Leafing through The King of Time: Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian (Harvard, 1985, ed. Charlotte Douglas, tr. Paul Schmidt), I think, did I read this book. Already I am forgetting it, not because Khlebnikov is too much like other poets but because his work is too strange, too nonsensical. I mean too nonsensical to remember easily. Aesthetically, it is exactly as strange as it should be.
Pushkincandescence of noon!
Night resembles Tiutchev,
Filling the unfathomable full of the unknown. (p. 30, ca. 1915)
Or how about “Incantation by Laughter,” just a bit of it:
Hlahla! Uthlofan, lauflings!
Hlahla! Uthlofan, lauflings!
Who lawghen with lafe, who hlachen lewchly,
Hlahla! Uthlofan hlouly! (20, ca. 1910)
The editor writes that this is among Khlebnikov’s most famous poems. That’s what the translator is up against. Khlebnikov called this “zaum” or per Schmidt “beyonsense.” He wrote poetry starting not just at the level of the word but of the syllable or even letter, exploiting and enjoying all of the arbitrary and delightful random correspondences among words. Word ladders as poetry.
Packs his belly-basket
With water-meadow grass.
Ping, ping, ping! Throstle-whistle
Nightlessness! Brightness! (24-5)
In “O Garden of Animals!” (1909), Khlebnikov’s first major poem, Schmidt can abandon the wordplay because the imagery is good enough:
Where a camel knows the essence of Buddhism, and suppresses a Chinese smile…
Where the bat hangs sleeping, and its capsized body resembles a Russian heart…
Where I search for new rhythms, whose beats are animals and men.
Where the animals in their cages glow, as meaning glows in language.
A little Futurian manifesto snuck in there at the end.
Khlebnikov’s poetry darkens with the Civil War and its ensuing catastrophes. The opening lines of several poems from 1920 and 1921:
They used to have a cow
but they killed her.
Hunger herded humanity. (pp. 46-50)
Khlebnikov died in 1922, just thirty-six, of malnutrition and repeated illnesses, as I might guess from this set of poems. Yet others from the same time continue his linguistic ideas, or expand them in new directions:
Russia, I give you my divine
white brain. Be me. Be Khlebnikov.
I have sunk a foundation deep in the minds
of your people, I have laid down an axis.
I have built a house on a firm foundation.
“We are Futurians.”
And I did all that as a beggarman,
a thief, a man with a curse on his head. (53-4)
Only about 50 pages of The King of Time is poetry. The rest has stories, manifestos (“Projects for the Future”), paintings and photographs by and of Khlebnikov, and other strange stuff, plus a timeline of great utility. In 1912, for example, Khlebnikov “[c]ontributes to A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” which right there tells you why The King of Time – this entire period of Russian literature – is so exciting for readers with the patience for it.