24 June 2014

Dimitrova & Levchev: Bulgarian Poets

"Grandfather’s roof was made of slate
And weeds grew on its shaggy shelf.
“Where is my grandfather's house?’ I ask.
“It fell in ruins all by itself,”

they tell me.  “Look how we paved the yard.”
And there is the old roof, stone by stone,
flagging the court, but I can’t believe
that that strong old house collapsed on its own.

It was a beautifully fashioned house,
Cozy, in human kindness furled,
But alas it had the same defects
As Grandfather’s vision of the world.

The thick slate roof was terribly heavy
And the house itself had no foundations.
Very slowly it sank into the ground
with fate of all houses and nations.

I’m sure that old house didn’t fall to pieces
But slowly, slowly of its own great weight
Sank till the roof is level with the earth
And now I walk like a cat on its slate.

Box-tress rise from the flues like smoke
While down below the hearth burns fair,
The pot is boiling – nothing is changed
In Grandfather’s  lost Atlantis there.

And father, a little boy is curled
In Grandfather’s lap.  His eyes are wide.
“Quick, go to sleep now, the bogey man
is on the roof.”  Father listens, terrified.

Yes!  There is something there! He shudders
Deliciously and hearing proof
He falls asleep and dream, he dreams
My heavy footsteps on the roof.

It is cruelly hard to build a roof
that time’s foundation can hold in place.
The superstructure (as Marx would say)
Should never overload the base.

And those who write should think of things
as real as roof-trees, tall and straight,
Someone with lightening in his wings
Has started walking on our slates.”
 - Roofs by Lyubomir Levchev, translated from th Bulgarian by William Meredith, in Poets of Bulgaria, Greensboro, Unicorn Press: 1986.

Lyubomir Levchev (b.1935) was a prominent member of the Bulgarian Writers association under the Communists.
Blaga Dimitrova (1922- 2003) was more openly critical of Bulgaria’s communist government in her work than many others.   While working as a journalist, she visited Vietnam several times, where she adopted a daughter in 1967.  During the 1970s, four of her books were rejected by the state press for publication After the fall of communism, Dimitrova served for two years (1992-93) as Vice President of Bulgaria.  One of the most respected writers from Eastern Europe, Dimitrova's poems have appeared in the United States in Ms. and other magazines.

Bulgarian literature is not well known in the English-speaking world even though Bulgaria has a long history, stretching back more than thirteen hundred years.  While William Meredith has described the function of poets in American culture as ornamental, that is not that caes\\se in eastern Europe where poets are accorded a place of honor. Americans are free to write what they want but often focus on trivia and use few of the tools in the poet’s quiver.   By contrast, writers constrained by repressive governments are often ingenious in presenting serious and controversial ideas.  The poems I chose to reproduce here are both typical and outstanding examples of metaphor and fable deployed to raise metaphysical questions shared by writer and reader  Levchev plays with the history of his grandfather’s house, critique an entire society in the process, with a pinch of the nose to Marxist orthodoxy along the way.  Dimitrova uses harmony in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to a similarly subversive effect.  Even finer, I think,  is Bulgarian Woman From the Old Days in which Dimitrova’s large intentions do nothing to obscure the woman she memorializes.

Dimitrova is said to have inspired the character named Vera in John Updike’s  story “The Bulgarian Poetess” which appeared in the New Yorker for March 13, 1985..  He was attacked by the romantic vertigo of men traveling alone,” Updike writes of his alter-ego, Henry Bech, when he meets “Vera” at a writers conference in Sofia. The American Updike does himself no favors but a rough justice here: he creates a character as self-absorbed and clueless is himself.

“Bach gave to all an equal right –
no voice is made to serve as mere

accompaniment or background for

a privileged superior.

And so through time a prayer ascends

in single spirit, and in many senses:

power in a unity depends
on little independences.”
-          Of Bach and Harmony

“This is how I remember her from the old days –

saving all her life.
Preposterously turning over
worn-out clothes,
knitting every loose end,
patching, darning tying up.

And to her very last, remaining
true to the thrift
she’s famous for: she has become
diminutive herself, as if
to save a scrap
of the space she occupies.

The way I see her now
She could tumble right
Into the laundry basket –
scuttling around, a little mouse,
with everything about her
turning to a trap.”
-          Bulgarian Woman From the Old Days

 “Thank you, day for being gone.
And thank you, gift, for being for me.
And for the shade of thorns above,
its work of wood and innocence of leaf,
for blue in all its shapes and shadows,
clouds of thunder, routed in rain,
for pain, a love without a remedy,
for breath, the words that may
replace it.  And especially
among the multitude of things
I thank you for not forcing me
To thank you on my knees.”
-          Vespers

Because the Sea is Black by Blaga Dimitrova, translated from the Bulgarian by Niko Boris and Heather McHugh, Middletown, CT., Wesleyan University Press : 1989.

Images: gelatin silver prints by Pentti Sammallahti, Finnish photographer.
1. Etr, Bulgaria, 2003.
2. Ksar, Bulgaria, 2003.
3. Vracansca Planina, 2003.