When the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky visited America in 1925, he had to admit that there was something grand about the country. He was amazed by electricity and railroad stations. He stepped onto the Brooklyn Bridge, he wrote, “as a crazed believer enters a church”; of the skyscrapers, he marveled, “Some buildings are as high as the stars.” But he was aware of darker currents. A staunch Bolshevik, Mayakovsky felt that capitalism had made Americans money-obsessed. He also saw the racism teeming around him. Back in the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky published his observations in an account called “My Discovery of America.”
In her poem “Mayakovsky in New York,” the writer Annie Dillard took snippets of this travelogue and compiled them into her own “found poem.” Reading it is like seeing Mayakovsky’s work in a fun-house mirror. The wonder and apprehension are still there, but stripped of context, Mayakovsky’s descriptions sound surreal: Bridges leap over trains; buildings shoot upward by the minute. Even with the echo of the old work reverberating, though, the new one achieves different ends. Dillard said that when writing found poems, “the original authors’ intentions were usually first to go.”
She’s aware, then, that the found poem is not so much a tribute as it is a theft; a supposed “discovery” frequently privileges the person who happens upon something that already existed and changes it for their own purposes. Dillard discovered Mayakovsky’s work as Mayakovsky “discovered” America: He spent much of his brief stay with other Russians, given that he didn’t speak any English, and said himself, “I saw America only from the windows of a railroad car.” (Dillard called his account “a hastily written piece of travel journalism of some sixty-one pages.”) Still, upon his return, he was regarded as a specialist on the U.S. and gave lectures across the Soviet Union.
Dillard’s poem also hints at an even larger and darker “discovery”: America’s violent seizure of Indigenous land and life. “They are starting to evolve an American gait out / of the cautious steps of the Indians on the paths of empty / Manhattan,” Dillard writes. Because a found poem eternally oscillates between the original and its reinterpretation, the former is always there, haunting what’s been forced into its place. So if it appears that Americans have written their own story on a fresh sheet of paper, she implies, “maybe it only seems that way.”
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