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To the Backbone Flute
Notes from the translator on The Backbone Flute
1. This poem was written by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1897-1930) in the fall of 1915 with the title "Verses To Her." Later renamed, the poem was dedicated to Lily Brik, whom Mayakovsky had recently met with her husband, the editor Osip Brik. The first public reading of The Backbone Flute, in 1915, before a group of thirty-six people, including Gorky, was a miserable flop. Mayakovsky required a larger audience; his thundering voice and dramatic delivery were unsuited to intimate gatherings. Some people tittered during Mayakovsky's recitation. Close to tears, the poet fumbled his lines, then fled the podium. Gorky, however, was much impressed. "After all, there's nothing much to futurism," he said. "There is only Mayakovsky. A poet. A great poet." In February 1916 Osip Brik published The Backbone Flute in an edition of six hundred poems.
2. Hoffmann: E. T. A. Hoffmann's fantastic, ghostly tales were extremely popular in Russia.
3. Nevsky: Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg.
4. On a crag: In these lines, Mayakovsky is evidently comparing his fate to that of Prometheus, who was chained to a mountain in Mayakovsky's native Caucasus.
5. Bacchus: Greek God of Wine and Drinking.
6. Traviata-("The Wayward Woman"): an opera by Giuseppi Verdi, composed in 1853.
7. Strelka: An island resort on the Gulf of Finland, near St. Petersburg, which was popular meeting-place for the Petersburg upper classes.
8. Sokolniki: This park is a favorite promenade of Muscovites.
9. St. Helena: an island in the Medeterrian Sea, where Napoleon was detained after he had lost the war.
10. Lily: Mayakovsky means Lily Brik.
11. Byalik: Chaim Nachman Byalik (1873-1934), the Hebrew poet, who was a native of the Ukraine. His best-known work in Russian translation was concerned with ancient Jewish lore.
12. Albert: King of Belgium during World War I, when Belgium was almost entirely occupied by the Germans.