Velimir Khlebnikov's Hunger

Together with Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was Russia's most important Futurist poet. He was far more versatile than can be illustrated here, but a retiring nature, and nomadic existence close to penury in his last years, kept him out of the public eye. Khlebnikov was born in Astrakhan, studied a wide variety of subjects at Kazan and St. Petersburg universities without completing a degree, and then embarked on a literary career with like-minded and subsequently famous Silver Age poets. His only published volume of poems, 'Creations', appeared in 1914, though other poems, epics, plays and essays were published by futurist small presses of the time. Much was simply lost in his hand-to-mouth existence, or had to be published posthumously. He carried manuscripts and books around in a pillow case, which, adding to his odd appearance and habits, caused him to be arrested by both the Red and White Armies on occasion. His travels in the east produced poems set in the Caucasus, Baku, central Asia and Persia, but he died, neglected, in a Russian provincial hospital of an undiagnosed disease, when his contemporaries were enjoying wide celebrity. {1-4}

Khlebnikov's experimental work prepared the way for Mayakovsky’s breakthroughs, and influenced both Pasternak and a long line of later poets. He broke the practices of Symbolism, and encouraged a new 'trans-sense language' (zaumnyi yazyk, or zaum), something beyond the inherited language. The result was complex, chaotic, and unassembled syntax, where phenomenally accomplished lines could be interspersed with bewildering enigmas. {4}

khlebnikv's hunger translation

Khlebnikov had a deep feeling for the Russian language, which he often plays with, creating new juxtapositions and neologisms. His mysticism embraced words and things rather than ideas and symbols. Khlebnikov's world was often primitive but magical, free of Christian and Russian civilization, one often

conjured up by his wide-ranging use of analogy. Sometimes he seemed to be looking for an ur-language, and Khlebnikov had many links with Futurist painters, who were also throwing off the shackles of formal art-school training. {1-3}

Russian Text


Почему лоси и зайцы по лесу скачут,
Прочь удаляясь?
Люди съели кору осины,
Елей побеги зеленые...
Жены и дети бродят по лесу
И собирают березы листы
Для щей, для окрошки, борща,
Елей верхушки и серебряный мох —
Пища лесная.
10. Дети, разведчики леса,
Бродят по рощам,
Жарят в костре белых червей,
Зайчью капусту, гусениц жирных
Или больших пауков — они слаще орехов.
Ловят кротов, ящериц серых,
Гадов шипящих стреляют из лука,
Хлебцы пекут из лебеды.
За мотыльками от голода бегают:
Целый набрали мешок,
20. Будет сегодня из бабочек борщ —
Мамка сварит.
На зайца что нежно прыжками скачет по лесу,
Дети, точно во сне,
Точно на светлого мира видение,
Восхищенные, смотрят большими глазами,
Святыми от голода,
Правде не верят.
Но он убегает проворным виденьем,
Кончиком уха чернея.
30. Вдогонку ему стрела полетела,
Но поздно — сытный обед ускакал.
А дети стоят очарованные...
«Бабочка, глянь-ка, там пролетела...
Лови и беги! А там голубая!..»
Хмуро в лесу. Волк прибежал издалёка
На место, где в прошлом году
Он скушал ягненка.
Долго крутился юлой, всё место обнюхал,
Но ничего не осталось —
40. Дела муравьев, — кроме сухого копытца.
Огорченный, комковатые ребра поджал
И утек за леса.
Там тетеревов алобровых и седых глухарей,
Заснувших под снегом, будет лапой
Тяжелой давить, брызгами снега осыпан...
Лисонька, огнёвка пушистая,
Комочком на пень взобралась
И размышляла о будущем...
Разве собакою стать?
50. Людям на службу пойти?
Сеток растянуто много —
Ложись в любую...
Нет, дело опасное.
Съедят рыжую лиску,
Как съели собак!
Собаки в деревне не лают...
И стала лисица пуховыми лапками мыться,
Взвивши кверху огненный парус хвоста.
Белка сказала, ворча:
60. «Где же мои орехи и желуди? —
Скушали люди!»
Тихо, прозрачно, уж вечерело,
Лепетом тихим сосна целовалась
С осиной.
Может, назавтра их срубят на завтрак.

7 октября 1921

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Analysis of Khlebnikov Poem

The poem is written in unrhymed lines that approximate to anapaests but are of no fixed length:

Почему́ ло́си и за́йцы по ле́су ска́чут,     u u - - u u – u u – u - u
Прочь удаля́ясь?     u u - u
Лю́ди съе́ли кору́ оси́ны,     - u – u u – u - u
Е́лей побе́ги зелёные...     – u u – u u -u
Жёны и де́ти бро́дят по ле́су    – u u – u – u u - u
И собира́ют берёзы листы́     - u u – u u – u u -
Для щей, для окро́шки, борща́,     u – u u – u u -
Е́лей верху́шки и сере́бряный мох —     - u u – u – u u -
Пи́ща лесна́я.     – u u - u
Де́ти, разве́дчики леса́, - u u – u – u -
Бро́дят по ро́щам, - u u – u

Previous Translations of 'Monument'

Ruverses have one version. I give the first 11 lines:

Andrew Stempton:

Why do elks and rabbits cavort through the forest?
Drawing away?
The people ate the bark of the asp,
The green sprouts of firs…
Wives and children wander through the woods,
Collecting birch leaves
For their schi, okroschka and borsch,
Fir tops and silvery moss, —
The sustenance of the forest.
The children are its scouts,
Wandering through the woods,

There is also the rendering by Robert Chandler in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry:

Why are elk and hares leaping through the forest,
making themselves scarce.
People have eaten the bark of poplars,
the green shoots of firs . . .
Women and children wander through the forest,
gathering birch leaves
for soup, for broth, for borsch,
the tips of fir trees and silver moss —
food of the forest.
Children , forest scouts,
wander through thickets.

English Translation

Why through the forest are elk and hares leaping
in diminishing numbers?
People have eaten the bark of poplars,
and the green shoots of firs.
Wives and their children roam through the forest
gathering up birch leaves
for soup or broth or borsch.
Tops of fir trees and the silver moss
are food of the forest.
10. Children, good forest scouts,
are scouring the deep groves.
White worms are roasted on a fire,
wild cabbage and fat caterpillars
or swollen spiders — all sweeter than nuts.
They go after moles and grey lizards,
shoot arrows at hissing reptiles,
bake quinoa bread,
are driven by hunger to moths.
A whole bag is collected:
20. there will be borscht made of butterflies today —
that Mother will cook.
On the hare that hops through the forest
the children, as if in a dream,
focus: it is a vision of a bright world
they admire, look on with large eyes,
but made saintly by hunger:
but they don’t believe,
and the hare nimbly escapes,
They see the black tips of the ears,
30. the arrow flying after,
but it’s too late, a hefty lunch has gone
as the children stood transfixed . . .
‘A butterfly! Look! It’s over there!
Run and catch it! There’s a blue one!’
It’s dark in these woods. A wolf has returned from far away
to the place where the previous year
it ate a lamb.
It spun round a long time, sniffed everywhere,
but finds now there is nothing —
40. the ants had worked hard — left an odd dry hoof.
Depressed, its hard ribs contracted,
the wolf merges with the trees.
There are black grouse and the grey variety
that, fallen asleep in the snow, its paw
will crush, get sprinkled with snow for.
A fox, a fiery mass of fluff,
has climbed onto a tree stump,
clearly rethinking its future.
Could it become a dog?
50. Or serve humans somehow?
A lot of traps had been set:
should it lie down in one?
No, that would be dangerous,
for they will eat a red fox.
Remember how they ate the dogs!
No dogs bark in the village now.
The fox began to wash itself with downy paws,
hoisting its fiery sail aloft.
The squirrel too was grumbling.
60. ’Where are my nuts and acorns? —
People have eaten them!’
Quietly and transparently the evening came on.
The pine tree was kissing and murmuring
to the aspen.
Maybe tomorrow they’ll be lopped down for breakfast.

There is no hope of replicating the rhythmic structure of the original, and it seems best to write a deft prose — as previous translators have done. There are only trifling differences in the renderings, but all are relatively flat. Quasi-prose styles do not carry much emotional charge, however heartbreaking may be their subject matter. (The Great Famine of 1921 hit the Volga region particularly hard, incidentally, and millions died, both from the drought itself and Soviet mismanagement. {5})

But since all the translations on this site have been formal verse, not 'free verse' (i.e. prose), we may wish the bring the above into line. One attempt would be:

Why through the forest leap the elk and hares,
Or people eat the poplar bark,
the green shoots of the firs?
Why do wives and children through the forest
go gathering leaves of birch
for soup or broth or borsch?
Why have the tops of fir trees and the silver moss
become the forests food?
10. Children, all good forest scouts,
go searching deep into the thickets.
White worms are roasted on a fire.
Wild cabbages and caterpillars,
fat spiders, too — much sweeter than are nuts.
Moles they hunt for, and grey lizards,
shoot arrows after hissing snakes,
and bake quinoa bread.
The hunger drives them on to moths,
of which whole bags are filled:
20. today there's borscht of butterflies —
which Mother cooks.
They see the hare that ventures through the forest,
as children do, as in a dream.
To them the focus of a brighter world
that they can see with saucer eyes,
the sainted look that hunger gives.
But no, they don’t believe.
The hare is canny and escapes,
They see the black tips of the ears,
30. and arrow flying after,
but it’s all too late, that hearty lunch has gone.
The children stand transfixed but see . . .
‘A butterfly! And look! It’s over there!
Run and catch it! There’s a blue one too!’
In gloomy depths a wolf has come long distances
to places where the year before
it finished off a lamb.
So round it goes, close sniffing everywhere,
but finds there's nothing left —
40. the ants worked hard — but one dry hoof.
In bitterness, with ribs pressed in,
the wolf lopes off and mingles with the trees.
Perhaps there will be black grouse and the grey
that, sleeping in the snow, the wolf can find,
bringing its paw to crush, as sprinkled thick with snow.
A fox, a fiery mass of fluff,
has clambered on a stump of tree
to think its future out. Could
it become a dog?
50. Or serve some human need?
The open traps that all around
it could just occupy.
No, that's dangerous,
for they would eat a good red fox
as they have done the dogs!
No barking in the village now.
The fox began to wash itself with downy paws,
and hoist its fiery brush aloft.
The squirrel too went grumbling on.
60. 'Where have my nuts and acorns gone? —
Have those people eaten them?’
In quiet, transparently the evening closed.
The pine tree kissed, still murmuring
to the aspen tree.
Perhaps they'll both be felled for breakfast soon.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 327-30.

2. Mirsky, D.S. Contemporary Russian Literature 1881-1925. (A. Knopf) 268-69.

3. Chandler R. et al. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin, 2015) 195-98.

4. Poems by Velimir Khlebnikov. Introduction on Ruverses:

5. The Great Famine of 1921. Alphahistory

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.