Reading Notes: Mayakovsky, “The Cloud in Trousers” (1914-1915) (trans. Patricia Blake)
The most interesting part of the poem for me comes at the end of section 2, and it’s fairly easy to build a reading up until then.
In the introductory section, Mayakovsky does a couple of manifesto-like things: 1) he declares himself the contradictory embodiment of “rage on raw meat,” and “irreproachably tender: not a man, but a cloud in trousers!” 2) he proclaims a familiar modernist/Futurist anti-beauty: “Again in song I glorify / men as crumpled as hospital beds, / and women as battered as proverbs.” This isn’t Marinetti—Mayakovsky’s embrace of the ugly here is forceful, but it’s not praise of the power of machinery, and Mayakovsky also doesn’t throw tenderness aside, instead adding ugliness to what is poem-worthy without necessarily eliminating the value of old-school beauty. It’s not Dada either—though throughout the poem Mayakovsky will play with irony and sincerity, to the point that sometimes individual metaphors or groups of lines approach a kind of playful nonsense, Mayakovsky very definitely has an intentional purpose in mind.
Section 1 is maybe the best part, poetry-wise. Mayakovsky vacillates between a strident, forceful tone and an endearing use of slangy language for contrast (ex: “Again and again / nuzzling against the rain, / my face pressed against its pitted face, / I wait, splashed by the city’s thundering surf”; “How could a body like this have a big love? / It should be a teeny-weeny, / humble little love” (65)). There’s a really effective move Mayakovsky makes a few times, speaking about his body and his feelings as if they were external to him, composed of a bunch of separate pieces (“Nerves, / big nerves, / tiny nerves, / many nerves!— / galloped madly / till soon / their legs gave way” (67)). As Mayakovsky says, this dramatizes how his feelings are larger than he is (“I feel / my ‘I’ / is much too small for me. / Stubbornly a body pushes out of me” (71)). It establishes the grandiosity of the speaker: all his emotions are completely overblown, and his own rejection by Maria is tragic on a world-historical level (he compares himself to Vesuvius (71) and the Lusitania (73)).
The transition from Section 1 to 2 appears to be tonal or emotional rather than logical. Section 1 is really sort of autonomous, and 2 doesn’t really add anything to it so much as take the grandiose tone from 1 and run with it. If Section 1 started with the speaker’s individual sadness and frustration and raised it to the level of history, Section 2 starts out at that level and waits for everything else to catch up. At the beginning, we have the old poets, who “with twittering rhymes…boil a broth / of loves and nightingales,” while potentially (but not yet actively) against the old guard, “the tongueless street merely writhes / for lack of something to shout or say” (75). The street begins to feel “torment” until it breaks out (“the street coughed up the crush on the square”), at which point it declares “‘Let’s go and guzzle!” (77). At this point, street becomes “street folk: / students, / prostitutes, / salesmen” (79)—an interesting figurative move, undoing the metonymy of street to bring forward the people the word stands in for. The speaker fully identifies with the street folk now, and declares their inherent value, a declaration of their equality with the old poets (“We ourselves are creators within a burning hymn— / the hum of mills and laboratories” (79)). Then he calls out the failures of classical aesthetics to represent the street folk (on aesthetic grounds) (“I spit on the fact / that neither Homer nor Ovid / invented characters like us, pock-marked with soot” (81)), and finally redeclaring their creative ability not just an artistic force, but a force in reality (“We— / each one of us— / hold in our fists / the driving belts of the worlds!”).
The weird turn comes now at the end. With the street folk fully endowed with power over reality, the speaker has done his work, and he separates himself from them by invoking the calls of the mob for Christ (the street folk = mob; Mayakovsky = Christ) (“This led to my Golgothas in the halls… // where not a man / but / shouted: / “Crucify, / crucify him!” (83)). He embraces this, using the conflation of himself with Christ to play up his own prophetic qualities (“mocked by my contemporaries / like a prolonged / dirty joke, / I perceive whom no one sees, / crossing the mountains of time” (83)), which then changes his allegorical position from Christ to John the Baptist (“In your midst, his precursor”) with the coming rebellion taking on the position of Christ. Section 2 concludes “And when, / with rebellion / his advent announcing, / you step to meet the savior— / then I / shall root up my soul; / I’ll trample it hard / till it spread / in blood; and I offer you this as a banner” (85).
What to make of this last move? After fomenting a revolution by undoing the restrictive aesthetic of the past, allowing for a poetry/art that embraces the normal and the ugly of everyday life, the life of the people, and after the street/folk respond and rise up, Mayakovsky’s speaker doesn’t join them, but instead removes himself (reasserting his uniqueness) and then offers his soul as a banner to the rebellion. Is it that the revolution can’t use Mayakovsky the person, but needs to fly behind the symbolic flag he’s created (thus he gives them his soul as banner)? Or, by tearing out his soul and trampling it, is Mayakovsky signaling that with the rebellion at hand, there’s no need for its prophet (his soul)? Again, because I’ve got Badiou on the brain lately, what if we read this as a Badiouian event? The event happens because of an excess in the situation that the state does not account for: in this case, the street/folk comes to life, creating an illegal presence that has no representation within the state. The only options at this point are for the state to oppress the street/folk, denying their presentation, or for a new state that includes them. But according to Badiou’s framework of event, a new state is no more able to include everything present in the situation than an old one. And this is what we get with Mayakovsky’s splitting of himself: one part continues with the rebellion, but not all of him—there’s something left over that still can’t be represented by the state. I want to say this might account a little bit for Sections 3 & 4. Compared to the development through the end of 2, Sections 3 & 4 seem a little weird. Everything (at least, revolution-wise) has more or less happened by the end of 2, but in Section 3, Mayakovsky’s speaker skulks around in saloons while the revolution happens around him. At the end of 3, rather unlike the end of 2 that concluded with the speaker at the center of everything, the speaker says “I am perhaps quite simply / the thirteenth apostle / in an ordinary gospel” (95). (Mayakovsky here successfully manages to express disappointment at his ordinariness in a grandiose manner, which takes real poetic prowess!). Section 4 returns to the obsession with trying to get together with a woman, essentially bringing us back to the beginning (Blake’s notes insist that the Maria of Section 4 is definitely not the same Maria as that of Section 1, but it seems at least somewhat important that the woman in each section has the same name). Even after the revolution, after the event, there’s no utopia—there’s still potential for history. It would be possible to read this as something as simple as Mayakovsky showing that once the revolution is over people still have to worry about things like love—things that seem more important ultimately than politics. But the poem throughout has consistently conflated the levels of personal and world-historical, so Mayakovsky’s remainder of disappointment is, at the very least left open, to signify something much larger than his own girl-craziness.