 9 July 2019 at 15:26

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In the blog post last December, I posted a photo of me taken many years ago in front of Mayakovsky's grave in Moscow. My recent trip to Georgia, where he was born, has had me thinking about him, and his literary reputation again.

Mayakovsky was born, of a Russian Cossack father and Ukrainian mother, in Georgia in 1893 and he attended school in Kutaisi until he was thirteen, when his father died and the family moved to Moscow. In 1909 he was sentenced to 11 months in prison for Bolshevik activity. He enrolled at Moscow Art School in 1912 and began publishing his first poems in the Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, calling for Puskin and the old idols of Russian poetry to be thrown from "the steamship of modernity".

As well as experimental futurist and lyrical poems, Mayakovsky turned his hand to what he thought of as being ideologically useful art for the masses in the service of the Revolution. He illustrated about 3,000 posters and placards and wrote the words for twice that number. The contradictions did not escape him and he was conscious of standing "on the throat of my own song." He was an enormously popular performer of his poems - a sort of Soviet rap star - though the tensions between his experimentalism, satirical impulses, and ideology led to him being both revered and reviled, often by the same people - both politicians and artists. Lenin and Trotsky criticised him. Stalin claimed he had betrayed Communism.

In 1930, he commited suicide, shooting himself through the heart with a revolver he had used in a film some years earlier. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral. After his death, his works were banned, then Stalin suddenly revised his opinion of his fellow Georgian, stating "Mayakovsky was a remains the best and most talented poet of our time. Indifference to his poetry is a crime." There is some speculation that he did not commit suicide, but was mudered by the state.

Canonization by Stalin effectively ruined his reputation: "Mayakovsky's second death", according to Paternak. Marina Tsvetayeva wrote in 1932: "For twelve years Mayakovsky the man has been destroying Mayakovsky the poet. On the thirteenth year the Poet rose up and killed the man… His suicide lasted twelve years, not for the moment he pulled the trigger."

For many years Soviet children had to learn officially approved and highly edited Mayakovsky pieces by heart. Pasternak said these poems were "introduced forcibly like potatoes under Catherine the Great." This was enough to turn generations away from him. In Bagdadi, Mayakovsky's birthplace in Georgia, there is a museum dedicated to him, and the village was renamed Mayakovsky in 193; the museum has few visitors now and the village has reverted to its former name. Various statues of Mayakovsky have disappeared since independence. The largest is rumoured to have bee sold for scrap in Turkey.

Outside the Soviet bloc, the lyrical, radical, experimental Mayakovsky has always has his few though fervent admirers and translators. (Edwin Morgan's versions in Scots Wi the Haill Voice are fun and catch the often Burns-like satirical energy.) In Russia, the sanitised and bowdlerised official editions of his "second death" have largely gone and he is once more being recognised as for his invention and wit.

For a good introduction to him, try Ian Sansom's documentary on Radio 4's Archive Hour "Resurrecting Mayakovsky":

A Cloud in Borrowed Trousers

Tuesday, 9 July 2019 at 12:38


Back in the mid or later 90s, at a Poetry Society workshop, David Morley challenged the group to respond to Mayakovsky's "A Cloud in Trousers" and I came up with this abbreviated version. The idea was to produce a piece that had something of the spontaeity and energy of the original.

Edwin Morgan translated some of Mayakovsky into Scots in Wi the Haill Voice (1972) and noted "There is in Scottish poetry (eg in Dunbar, Burns, and even MacDiarmid) a vein of fantastic satire that seems to accommodate Mayakovsky more readily than anything in English verse." This may be true of the mainstream, though I think that the out-of-the-way spikiness of, say, John Marston's satires and the English tradition of nonsense verse may show another way forward.

My version could be pushed at least a little further. I'm now wondering, especially as I've been learning Russian over the last year or so, if it might be worth going back to this, or other Mayakovsky poems

A Cloud in Borrowed Trousers

A fragment after the Russian of Vladimir Mayakovsky's
"The Cloud in Trousers." Or, more precisely,
Cliff's Cirrocumulus in Mayakovsky's Kecks:
taken in here, let out there, patched everywhere.
Original inside leg measurement
for a much longer pair of Russian strides.
Think of these threads as cut-offs, shorts.

Right Leg

I'll mock your soft-boiled thoughts, Egg-Head!
Egg-Belly sprouting Humpty-Dumpty
arms - ya big numpty,
numbskull bum dumped on a Laura Ashley sofa.
The joke's on you, Yolk-Face,
as I rip open my chest, like Superman,
to reveal my sacred bleeding heart
twisted into a serpentine S of kryptonite.

My soul's sleek black:
flat-top, No 2 razored at the back,
no worms of curly gray.
And it roars, tall, dark, cool,
invincible and forever twenty-two.

Your saccharine strings' muzak,
mail-order lovers' rock
compilation makes me puke.
My balls are my drums, my cock's
a screaming Fender.
Your head's up your arse.
I turn inside out, swallow myself through my own mouth
until I am all lips to place a big wet smacker on the world.

Get out of the Graves of Academe.
I'll teach you a thing or two.
I can be so much more than I seem.
I'll climb your ladder Little Miss Bluestocking,
to your lips tight purse. Natch.
I'll spill out the treasures of your snatch.

Or, if you really want to be amazed
I'll charm you with my tongue,
whiten my heart to a boiled shirt,
a ruffle of cumulus peeking politely out of a D.J.
Not a man but a cloud in trousers.

Don't give me all that Dingly Dell guff, don't make me hoot!
I'm here to praise guys whose balls are bruised by vice,
peroxide bimbos with features like eroded
statues, blonde bombshells who,
to judge by their blackened roots,
have long since exploded.

Left Leg

Delirial? Malarious?
You think this is some druggy dream?
It happened, believe me, in a place as real as East Cheam.
"I'll be there at four" she said.


Already the evening was embers,
draining from windows, decembering
into horrorshow night.

Bar-lights, switched on switch-blades,
flicked knives judder in my back,
reverb laughter.

You wouldn't know me from a mountain
grumbling with lava in its belly.
What can a hulking lummock like that possibly want?
Ahh, but there's a lot it wants.

Don't matter that my heart's hard and blue as gunmetal.
Come Saturday night, this Saturday Night Special
likes to be holstered in some soft pouch.

And now,
hunched into the window pane,
pain glows molten where glass melts around my brow.

Will love show?
Yes or no?
And what kind?
The big firework fiesta of passion, meeting of true minds?
Or some itchy bitch soon forgotten with a scratch.
But what chance
does a chunk of flesh like this
have of a great romance?

Probably just some tired affair
that gets scared when the Jumbo rumbles up into the air,
some sad timid little chick
who gets air-sick
and who'll prefer
the sedate horse-drawn carriage round the park
before it gets too dark.

It's getting late.
I still wait,
face pocked with rain,
trousers growing heavy with the traffic's surf.
Midnight, sharp as a shiv, shouted,
grabbed me, turfed
me out.

The day was utterly dead.
Midnight rolled into the gutter
like a decapitated head.

Rain howled,
horrible faces gurned in the glass,
like bad acid imps.
How much more of this do I have to take?
I can't stand it! Let custards quake,
it's more than a man can bear in silence.

Then I hear...
It's very quiet, like a patient slipping out of bed,
a nerve sprung free,
then another, another, the whole ward hums,
dances, stamps its feet.

Kaboom! An avalanche of plaster from the ceiling below.

All the nerves gone crazy,
jerking like frogs legs galvanized on electric wires.
Night fogs up the room, mires
the wheels of my eyes right up to the axle.
Doors rattle
as if the hotel's teeth were icy scared.

Suddenly you came in,
sharp, straight, shiny as a blade.
You twisted the gold serpent on your wrist
and said "You know,
I'm going to get married."

Congratulations! Big fucking deal.
I'm cool, unfazed, my eyes give nothing away.
I might as well be wearing refrigerated Raybans.

Do you remember?
You used to swear by old Stax vinyl,
big time passion, that whole live-now-get-someone-else-to-pay-later deal.
You were the Mona Lisa somebody just had to steal
and now you're stolen.

In love again. Game on.
My eyes stoked with all the fires of Hell.
But the homeless sometimes find their only shelter in a burned-out shell.

You taking the piss?
"You're like some Cairo rubbish dump scavenger,
- a millionaire of worms - rattling bones in a tin cup."
But, hey,
remember what happened to Pompeii
when Vesuvius was teased too much?
I, too, can get my wild up.


Connoisseurs of Crime,
Poker-faced Professionals of Piss-artistry,
Bachelors of Bad Behaviour, Summa Cum Laude,
Masters of Arsing Around,
Doctors of Debauchery (Cantab, Oxon, With Knobs On),
have you ever seen
anything more obscene
than my face when it's perfectly serene?

I is, of course, another.
My insides are ripped. The long-lost brother,
the hypocrite semblance, the evil twin. He shouts
and screams: a larger lager lout,
a fucking bad ventriloquising mother-
fighting his way out.

Who's there?
- Mother.
Mother Who? - No don't tell me. Keep mum.
Your son's real sick,
his heart's on fire,
his brain's addled with Tourette's,
his mouth's a farting bum,
he's machine-gunning obscenities like a nervous tic.
Tell my sisters. Quick!
Look his hands twist like claws.
His mind's a burning brothel.
From the windows, words leap like naked whores.

People sniff
the smell of burning flesh, charred stiffs.
Someone's already on the phone.
The Brigade comes all red and jangling
with engines shiny and extensible as trombones.
Ladders angle like they're angling
for fish with lines of water.
Be careful now, Mr. Firefighter,
you oughtta
go gentle on this burning heart.
I like a touch that's lighter.

I can put out my own fire.
Pump tears onto my heart's pyre
of dangerously combustible desire.
Watch me, baby, douse my fire.
But I can't jump out of my heart.
Something's trying to escape, a little kiss.
But it's either burned or drowned
by the Brigade's big hoses as they piss
higher and higher.
Alarm bells, scary yells, then the ping!
of wires. Everywhere smoke.
How can you sing
as you choke?

Charred words, burnt phrases jump from my skull's inferno.
A verb
lies broken on the kerb.
The centuries echo
with these fears.
Resounding down the coming years.
you'll hear (lick me, lick me)


I'm not lit up by books. Burn learning.
I used to think that poets just opened their gobs
and the inspired stuff poured out in a frenzy.
But, actually, it's more like one long hard never-ending job.
And then there's all the bloody paperwork.
You crawl around in your underwear like some mad jerk
trying to find a rhyme for "orange",
you rant or whinge,
while the rest of the world
hurls about its business or at least gets its lines to reach the far edge of the paper.

Our feeble cities.
We build and build our towers of Babel.
God knocks them down.
They're history, forgotten or rumoured in fables
distorted by the rabble's babble.


I've decided that a poet is a man
who is all mouth in God's borrowed trousers.
Today is a good day to die.
There's enough cloud up there
in that huge sky
to make a pair
of godflairs.
And God is always on the verge of coming back
into fashion. Forget black
denim, there's enough faded Levi blue
for 501's for me, you
and everyone.

A jet zips up the fly,
fastens Orion's belt
tight round me.
I'm right at the top.
Time to button it.
Goddamn! Doggone!
Too many mutts have wagged their tails
and tried to hump my boot-fit leg.

But now, the universe is fast asleep,
a huge ear quick with starry ticks
flopped on its paws.


Monday, 1 July 2019 at 19:33

Caucasus, Georgia

I've not posted anything for a couple of weeks as I've been away. I was in Georgia, just leaving before the riots in Tbilisi, following Russian pressure on Georgia, and a Russian politician addressing the Georgian parliament in Russian. There is, of course, a ltragic history of Georgia's relations with Russia, but also a more optimistic tradition of Russian writers who were inspired by the country: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tostoy... and one or two, like Mayakovsky, who had more fractious dealings.

The country has a long and complicated history, almost off-stage from Europe, but, in an odd way central to its myths, culture and politics. It's probably the world's oldest wine-producing area, its mountains are where Prometheus was bound, and modern day Kutaisi is the Colchis where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. It's where Persia, and Ottoman Turkey come up against Orthodox Christianity. It's also worth remembering that Stalin was a Georgian.

For more on this, I recommend Peter Nasmyth's Georgia, in the Mountains of Poetry. The photo was taken in the Caucasus, not far from Kazbegi, just off the Georgian Military Highway, built by the Soviets to keep Georgia under control. This is a few kilometers from the border with the "break-away" region of South Ossetia, which though technically a part of Georgia is now effectively under Russian control, as is the other "break-away" region of Abkazia.




Hotel Transylvania

Tuesday, 28 May 2019 at 19:44

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Here's a sequence I wrote during a residency in Romania in 2011. It appeared in Pilgrim Tongues.
Hotel Transylvania
Fantasy at Borsec, Transylvania. The town’s name is derived from the Hungarian “borvizszék” meaning “Seat of Mineral Water”. Once a famous spa, it is largely delapidated now.
They say there is a spring for the broken-hearted,
a well for the cure of all the sad and lonely,
and that the water at the seventh source
grants solace to spinster and geek alike.
Those who married advantageously,
or for love, need none, but those who are hated
by their children have a crystal fountain.
There is one also for those who are a trial
and a sore disappointment to their fathers.
Here, you see a chalky well for dyspeptics;
another which is a specific against the pox,
unseasonable melancholy and unsociable wind.
The slime from this spring where toads and lizards bask
is balm for those disappointed in cards or politics.
The parish pump dispenses healthful draughts
to all, but is especially beneficent
to those who serve on municipal sub-committees.
It assuages ambition in the ugly and talentless,
and is known to put a smile on the faces
of both the chronically stupid and those who have learned
incompetence from long study of their masters.
A draught direct from this silver rivulet
is enough to lighten the heavy soul.
Those who grouch through late May afternoons
are immersed in this happy brook by the constables
and inundated by the prettiest prostitutes until
they can resist our glee no longer and break
into song. Listen! It has a most cheery burble.
The water at this well contains only water,
but it smiles on rocks which are the dry residue
of bitter tears. Other wells have been analysed
and found to contain trace elements
of alienation, pogrom, Holocaust.
Here is the Lethean Pool for those who wish
to divest themselves of wrong beginnings.
Bathe here and wash away bad memories.
Forget uncaring parents, unwanted childhoods,
the cruel boarding school, yet crueller vacations.
Here less is so much more, once freed
of the purposelessness of mediocre lives,
the house, the baggage, all the impedimenta
of loathed careers, the dead-end jobs and wives

You, who have lived in the mountains, listened to the gossip of birds,
their endless chitter about their neverfound mates;
you who have heard the chink of forlorn goat bells,
the howls of disconsolate dogs and, towards evening,
on the edge of the forest, the ululations of widows and witches
as the wolves leave behind their shadows for the bars and the brothels,
you are at home, here, on the path of the crushed snail,
by the Cabin of Holy Suicides, the Shed of Gall
and Kidney Stones. Walk through the shadow of the Valley
of Bad Breath, under the halo of St Halitosis; be glad to
pray in the Chapel of the Flatulent Shepherd; account yourself
lucky to prostrate yourself at the altar of the Virgin
of Premenstrual Tension, throw yourself under the stilettos
of the Black Madonna of Fashion, the boots of Our Lady of Grunge.


As you pass through vistas of land-art, site-specific
sculpture, hear the echo of installation
artists weeping in their eyries and caverns,
note the gardens of zen gravel, the monasteries
with their libraries, wine-cellars, orchards,
hydroponic terraces for the cultivation
of cannabis and herbal laxatives.
Marvel at the ivied towers of astronomers,
geneticists and geomancers. The temples
dedicated to augury and haruspication.
And remember your ancestors, just where
it is that you come from: those dwellers in villages
of woodsmoke, incest, lice and larceny,
hamlets of grudges passed down the long ages.

Welcome to the Sanatorium!
You do us honour, very Respected Guest!
Allow me, on behalf of all our staff,
from Distinguished Doctors, our great Parisian Chefs,
right down to the lowliest (but all are pretty!) chambermaid,
to welcome you to this our ancient scenic town,
our state-of-the-art hygienic facility
and Temple of Hydrological Medicine.
Here all is modern and yet so picturesque.

Please, enjoy your stay in our humble establishment!
(Though it will be obvious, that no expense
has been spared in pursuit of your well-being.).
All is here, from excellent conference facilities
to mud-baths for the anxious, a cocktail bar for the tense.


We have springs, of course, for those unfortunates
suffering from hardening of the concepts, unsuitable
sentimental attachments or debilitating nostalgias.

The melancholic have their walls diffused
towards evening with playfully erotic light.
In the Caracalla Wing, those making ends meet on a tight
emotional economy may relax in perfumed waters
conducive to the cultivation of abundant attitude.
Sitz-baths may ease those deep in debt to family piety,
assuage survivors of sanctimonious spouses
and the victims of over-rigorous scholarly rectitude.

The library has great watery chairs for academics whose stipends
have been mislaid through unseemly familiarity, lewd
behaviour or simple gross moral turpitude.

In the Yellow Room, neurasthenic poets
may, through vitrines of absinthe and water-lily,
contemplate the faces of their critics
metamorphosed into hydrocephalics,
syphilitics or just plain dribbling idiots.
As is traditional, the Entrée des artistes
is at the back. The garret is famously host
to the consumptive but distingué ghosts
of several former symbolistes
who drank deeply of our Pierian Spring
and rhapsodised the nereids, nymphs and water-sprites
who dallied in these parts. Those same nymphs sing
of Sapphic verse, which was itself once seen
written in water at the Well of Loneliness.

Spurned women, wan, troubled by wandering wombs,
are confined by convention to the lower floors
and the tedium of chancers, impoverished aristocrats,
political emigrés, and would-be belle-lettrists.

At least they can avoid those hateful civil servants,
who have learned to be neither civil nor servile,
and are avid for a second career with their dull memoirs
of justly-forgotten administrations. Meanwhile,

in the hotel the waltzes have now already slowed
and the orchestra is the merest echo.
The dance cards are all being stored away.

We have all overheard the doctors say:
this town can’t cure itself. It needs to go to away,
to another spa, and take their waters.

Windows have shattered. Rain falls
through rooms where birds and snakes nest.

The ceilings and the beds collapse,
the flowered wallpaper scarfs away
to swags of rose and bougainvillea.

The velvet curtains fade with sun,
until the mad or homeless pull them down
for something warm to sleep and piss upon.

For months, some stubbornly remain,
outfacing weather, growing heavier with rain,
until they, too, like all else fall.

Paper petals, leaf-litter, mushed underfoot.
The skeleton of the hotel shines through,
its bones polished by decades of rain.

Wind Rain
rooms nest.
beds lapse,
flow wall away
rose .
less down
arm to sleep upon.
born remain,
out with rain,
all else fall.
mush underfoot.
ones polished rain.

Celebrating Romania

Tuesday, 21 May 2019 at 20:32

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Thanks to my friend Florin Dan Prodan, I've had the good fortune to read at festivals in Romania and I have had several residencies in the country.

Florin has organised a reading in London this Saturday 25 May to celebrate Romania.

Unfortunately I can't be there physically, but I will be in spirit, and in a video, reading Hotel Transylvania,a sequence of poems about Borsec.

King's Cross - work in progress

Thursday, 9 May 2019 at 20:22

Painting Kings X

Following on from the Paragon Station canvas, I've been thinking about people in public spaces and working on this painting of the view over the concourse of King's Cross station.

Just got back to it after a few weeks away from the studio. I think I'm getting there, slowly. The interlaced structure that forms the dome was a problem: how to convey something that seems so organic despite, or perhaps because of, its very complicated computer-designed algorhythms. 

There were many formal problems here, and some very tricky ones still to resolve. I added the passengers in the last few days, and now it's time to think about the light as it's patterned through the lattice onto the brickwork.

I have an idea or two about another King's Cross picture, with some diners in the restaurant overlooking the concourse. I'm not sure this will eventually lead to a sort of railway station sequence, or whether it will be part of a series of people in public places: stations, streets, pubs, restaurants etc.  


Authentic Victorian Mermaid revisited

Wednesday, 8 May 2019 at 20:46

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I recently discovered that "Authentic Victorian Mermaid" was Yorkshire Times Poem Of The Week, posted online 18th November 2018. The poem originally appreared in the collaboration Drift (book and film, HumberMouth Literature Festival, 2008) and my collection Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball, 2015).


Here's the poem, together with a commentary.

For further Yorkshire Times poems of the week and much else besides:



Poem Of The Week: ‘Authentic Victorian Mermaid’ By Cliff Forshaw
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent

Authentic Victorian Mermaid

They fetch up here, scuttled to ledges, beached
on pediments, among scrimshaw, harpoons,
a whaler’s bow, a carved baleen seat.

Bony Leviathans ghost hugely through
tall ships, sails; this gallery’s a tail-flick,
the next’s speared by a narwhal’s horn.

Your thoughts turn krill: the floor’s a humpback,
the stairwell spirals up inside a blowhole’s spout;
you’re Jonah in the belly of the beast.

Then boked back up to shore. Strange creatures.
You can’t hear – no sirens sweetly singing – but see
the black nightmare-maid’s screech.

(Check spatulate fishtail, witchy fingers, stitched sealskin.)
You’re face to face with a scary Victorian freak
- snarked on that gob of tiny fish-hooky teeth.


Cliff Forshaw’s extended metaphor is not unpersuasive.

Anyone who’s ever visited Hull’s Maritime Museum will recognise the cavernously organic interiors, the intestinal passages and ribbed staircases.

The reference to Jonah and the belly of the whale is apposite: extruded through the labyrinthine tracts like the krill to which Forshaw also alludes, our traction is more vital than any anodyne one-way shuffle round IKEA, and the floors really do bow and flex like a ‘humpback’, sprung as though in readiness for a ballroom dancing competition.

The museum, and the poem, are extraordinarily diverting.

The poet’s inventory of sea-associated flotsam might be the contents of Moby Dick’s capacious stomach, or it could be a precise summation of Hull’s history, of its municipally-defining maritime endeavours.

The cluttering of nouns and the stuttering metre dividing them, mimic an amble frequently interrupted by the strange visitations bound in cases or ‘beached on pediments’.

The rooms are so dominated by Leviathan presence as to be shaped by them: ‘this gallery’s a tail flick, / the next’s speared by a narwhal’s horn’.

But the details observed on route are the thing, before the hapless narrator is ‘boked’ - in that fine Glaswegian vernacular for vomited - back up to the mundane reality of Queen Victoria Square.

And we can share in Forshaw’s characteristic insouciance as he revels in, and half disdains, the objects before him.

His final triplet is a masterful clotting of metaphors which pull the rug from under an ersatz mermaid.

That the mermaid would have occasioned much jaw-dropping in more credulous times need not entirely obstruct the narrator’s fascinated gawp, here conceived in a demotic which another poet, Tony Harrison, might recognise:

‘You’re face to face with a scary Victorian freak
snarked on that gob of tiny fish-hooky teeth’

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