Khlebnikov’s Lice

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The lice had blind faith, and they prayed to me.

Every morning they would congregate on my clothes,

every morning I visited punishment upon them

and listened to them crackle and die.

But they kept on returning again and again

in a quiet worshipful wave.

(Velimir Khlebnikov, 1922)

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This is a poem that the Russian futurist wrote during the Civil War and deadly famine during the first years of the Soviet Union; it was written in the year of his premature death, in paralysis and suffering from blood poisoning. Khlebnikov starts from a low, bothersome, and everyday personal fact—the squalid condition of his life during the dreadful situation of Civil War—and uses it, in a few reticent lines, to suggest a whole range of reflections about the relations of human beings and history (or deity, or fate), on suffering and redemption, and on collectivity and poetic creativity. One might see this poem as an oblique reflection on the poet’s relation to his poetic creations or to his poetic ideas, which are shaped by his fingers and consigned with ruthless cruelty to their place, rejected, cancelled, but which spring up again in countless and uncontrollable number, demanding their drop of the poet-deity’s blood and tormenting him with their nagging bites and constant itching. From the political perspective, in the context of the Revolution, Khlebnikov presents an ambivalent view: the conditions of Civil War have reduces the Russian masses to the equivalent of lice, to be crushed indifferently in droves, yet ultimately inextinguishable and even, ironically, charged and strengthened by the harshness of the fate that their “deity” metes out to them. To be the poet of these masses, and to see the larger forces of history that makes the action of individual human beings seem like the agitations of tiny insects, is a god-like view, but this god of Khlebnikov, and hence his perspective on his own once-exalted futurist-poet persona, is here almost just another near-paralyzed victim of the same crushing forces of history in other form. God is dependent and constrained by his worshipful “flock,” who need the constant sustenance of his own body and blood, even as he reigns over them with divine cruelty and distance. Moreover, the last line ironically belies that divine distance and separateness—“quiet worshipful wave” is an image that implies both emotional empathy and physical engulfment. God—like Christ becoming one with humanity by sacrificing his body and blood—dissolves into his congregation in this last line, and Khlebnikov performs the sacrificial fusion of himself as poet and the lice on his body in the shared rhythmic image of a wave, the blind jittering of insects now become the disciplined metrics of poetic lines and reduced from the countless to the singular and tiny (notably, a six-line poem, just as a louse has its six jointed legs).

Khlebnikov is a miraculous poet, and this poem is one of his little miracles.

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