"Tongue of My Ancestors": Bulgarian Poets in English

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"Tongue of My Ancestors": Bulgarian Poets in English Blaga Dimitrova. Forbidden Sea. Translated from the Bulgarian by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman and Elizabeth Anne Socolow. Ivy Press 2002. 179 pp. $10.99 (paper)

Blaga Dimitrova. Scars. Translated from the Bulgarian by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman. Ivy Press 2002. 163 pp. $11.99 (paper)

Konstantin Pavlov. Capriccio for Goya: Selected Poems 1955-95. Translated from the Bulgarian by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman. Ivy Press 2003. 247 pp. $11.99 (paper)

Window on the Black Sea: Bulgarian Poetry in TransLition. Edited by Richard Harteis in collaboration with William Meredith. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1992. 183 pp. Price n/a.

Clay and Star: Contemporary Bulgarian Poets. Translated and edited by Lisa Sapinkopf and Georgi Belev. Milkweed Editions 1992. 232 pp. $15.00 (paper)

Tongue of my ancestors who trod this earth,

Tongue of great woes and age-old lamentation,

Tongue that the woman spoke who gave m birth

To know not joy but bitter tribulation.

Ivan Vazov (tr. Peter Tempest)

Even those wary of generalizations can safely claim that Bulgarians love poetry. Despite the devastating economic consequences of the so-called "Democratic Changes" of the last sixteen years-a period that should for all but a very few be called, from a material standpoint, the "Democratic Catastrophe"-Bulgarians continue to read, write, and publish poetry. And yet Bulgarian poetry is almost completely unknown in the United States. From time to time, both during and since the fifty-year Communist regime (1944-1989), an anthology has appeared, such as Roy MacGregor-Hastie's excellent bilingual Modern Bulgarian Poetry, published in 1975 by the Sofia Press and the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, or Peter Tempest's English-only Anthology of Bulgarian Poetry, published in Sofia in 1980. Copies of these books, however, are hard to come by. Similarly, while a number of major twentieth-century figures, such as Dora Gabe, Elizaveta Bagryana, Blaga Dimitrova, Liubomir Levchev, and Nikolai Kanchev, have been translated into English and published in both the U. S. and Britain, virtually all of them have quickly gone out of print and few have been reviewed.

The reasons for this are not far to seek. Bulgaria has never quite made it onto the map of the West's imagination. A pawn of the Great Powers, it is usually ignored, or else given bad press-ridiculed by George Bernard Shaw, for example, or targeted with sinister allegations, as when a Bulgarian was falsely accused of trying to assassinate the Pope. At one time, though, the Bulgars held their heads high. Between 809 and 813 Khan Krum not only captured Sofia from the Byzantines but laid siege to Constantinople itself. At the height of their power, under Ivan II (ruled 1218-1241), the Bulgars controlled most of the Balkans. The thirteenth century also saw an early revival of learning and culture, visible today in the superb frescoes in the church of Boyana, near Sofia. Under the leadership of the redoubtable Patriarch Euthymius, or Eftimii, Veliko Turnovo became such a famous center for scholars and theologians that it was called "the New Jerusalem." This golden age came to an end in 1396 with the battle of Nikopol, after which Bulgaria was annexed by the victorious Ottomans. For almost five hundred years the country suffered under the brutal oppression of the Turks, until finally they were forced out by the Russians in 1878. But Bulgaria's troubles did not end there: Two Balkan wars, the fateful decision to throw in its fortunes with the Germans in both world wars, fifty years of Communist rule, and the broken promises of capitalist democracy have virtually starved Bulgaria of long periods of peace and stability.

Modern Bulgarian poetry began in the nineteenth century with the National Revival, which, even before liberation from the Turks, inaugurated the country's ongoing struggle to achieve political, economic, and cultural sovereignty. …