Menard’s Severyanin

Variaciones Borges recently published the latest installment of the Pierre Menard translations that I’ve been slowly working on. (Sincere thanks to Daniel Balderston for asking whether I had any more of those Menard pieces in the works. I did and I do.) This one re-frames a poem by a self-styled genius, ego-futurist Igor Severyanin, whose “Square of Squares” is exactly the sort of fascinating mirror of a poem that Menard, being Menard, could not have resisted.

This is a project I’ve been slowly unearthing. The first installment was here: The second here:

The most recent poem, with my editor’s headnote, is unfortunately not available in a freestanding web format but must be viewed inside the issue in question, which is here:

The one problem with the issue is that the formatting for the final poem, which is Menard’s most subtle, is unfortunately just a bit off. I’ve corrected it and pasted it below, along with the headnote, to provide a taste of the poem’s importance.

(the editor’s headnote)

The performative aspects of Pierre Menard’s oeuvre have, to my mind, been neglected to date. This latest installment of the series I have been slowly researching and making available to Menard’s devotés (the previously published “Menard’s Alexander Blok,” and “Menard’s Velimir Khlebnikov” comprising the first two installments) will, I hope, illustrate that P.M. was at least as interested in the presentational aspects of translation as he was in its scholarly and artistic sides. This should not be at all surprising given the age in which he lived and the source texts that inspired him in this stage of his life. Igor Severyanin was voted the most popular poet by a leading magazine in Russia in the momentous year of 1918. Known to recite his verse to large, boisterous crowds of admirers, a rose in his lapel and a champagne glass (intermittently filled) perched between his thumb and index finger, he was decidedly not a Bolshevik poet. His “ego-futurism” was the St. Petersburg counterpart to the Moscow-based “cubo-futurism,” and is perhaps best characterized by the line, “Ia genii Igor’ Servianin” (I am the genius, Igor Severyanin). His first volume of poetry, from which Menard’s selection is drawn, was entitled Gromokipiashchii kubok (The Thunder-boiling Chalice) and was published in 1913. 

The typical progression of Menard’s manner of work, which I have commented upon in previous installments, will be recognizable, though, like each of Menard’s poetic choices, “The Square of Squares,” which was originally composed in 1910 and is incidentally one of ten verse forms invented by Severyanin, presents its own distinctive translational challenges, ternary meter being, in my view, the least daunting. It should be observed that Severyanin’s poetry has a mirror-like aspect, a tendency, even at the level of the line, to look back on itself. The poet employed an extraordinarily high degree of rhyme enrichment, in which sound similarities extend from the final stressed vowel of each line both to the end of the line, which one would expect, but also inward towards the middle of the line, as if the rhyme were working in both directions at once. This principle appears to have been extended in the case of “The Square of Squares” to serve as something of a structural basis for the entire poem. I believe it is possible to detect in P.M.’s various attempts an awareness of the challenge that this compositional tendency poses to a translator. Menard’s versions three, four, and five are represented in his notebook as grids. 

Finally, it is with this poem that P.M.’s notebooks, some six and one half months into his stay in London, begin to mention two women with whom he appears to have been acquainted. Neither is named explicitly, and I have not yet succeeded in discovering their historical identities, nor the reason that each is designated by an Italian adjective, in the case of the first “la veneziana” (the Venetian), in the case of the second, and “l’ebrea” (the Jewess). The mentions are cursory at first, e.g., “passed la veneziana on the street with her father this morning,” and do not appear to be connected to P.M.’s translation work. Later in the notebooks, they become both more frequent and more complexly intertwined with the translations themselves.

[Menard’s final version, properly formatted]


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