Blaga Dimitrova (1922-2003) was a major figure in Twentieth Century literature and politics, and is perhaps Bulgaria’s most famous poet. She was an outspoken critic of the Communist regime in her country in the Seventies and Eighties and when democracy was finally restored in 1989, she was a leading light against the attempts of the old guard to retain power. Eventually, she became Vice President herself. She was a champion not only of political freedom but also of female emancipation and the freedom of the individual to express themselves.
Of the seventy poems collected in The Last Rock Eagle about two-thirds were written in the period 1987-1992 though a couple date as far back as 1966. They are all in free verse though Blaga produced a number of other poetry volumes in more traditional verse prior to this. The first poem has both the original Bulgarian together with its English translation but the remainder are solely in English. They say that poetry is that which is lost in translation but the translators involved here, principally Barbara Walker but also Vladimir Levchev and Belin Tonchev, have produced a stimulating and enjoyable collection.
The poems are mainly about personal feelings including love, of course, in its various phases. ‘Amnesty’ tells of how waking with your lover is an amnesty from nightmares but has a coda about how not everyone experiences this. The end of the affair is dealt with in ‘Under the snow’. Death is also something of a recurrent theme and ‘Introduction to the beyond’ movingly portrays the death of a parent who wants to educate their child and includes the line ‘you mustered enormous strength to die peacefully’. Having lost a close relative myself earlier this year I found her use of the word ‘space’ in the poems ‘If’ and ‘In Memory’ to describe the absence of the dead person very descriptive. She’s a very honest and self-effacing poet as ‘Self Portrait’ makes clear.
The aforementioned first poem, ‘In the prison cell of the mouth’, though it can be read as a reflection on personal failings, also speaks for those caught in a totalitarian society with lines like ‘Its own jailer, fiercely biting into itself’ and ‘Behind the teeth the tongue bleeds’. A few other poems deal with political themes too, notably ‘Sisyphus’ which is dedicated to Vaclav Havel, premier of Czechoslovakia at that time (1990), and deals with the dilemma of what to do when you finally achieve what you’ve battled for. The final, and most recent, poem ‘Winter seeds’ speculates on what will become of the new Bulgaria.
Snow is a recurring theme, with two poems using footprints in the snow as a metaphor for the path of life. It’s also used as a metaphor for prison in ‘Frost’, though a prison of the mind. Similarly ‘Chinese wall’ is used to describe an internal constraint and it has the lovely image when describing the wall ‘I walked the back of this stegosaurus’. However, she sees boundaries as a way of making contact in ‘Touch’ and says that the more boundless we become, the lonelier we are. Communication or our inability to communicate whether through governmental restraint or personal failings is another idea that recurs, notably in ‘Face to face’. There are some striking images throughout this volume such as ‘the sky bleeds from sawn-off wings’, ‘unquaffed sunsets’ and ‘tyrannosaurus darkness’ (another dinosaur makes its appearance).
Like most poetry, these poems need to be read two or three times in order to savour them fully and I really enjoyed the majority of them. Some remain enigmatic but that’s fine with me e.g. ‘The River Yantra’ which ends with the lines ‘I peep from the river bank into myself. The water dryly refuses to reflect my face’. Actually, that’s just becoming clearer to me now so I need to keep on rereading. After this introduction I’ll definitely be looking out for more of Blaga Dimitova’s poetry and I recommend that you do the same.
Blaga Dimitrova’s Last Rock Eagle (1992, Forest) can be found on Amazon from £7.99.