Velimir Khlebnikov | October on the Neva

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Early in the spring of 1917, Petnikov and I took the train to Moscow.

” We alone have rolled up your three years of war into a single spiral, a terrifying trumpet, and now we sing and shout, we sing and shout, drunk with the audacity of this truth: the Government of Planet Earth already exists. We are It.
We alone have crowned ourselves with the evergreen wreaths of Presidents of Planet Earth, inexorable in our sunburnt audacity. We are potters who fire the wet clay of humanity into vessels, containers of time, we organize hunting expeditions for the souls of men . . . . .
‘What insolence,’ people will say. ‘No,’ others will reply, ‘they are saints!’ But we will merely smile at them and point a hand at the sun: ‘Put a leash around his neck, haul him before the bar of your dishwater justice—if you want. Charge him with inspiring these words and causing these angry glances. He is the culprit.”
The Government of Planet Earth
(signed)

This appeal opened the poetic year. With it in hand, full of the highest hopes, two self-proclaimed Presidents of Planet Earth got on the Kharkov-Moscow train one evening.
Our task in Petrograd had been to add more signatures to the list of Presidents, so we began a kind of signature hunt, and the list soon included the names of two very enthusiastic member of the Chinese embassy, Ting I-Li and Yang Yui-Kai, a young Ethiopian named Ali Serar, the writers Evreinov, Zenkevich, Mayakovsky, Burliuk, Kuzmin, Kamensky, Aseev, the artists Malevich, Kuftin, Brik, Pasternak, Spassky, the aviators Bogorodsky, G. Kuzmin, Mikhailov, Muromtsev, Zigmund, Prokofiev, the Americans Crawford, Wheeler, and Davis, also Siniakova and many more.
At the Arts Festival on May 25th the banner of the Presidents of Planet Earth, raised for the first time by the hand of man, flew from the lead truck. We outdistanced the whole parade. Thus was our banner first hoisted over the swampy soil of the Neva.
In the single-issue newspaper Let’s Grab Freedom! the Government of Planet Earth published the poem.

Yesterday I whispered: “Coo! Coo! Coo!”
And flocks of wars flew down to peck
the grain from my hands.

It was a crazy summer. First a long confinement in a reserve infantry regiment, protected from the rest of humanity by a barbed-wire fence. Every night we used to gather by the fence and stare across the cemetery—across the lights of the city of the dead—at the the far-off lights of Saratov, the city of the living, in the distance. I experienced a real hunger for space on trains as well, trains swarming with people who had rejected War, who glorified Peace, Springtime and her blessings. I made the trip from Kharkov to Kiev and Petrograd and back twice. Why? I don’t even know.
I celebrated the arrival of spring near Kharkov, at the top of a flowering locust tree, on the very highest branch. A curtain of flowers hung between two pairs of eyes. Every movement of the branch covered me with flowers. Later I spent a night watching the starry sky from the top of a moving train. After considering the situation for a moment, I fell asleep without a care, wrapped in the gray overcoat of a Saratov infantryman. That time those of us who occupied the top deck were showered with black locust flowers from the locomotive’s engine, and when the train for some reason made a halt in an empty field, we all ran down to the river to wash, and instead of towels we dried ourselves with leaves from the trees of the Ukraine.
“Petrograd, hell! Not any more ! They should call it the Windy City!” People joked about the weather when we got back to the Neva that autumn. I found a place to stay in the village of Smolensk, where mysterious trains with no lights ran back and forth during the night, where armed gypsies pitched their tents in swampy field, and lights burned day and night in the insane asylum. My companion Petrovsky was a great connoisseur of the supernatural. He called my attention to one particular tree, a suspicious-looking black birch that grew beyond the fence. Its leaves shook sharply in the slightest breeze. In the golden light of sunset each black leaf stood out particularly ominously. He dreamed about that tree constantly, in exact detail, every night. Petrovsky began to talk very superstitiously about it. Later he found out that the tree grew beside a morgue where the bodies of those who had been killed were kept until the autopsy.
By this time the events had already started. We were living with a worker named Morev. Like many of the people who lived on the outskirts in those days, he used to collect bits of lead to be melted down into bullets. “You know, just in case.”
My birthday. Sinister thunder over Tsarskoe Selo. Every night on my way home I used to walk past the city of the insane, and I always used to think of someone I knew in the army, Private Lysak, he was crazy and kept whispering over and over: “Truth, no truth; truth, no truth.”
His quickening whisper would keep getting faster and faster and softer and softer, and then the poor guy would jump into bed and hide under the covers, pull them up until only his eyes were showing, as if he wanted to get away from someone, but he never stopped that inhumanly fast whisper. Then, very slowly, he would sit up in bed and his whisper would get louder and louder and he would squat there absolutely rigid, his eyes round as a hawk’s and all yellow, and then all of a sudden he would straighten up and start shaking his bed and yelling “TRUTH,” screaming like crazy so that the whole building echoed and the windows rattled.
“Where is the truth?” he shouted. “Bring me the truth! Bring it here!”
Then he sat down. He had a long wiry moustache and yellow eyes, and he would sit there trying to catch sparks from the fire with his bare hands, only there wasn’t any fire. By that time the attendants would come running from all over. It was like notes from the field of the dead, flickers of heat lightning over the distant field of death, a sign at the dawn of the century. He was a big powerful man, and he looked like a prophet in his hospital bed.
We all got together in Petrograd—me, Petnikov, Petrovsky, Lurie, sometimes Ivnev would be there and some of the other Presidents.
“The point is, friends, we weren’t wrong when we said we thought the monster of war had only one eye left, and all we had to do was char the end of a log, sharpen it to a point, and ram it as hard as we could into that eye, blind him with it, and then hide ourselves in the fleece. Am I right when I say that? An I telling the truth?”
“Absolutely right,” was the answer. So we decided to put out the one eye of war. The Government of Planet Earth published a little list: “Signatures of the Presidents of Planet Earth” on a blank page, nothing else. That was our first step.
“You dead must return and join us in the struggle! The living are worn out,” somebody shouted out loud. “We want to be a single host of warriors, the dead and the living together. Rise up, you dead men! Leave your graves!”
In those days the word bolshevik was frequently spoken with a strange pride, and it was soon clear that gunfire was about to blaze through the twilight of “today.”
Petrovsky, with his enormous Astrakhan fur hat, his transparent, emaciated face, would smile mysteriously.
“You hear that?” he used to ask, whenever a drainspout gurgled suddenly as we passed. “Whatever just went on in there, I’ll never make sense of it,” he announced, and began beating on the pipe mysteriously; his look said clearly that things would keep on going wrong.
He was in a sinister mood.
Later on, just before Kerensky’s downfall, I heard an astonished remark: “He’s been in for nine months now, but he’s so entrenched it will take cannons to get him out.” What was he waiting for? Was there anyone left who didn’t think he’s pathetic laughingstock?
The Provisional Government was meeting in the Mariinsky Palace at that time, and one day we sent them the following letter:

To the Provisional Government, Mariinsky Palace, City

To Whom It May Concern:
The Government of Planet Earth at its meeting on October 22 has decided:
I. To consider the Provisional Government provisionally nonexistent, and the Head Improviser Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky under close arrest.
“Heavy is the grip of the handshake of stone.”
President of Planet Earth: Petnikov, Ivnev, Lurie, Petrovsky. Me-the-statue-of-the-Commendatore.

Another time we sent the following letter.

To Alexandra Fyodorovna Kerenskaia, Winter Palace, City

To Whom It May concern:

Are you really still not aware that the Government of Planet Earth already exists? Yes, you are really still not aware that it already exists.
The Government of Planet Earth (signed)

One time we were all together and champing at the bit, so we decided to telephone the Winter Palace.
“Winter Palace? Operator, please connect us with the Winter Palace.”
“Hello, Winter Palace? This is the Moving-Van Workers’ Cooperative.”
“Yes, what can I do for you?” The voice was cold, polite, humorless.
“The moving-van workers would like to know how soon the occupants of the Winter Palace will be moving out.”
“What? What?”
“Are the residents of the Winter Palace planning to move?”
“Ah! And is that all you want to know?” We could hear a sour smile in the voice.
“That’s all.” We could hear someone laughing at the other end of the line. Petnikov and I began laughing on our end.
A look of dismay on the face of someone in the next room.
Two days later the cannons began firing.
Don Giovanni was playing at the Mariinsky that week, and for some reason we identified Kerensky with the Don. I remember how everybody in the opposite row of boxes winced and looked suspicious when one of us nodded his head, agreeing to the Don’s invitation before the Commendatore managed to do so.
A few days later the Aurora rode silently at anchor on the Neva across from the Palace, and the long cannon that had been installed on her deck looked like an unblinking eye of iron—a sea monster’s eye.
The story was that Kerensky had escaped wearing a Red Cross nurse’s uniform and that he had been bravely defended by his last line of defense, the Girl Scouts of Petrograd.
Nevsky Prospect was full of people, constantly crowded, and there was no shooting there at all. There were bonfires by all the raised bridges, guarded by sentries in heavy sheepskin coats with their rifles stacked, while densely packed formations of sailors in black moved silently from place to place, inseparable elements of the night itself. All you could make out was the rhythmic movement of pleats in their uniforms. By morning we found out that all the military academies had been taken over, one after the other. But the inhabitants of the capital were not involved in the struggle.
The situation in Moscow was entirely different. There the fighting was serious: we were holed up for a week. We spent the nights at Kazan station, sitting at a table with our heads on our arms; during the day we came under fire on Trubnaia and Miasnitskaia streets.
Other parts of the city were completely cordoned off. Still, once I walked around Moscow on the Sadovaia late night, even though I was stopped and searched a couple of times.
The pitch dark was occasionally broken by passing armored cars; from time to time I heard shots.
And finally there was a truce.
We rushed outside. The cannons were silent, We ran through the hungry streets like kids after the first snowfall, looking at the frosty stars of bullet holes in windows, at the snowy flowers of tiny cracks; we walked through the shards of glass, clear as ice, that covered Tverskoi Boulevard. Pleasant, those first hours, when we picked up bullets that had smashed against walls, all bent and twisted, like the bodies of burnt-up butterflies.
We saw the black wounds of smoking walls.
In one store we saw a big gray cat. She meowed through the plate glass, trying to entice people into letting her out; but she remained in her solitary confinement for a long time.
We wanted to name everything after ourselves. In spite of the angry barrage of iron fired from Sparrow Hills, the city was whole.
I especially loved the south embankment of the Moscow River, with its three factory chimneys that looked like candles lit there by some determined hand, its cast-iron bridge and the crows that gathered on the ice. But over it all like golden onion domes towered the candelabrum of the three factory chimneys, held there by some enormous hand. An iron staircase led to their summits, and sometimes a man would climb to the top, a candle-priest burning before a face made of gray factory soot.
Whose face was it? Friend or foe? A forehead outlined by smoke, hanging over the city, wound with a beard of clouds? Or was it perhaps a new Qurrat al-Ain, dark-eyed, consecrating her wonderful silken hair to the flames that consume her, prophesying equality and equal rights? As yet we did not know. We could only look.
But these new candles now burn for an unknown hierarch, and they dominate the old sanctuary.
It was here too that I first looked into the Book of the Dead, when I saw the line of relatives by Lomonosov Park, a long line that filled the entire street by the entrance to the morgue.
The initial letter of a new age of freedom is often written with the ink of death.

[1918]

 

FROM
COLLECTED WORKS OF

VELIMIR KHLEBNIKOV
VOLUME II
PROSE, PLAYS AND SUPERSAGAS
TRANSLATED BY PAUL SCHMIDT
EDITED BY RONALD VROON
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS

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