Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"the struggle, as they say, is epic" (the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov)

Had Bulgarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov (1909-1942) lived in America, a few generations later, he might have been a protest singer. Had he been a member of my circle in the 1980s, Vaptsarov would've formed a punk rock band. Writing songs is, in general, how young men of my day interacted with the poetic impulse, only later in life getting down to reading actual poetry. In Bulgaria, however (at least according to Georgi Gospodinov's foreword to Kino: the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov), today's intellectuals grew up reading and quoting poetry, especially that of Vaptsarov, seeing him not necessarily as a communist revolutionary hero but as a young man full of life and passion, reading him broadly against Bulgarian daily life. That's how, more or less, I tried to read this short book of poems.
Today I want
                    to write
                               a poem
breathing like
verse for these new times
with the thrill
                   of that lofty
that had traveled the globe
              from pole to pole.

("Romance" trans. Bilyana Kourtasheva)
I admit that I was mostly unsuccessful the first time through. Vaptsarov's poems sometimes read a lot like the song lyrics my roommate Tom was writing in the 80s for his psychedelic agitprop band Shades of Persuasion, though of course without all of Tom's allusions to moping about girls.
I set off in the morning,
                                 The road to the plant
is crowded
                with overalled
We're one in heart,
                            we're one in mind,
and yet
I don't feel I belong here.

("Land" trans. Kalina Filipova)
Vaptsarov did, in fact, call many of his poems "songs." Most of his poems are political statements about the workers' struggle, anti-fascist or anti-capitalist rallying cries, but every poem has its moment, and it is for those moments, according to Gospodinov, that Vaptsarov is read today. The universal, less strictly left political moments. When I read the collection a second time, I found many attractive things among the rhetoric of revolution.
Do you remember
the sea and the machines,
the hold, all filled
with sticky dusk?
High above us,
high up in the skies
                            the wings of gulls
miraculously fluttered still.
The sky still sparkled as if with mica
and it was still
                     as blue and vast as ever,
and slowly every evening
the sails of ships were lost
                          from our sight
and masts receded in the mist.

("Letter" trans. Kalina Filipova)
"Kino" is the best of the rallying cries, possibly because Vaptsarov steps away from his usual images of smoke, blood and sweat for a moment to take in a film.
Outside, the noise,
the glittering adverts,
and the poster declaring
A Human Drama.
Outside, the noise,
money clutched
in my sweating palm.
"Kino" is an indictment of Western cinema and advertising as empty diversion from the realities of cold hard life.
Is this the way
we really meet--
in limousines?
Our love is born
from toil,
between the smoke,
the soot,
and the machines.
This is the real human drama.

(trans. Bilyana Kourtasheva)
My favorite poem is the short item Vaptsarov wrote to his wife as he sat in a cell awaiting execution by firing squad at the hands of the pro-Nazi government. Vaptsarov had been involved in anti-government sabotage plots with the Bulgarian communists who wished to bring down the fascists and align Bulgaria with the Allies, especially the USSR. The poet was 32 years old.
Sometimes I'll come home in your dreams,
And sit and watch you as you sleep.
Just leave the door upon the latch,
Then in the darkness I will keep

My soft and silent bedside watch,
An unexpected guest, and when
My eyes have drunk their fill of you,
I'll kiss you, then I'll go again.

("Valediction" trans. Kalina Filipova)
I don't know a great deal about poetry, especially 20th-century poetry, but from what little I've read I am ready to claim that I can (maybe) see, from Vaptsarov's work, that he was caught up in the same wave of Modernism as other European poets during that time: see the fractured formal structures, the typographical play with line breaks, the shifting rhythms and general looseness of the poems. Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has been posting about Soviet poets and I tentatively claim to see similarities between Vaptsarov and Mayakovsky. Better and more experienced readers will likely know better. I can't see what I haven't seen, right?
You come home
to the bone.
The boat gapes empty.
Two silvery fish alone
glow on the stern in the dark.
Even if Christ himself
were to descend now
what could he do
with two little fishes?

("A Fisherman's Life" trans. Kalina Filipova)
My shallow reading of Kino: the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov is part of Thomas Hübner's Bulgarian Literature Month extravaganza. I'm going to be reading Georgi Gospodinov's novel The Physics of Sorrow next. All three books I purchased for Bulgarian Lit Month have a Gospodinov connection; I was not aware of that when I bought them. Titles, covers, I thought. What did I know about authors?
I know where I belong in life
and I
won't easily surrender,
just like that.
I will die an honest worker's death
if I shall die
in our fight
for freedom and for bread.

("The Intellectual Stoker's Song" trans. Evgenia Pancheva)
You can read Vaptsarov's poems here or here, though I prefer the translations in the edition I read, published by tiny Smokestack Books in the People's Republic of Britain.
No, it's not a good time for poetry,
For the ringing joy of a rhyme.
How can a poem ever reach the heart
Through such heavy armor?

("No, it's not a good time for poetry" trans. Kalina Filipova)


  1. Thanks for introducing me to this poet. The Valediction is lovely, as is the bit about the two fishes.

    Iris Murdoch's boyfriend and EP Thompson's brother, Frank, also was shot by the Bulgarian govt for the same reason. He was an SOE agent and a Communist-- I wonder if they met?

    1. From the hasty research I've just done, it looks like Frank Thompson went to Bulgaria after Vaptsarov's execution. Though the memorial obelisk to Thompson in Bulgaria (I forget just where it is) is engraved with a verse from Vaptsarov.

      Vaptsarov is apparently a huge cultural hero in Bulgaria. There's a naval academy named after him, and God knows what else.

    2. Thanks for the research! Interesting.

      I wonder how much of that cultural cachet endures post-Communism, though-- the political aspect is a little heavy even for me! Though I suppose dying bravely and tragically young has a universal appeal.

  2. very nice images; poetic, one might say... in these days of DT, it possibly behooves us all to review what can happen almost without warning... sudden naziization, something to watch out for...

  3. Your excerpts remind me of Mayakovsky, too.

    1. I admit that already all I remember about Mayakovsky is a general impression of the look of the poems on the page. I have a very poor memory for poems; it's like when I look at clouds: they can be gobsmackingly amazing and deeply moving but as soon as my back is turned I can't say what I actually saw, only something of how I felt.

  4. Replies
    1. I have somehow lately fallen into the edges of the Bulgarian poetry world. Herr Hubner over at mytwostotinki translates them into German and posts them once in a while. Sometimes I think about translating his German into English here. I am not sure about the intellectual property rights issues surrounding such a move, but I'm still tempted. It'd be like a trilingual game of Chinese Whispers.

    2. "Sunday in Luxembourg"

      if you've calmed yourself down enough,
      and have no other ways out of your fortress,
      you will comprehend

      the smell of manure,
      the vibrations of vanilla from the kitchen table,
      the lush soul of silence

      the child crumples up the writing morning after morning

      ((c) 2011 Marin Bodakov. English based on Thomas Hubner's German translation)

  5. I like the mica sky and the fishes and the elegy for himself--though in the genre of writer-about-to-be-hung-or-shot-or-eviscerated poems, it doesn't hold a candle to Chidiock Tichborne's night-before elegy that begins, "My prime of youth is but a frost of cares." Poor man, eviscerated, hanged, and drawn-and-quartered while still alive: the history of poems can be frightful.

    1. "My youth is gone, and yet I am but young"

      That's some poem, poor guy. I confess I prefer the sentiment of Vaptsarov, the hope that something of him will remain with his wife, the hope that she'll remember him.

    2. It would be interesting to read some of his other poems--perhaps he has others that would please in a different manner. It's the elegy one always sees, and reads in grad school (or used to, anyway.)

    3. It's so hard for me to think meaningfully about poetry. My exposure has been so slight that my aesthetic is pretty narrow, full of commonplace prejudices. I keep trying, though.

  6. What I gather from your posting is that poetry and politics/social criticism, at least in the case of this fellow, are not a good marriage. Am I overstating the case?

    1. Not overstating, but mis-stating.

    2. I am chastened again by your scolding. Explain my error. Defend your correction.

    3. Did I scold? I don't think I scolded anyone. I believe I said that it was difficult for me to read one of these poems after another because the subject matter and tone did not vary greatly. I don't think I said that politics and poetry don't mix. I don't think I said that at all.

      While modern Bulgarian readers see the poems more broadly than as political, I had a hard time reading them that way during my first time through this book.

      I am surprised again by your overreaction.

    4. Your statement that I had misstated was so abrupt that I read it as impatient scolding correction. Tone is so problematic in keyboarding. Very susceptible to misreading.

    5. Oh, I agree. It's also hot as hell here today, and I am a cold-weather animal. My heart doesn't like the heat. I feel abrupt. And like I'm melting.

  7. Hello! I just discovered your blog. You are speaking of writers I never knew existed and am now excited to learn more about them. I am also going to look at your books. I like this guy's poetry so far.

    1. Hello Sharon! All of these Bulgarian writers I'm reading just now are new to me, too. The book I'm currently in, The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, is pretty good if you like Modernism.

  8. Thank you, Scott, for this review. Yes, Bulgarians love their poets - many of them had a tragic life and died young (Botev, Javorov, Debelyanov, Geo Milev, Hristo Smirnenski, Petya Dubarova, and others). As for those interested in Vaptsarov, I would like to mention that his family home in Bansko (a popular ski resort today that hosts also a Jazz festival in summer) is a museum now where visitors can learn more about his life.

  9. I agree "Valediction" is a moving poem. I read it before reading your background, and knowing that he is in a cell makes it that much more emotional. Hi, Scott!

    1. I'm going to be reading more Bulgarian poetry next week. We'll see how that goes.

      Hi Davin! I miss you! How was Paris? How are Red and Peanut?

    2. I miss you too, Scott. Paris was a wonderful break as I moved between jobs. Red and Peanut are good. Well, Peanut recently had to spend two weeks in a cone, but he's better now...and the fur will grow back.