Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “The Backbone Flute” is a poem about desire, the mystery of where desires come from, and how they can fade and be forgotten. And it’s about the suffering of an artist, a poet, whose desires seem too wide for the world.
The poet depicts himself at work where
“the nails of words
“nail me to paper”
Nailed to paper in the dim light of his study. But we should not just imagine the poet here hunched over his writing paper, but also leaving his house, out in the street, still carrying the grey darkness of the study with him. The words, his own words, are still driven through him. Crucified, he is held in position. Boris Pasternak wrote of Mayakovsky: “His way of carrying himself suggested something like a decision when it has been executed and its consequences are irrevocable. This decision was his very genius . . .” The poet has created himself according to his own decision, his own genius, and his very being is now determined by this decision, the decision made in the dark of his study. He’s heavy with his genius.
Outside, the streets are full of “gaiety.” Light and laughter threaten to penetrate his self-enclosing gloom. Nature turns green and gold with spring. “Flowers and grasses, turn gold in the sun!” But, being crucified, the poet can only look inward at his own words, his own suffering:
“I desire only one poison –
“to drink the deep draught of verse.”
And by this draught the poet’s gloomy genius is hardened, impenetrable.
He leaves his study and steps outdoors, to visit the woman he is in love with. She is a creature who has forgotten how to desire, with “the gaping hollows of two deep graves” for eyes. He feels he might fall into these graves, but he saves himself, “juggling with words” as he “totters above” first one abyss, then the other.
He wants to save his beloved from her own emptiness: “Find your youth in my soul,” he tells her. It’s strange that one who spends his days nailed to paper, hidden from the warmth of the life-giving sun, blind to the cheerfulness of the street, should feel he has a youthful soul, a soul so overflowing with youth that he has enough to spare to save the soul of another. But this is something of the magic of the “crucifixion” of the writer: he’s reborn, resurrected, and thereby immune to nature’s cycle of birth and decay.
She, however, is dead (even as she lives.) And the world is loveless: people have forgotten even that the sky is blue. Perhaps the poet’s love is the last love in the world, and the flush of his cheek is the last red in the world:
“the very last love in the world
“to dawn like a consumptive’s flush.”
The poet doesn’t expect his reader to understand. To him, we are all like this woman: dead to our desire. There is no desire left in the world, and you must go beyond the world, be otherworldly, to find your desire. The poet is superhuman in comparison to his lover, and in comparison to everyone else, all of us:
“If you carry your faltering steps to a bridge,
“how good to be down there –
“then it is I,
“the Seine pouring under the bridge,
“who call you,
“baring my rotted teeth.”
Reborn with spring, the poet is the shadow of nature. A dark imitation. A river to call you down to your destruction. The work in the dark study, the dark magic of the crucifixion, has created this power in him. You are empty of desire, and so the poet can create desire within you. You are unable to resist. Stripped of your own desire, you are a blank canvas to be sketched upon:
“then it is I, climbing high,
“expectant and stripped like the moon, who make you yearn.”
You have forgotten how to desire. And so the poet will draw you down to despair, or raise you up to sublime yearning. The poet says: if you have no desire of your own, then I will create desire in you. I will lend you my youth, or make you desire death, or make you weep at the expectation of an impossible desire. You will see the world as I see it because, empty of desire, what is there in you to offer the least resistance? You’ll be filled, an empty vessel.
But perhaps the poet, like us, is not his own master. Perhaps not godlike after all. The only godlike one is God Himself. After all, it was God who put him in this position, and made him desire the woman he now loves. Made him want to nail himself to paper and give away his youth, rather than enjoy the joys of spring. The poet despairs and addresses God, God the greatest of all artists:
“remove that cursed woman
“whom you have made my beloved!”
But “the streets are too narrow for the storm of joy.” If God makes us desire, then why did He make the world, the streets, so narrow? Too narrow for this joy that the poet feels. There’s a moment in the poem “The Cloud in Trousers” when Mayakovsky expresses the same thought: God, if you are so good, then
“. . . why didn’t you see to it
“that one could without torture
“kiss, and kiss and kiss?!”
What use is this desire to kiss and kiss in this world so empty of desire, so narrow and constricting? Why must a poet drive nails into himself and shroud himself in darkness to communicate with the woman he desires?
Perhaps the answer is: God loves artists most of all. And He knows that an artist must suffer. And so he blesses His favourites with desire, knowing the suffering this will bring. It’s fitting that the instrument the poet chooses is his “own backbone”: the backbone God gave him. “The backbone flute”: an imperfect instrument, and one that only a poet, one meant for suffering, would dare to try to play. Needs to try to play, inspired by God to desire his own crucifixion.
(Quotations are from Vladimir Mayakvosky’s The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey, published in 1975 by Indiana University Press. The quotation from Boris Pasternak is found in the introduction, written by Patricia Blake.)