Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 8

Two poems “after Mayakovsky” follow. Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893 – 1930) was a Russian Futurist poet who celebrated the Revolution and the rise of the Soviet. Boland’s poems are free translations.

“Conversation with an Inspector of Taxes,” a wryly humorous explanation for not paying taxes, is “Concerned to discern the role of the poet/ Within the ranks of the proletariat” (rhyming couplet concluding the 6-line stanza). The poet tries to explain writing poetry to the Tax Inspector in terms the latter would understand. So: rhyme is roughly equivalent to a promissory note; in the petty cash of sense, poets “moisten the coins of nuance”; as for the question of taxable travel, this poet has “bitted and stampeded Pegasus.” His debts, the poem turns, are not to Bureaucracy, but to Poetry, not monetary, but “debts of honor” to the revolutionary Red Army, to the “winter flowering cherry of Japan,” and to “the fastness of my winter cradle,” his homeland.

“The Atlantic Ocean” is a far more complex, and moving, poem. Boland uses an interesting stanza form: 4 lines of iambic pentameter followed by four lines of iambic trimeter, both of which rhyme abab with variations. The thinner section depicts to good effect “A shrivelled Europe”; “the ballyhoo/ of war”; “A squad of drops” that tears imperial crests to tatters; the “will to fight”; and the poem’s final recognition that the ocean, “in its wild station,” is the elder brother of the Russian Revolution. The second to last stanza is particularly beautiful, in its location of revolutionary faith in the formation of coral:

So what has started well can flourish still,
As for example underneath the tide
The marvel of structured self-perfecting coral
Now a milestone, soon to be a guide
xxxxTo the she-whale, to the sperm-whale nosing
xxxxClear of the shark, the porpoises
xxxxBraceleting the ships’ bows,
xxxxThe octopus intricately dozing.


Mayakovsky may seem a surprising choice for translation but these two poems speak to concerns already present in Boland’s poetry: the role of the poet, the love of a homeland, war, the establishment of a republic. The poems’ contrasting tones can also be found in her poetry: the wry wit and the meditative fervor. The heroic Cossack stallions remind me of the horses and horsemen in Boland’s romantic imagination. The comparison of the ocean to an elder brother echoes Boland’s domestic tropes for the world, her understanding that “it’s in the family.”

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