Autumnal Creases.

Mikhail Yeryomin (not the goalkeeper) is a very interesting poet; as the History of Russian Literature (see this post) says, “Eremin quickly settled into a writing pattern that has remained unchanged for decades: eight-line poems, almost always untitled, collected in volumes published every few years and entitled Poems […] Eremin collects obscure words with the zeal of a paleontologist assembling animal bones from disparate sites; the imagery of the poems is often biological, chemical, and especially botanical.” There’s a selection of his poems in the excellent anthology In The Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era (which seems to have given rise to a whole series of single-author collections), translated by the editor, J. Kates, and for one of them I found a different translation, by David MacFadyen (in World Literature Today 72.1 [Winter, 1998]), so I thought I’d provide the original (from 1957) and both translations so you can see just how divergent translations can be (there are only a half-dozen words in common, including “autumnal” and “creases”):

Боковитые зерна премудрости,
Изначальную форму пространства,
Всероссийскую святость и смутность
И болот журавлиную пряность
Отыскивать в осенней рукописи,
Где следы оставила слякоть,
Где листы, словно листья луковицы,
Слезы прячут в складках.

Perspicuity’s angular seedpods,
A primordial form of dimension,
All of Russia, its miscreants, credence,
And the cranes’ heady scent from the marshes:
To find this in autumnal manuscripts,
Where the slime deposited traces,
Where the pages, as cupolas’ onion-leaves,
Hide their teardrops in creases.
–tr. D. MacFadyen

Polyhedral kernels of wisdom,
Primordial form of space.
All-Russian holiness, hodgepodge
And the herony tang of swampland
To be searched out in autumnal writing,
Where the slush has left its traces,
Where leaves, like the skirts of an onion
Conceal tears in their creases.
–tr. J. Kates

The first word, the adjective боковитый, is so rare it gets less than 40 Google hits at the moment, and some of those hits use it as a proper noun; it’s clearly derived from the noun бок ‘side,’ but I have no idea if it has any specialized meaning or if it’s used ad hoc each time — at any rate, MacFadyen makes it “angular” and Kates “polyhedral.” And the translators are working from slightly different texts of the poem: in the penultimate line, one has платья, hence ‘skirts,’ and the other листья ‘leaves’ (the version I used above). Fun stuff, if you like analyzing translations (as I do: see this post from the first few months of LH, whose comment thread, alas, was peeled away at some point by Blogger).


  1. You should have titled this post Primordial form of autumnal creases.

    I think that bokovitye is indeed ad hoc and means “having well-developed, conspicuous sides” . The imagery is of a ripe grain as can be expected in the fall. I would try something like “ample-sided kernels of wisdom” (I know, it is futile to keep anapest of the original in English, but for one line one can try).

    I don’t know why sv’atost’ i smutnost’ got muddied in both translations. The first word is just “holiness” and the second is a bit difficult because it connotes both troubles (like in the Time of Troubles) and, more directly in modern language, blurriness, haze. “All of Russia’s holiness and turbidness” doesn’t sound poetic enough (and doesn’t keep the meter), but gets the meaning.

    List’ja lukovitzy is a poetic imagination. Onion bulb does not have leaves. Obviously, the talk is about layers, but the difficulty is that the book leaves are compared to these “onion leaves” and the word is essentially the same. I like plat’ya more. Both in the original and in translation.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    Onion skins, calfskin vellum.

  3. The layers of an onion really are leaves, folks. And the grain referred to as being a seed with sides is doubtless meant to evoke common buckwheat, which due to its angular shape is of the family Polygonaceae.

  4. Not entirely a propos, but the thought of autumnal creases had me thinking of one of my favorite book beginnings, describing this time of year in Chicago, from Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm — “toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow.”

    It’s the smoke that leads to the creases.

    And entirely unrelated, but if the French have a word for the snappy comeback thought of just too late, then some language should have a word – l’esprit de la caisse a outils inutiles? — for the appliance repair revealed by YouTube when the tradesman is already on his way.

  5. Algren was a wonderful writer who should be better remembered.

  6. January First-of-May says

    The layers of an onion really are leaves, folks.

    I’m vaguely reminded of a review of Leaves of Grass pointing out that while the blades of grass are indeed technically leaves, if that was what Whitman had in mind he wouldn’t have called the poem (…well, poem collection) that way.

    (I was surprised to find out, while looking up some details for the original version of this comment, that it wasn’t what he [is now thought to have] had in mind at all – I thought it was still a fancy reference to actual grass.)

    (On a more etymological tangent, another weird fact that I was also surprised by during the same research is that the original meaning of blade is actually “leaf” – essentially, knife and sword blades are called so because they look like grass blades, and not, as I thought, the other way around.)

  7. David Marjanović says



  8. Stu Clayton says

    Fun fact: no connection with die Blattern (smallpox). This is related to Eng. “bladder”. The imagination seems to have been caught by the little pockets of pus that form on the skin containing something yellow, like piss.

  9. David Marjanović says

    *lightbulb moment*

  10. Technically, the material that accumulates in smallpox papules is not pus (which is full of white cell debris), but rather the remains of dead subcutaneous tissue that has been destroyed by the virus—a nasty sort of biological dross produced directly by the pathogen, rather than by the body’s immune reaction.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Thanx, I don’t know why I wrote “pockets of pus”, since my main point was the surmise that the papules contain “something yellow, like piss”. Carried away by alliteration, possibly, and the “little bladders” image. Also, the photos of papules that I find in the internet show only a slightly yellowish color – sometimes.

  12. Do you often go looking for photos of papules?

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Not often. Just once, when I want to see how they look. The motive is given by the present context.

  14. Do you often go looking for photos of papules?
    Do you often go looking for pockets of piss?
    Is it only in throes of pestiferous crapules*
    Or is your life full of occasions like this?

    *(work with me here, it’s hard to rhyme “papules”)

  15. “Do you often take snapshots when papules dehisce,
    Do you often go looking for pockets of piss ?
    Is it only in throes of crapulousness
    Or is your life full of occasions like this ?”

  16. This is beautiful. I haven’t heard of Yeryomin before somehow and now am encouraged to seek out more of his poetry. I think the second version succeeds more in conveying the alliterative pattern of the original.

  17. Yes, I was very pleased to discover him via this excellent book.

  18. There are some of his poems here.

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