“Evening. Shadows…” – V. Khlebnikov

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 7/?

A (needed) change of tone from yesterday. Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922; born Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov) was one of the central figures of the Futurist movement, along with Vladimir Mayakovsky. The Futurists sought to rebel against conventions of poetic genre and form; their first major collection, of which half the poems were Khlebnikov’s, was called “A Slap In The Face of Public Taste” (1912). (The Russian Wikipedia notes, unsourced, that Khlebnikov was challenged to a duel by Osip Mandelstam in 1913, over an apparent literary argument, but the duel never occurred.)

In contrast to very grounded and specific poets such as Esenin, Khlebnikov was fascinated by cosmological themes and the nature of the universe in his work: e.g. “Besides the law of gravity / To find the common structure of time, / Of the golden harp of the sun, / The basic small cell of time and the entire network.” (1921; translation mine 2007.) He sought to be clever with the Russian language, tearing apart words and creating new ones, pushing Russian morphology and metaphor to the limit. A Slavic enthusiast, he went through a period of completely eschewing non-Slavic roots in his work, a conceit it would be difficult to match in the much more mixed language of English. Translating his work into English requires coining new words to match his neologisms, such as “swanderful” for his “lebedivo” (lebedi = swans; divo = wonder, miracle). This poem is not as elaborate as some, but still forced me to decide how to translate his wordplay on “slovo” (word) and “sleva” (at the left).

Evening. Shadow.
Porches. Languor.
We sat, drinking evening light.
In each eye the flight of deer
In each gaze a spear’s flight.
And when universal summergold boiled in the sunset west
From the store a boy dashed out
Followed by “Heat!” the shout,
And I, closer to right than the rightmost
Was more leftword than leftward.

Velimir Khlebnikov, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, 2007, revised 2016.