There’s nothing here but a snippet of a story. And not much of a snippet at that. But there is enough to make it worth the telling. I was walking through Tomsk with my friend Pavel Rachkovsky in April 2014 looking for buildings and monuments with connections to Russian cultural figures. I love what happens in the imagination when you stand before a home or a hall or a building of some kind and think about what has gone on there, who has been there, what they did, what they read and what they wrote or painted or composed. The point was to begin gathering photos for a website or something that I might do someday. Like Russian Culture in Landmarks, for instance. Anyway, as you can read in a Moscow Times blog I wrote about that trip I took to Tomsk, Rachkovsky stopped me as we passed a relatively unprepossessing park, the east side of which bordered on Krasnoarmeiskaya Ulitsa, or, Street. Waving his hand at the trees and lawn, he said, “This is Bouffe-Garden and one time the poet Igor Severyanin came here to recite his poetry.” I stood there a few moments to take in the news Pavel had unloaded on me. What an incongruous thought – Severyanin and this park! I snapped a couple of photos, thinking about the tall, imposing poet unleashing his expressive poetry into the Tomsk night, or day, air. One of the most-used books in my library is Victor Terras’s Handbook of Russian Literature. In it Aleksis Rannit writes that Severyanin, “early in his career recited his poems by half-singing with his masculine-lyrical baritone voice of beautiful timbre and perfect vocal technique, and later, after the Revolution, in a simple, slightly incantational manner. His tumultuous successes before large, hysterical crowds were similar to those of Elvis Presley.” Just imagine that in the Bouffe-Garden in Tomsk.
The city library of Novouralsk provides another glimpse into how Severyanin’s readings were received by the public.
“Snowy Moscow,” a text reads on their website, “drifts cover Staraya Ploshchad [Old Square], a crowd pushes into the amphitheater of the Polytechnical Museum. It’s a madhouse! The king of poets is to be elected. Mayakovsky, Balmont and Burlyuk read their poetry. The last onto the stage is a tall man in a black frock-coat, Igor Severyanin. The audience hears him out in silence. But the moment his voice dies down the hall bursts into applause and cheers. After the votes are counted, the king of poets is Igor Severyanin.”
Perhaps that day or evening in Tomsk Severyanin read his poem “Epilogue,” which, in my extremely hasty and workmanlike translation, begins:
I, the genius, Igor Severyanin,
Am drunk with my own victory:
My face is shown on every screen!
I’m confirmed in every heart!
I’ve drawn a brazen line
From Bayezid to Port Arthur.
I conquered all of literature
And thunderously seized the throne!
“I shall be!” I said a year ago.
A year flamed out and here I am!…
Perhaps in Tomsk, too, a ruckus was raised, a furore caused, a madhouse foisted on the town. Perhaps the women fainted in pre-Elvis swoons. We’ll never know. Not unless someone unearths a description of that day Severyanin – who was born in 1887 and died in 1941, whose real last name was Lotaryov and whose pen name means ‘The Northerner’ – read his poetry in Bouffe-Garden. And even then – such a vague, distant and unsatisfying substitute that would be. Nowadays there is nothing in Bouffe-Garden but the occasional cry of a happy child – or not – and the wind whispering in the twiggy trees. That is poetry of a sort, of course. It satisfies many. But it’s not Igor Severyanin, and I must admit, I would have loved to hear the echo of his voice in the park in Tomsk that day.