My Life in Squares
84 pp., Smokestack Books, £7.95.
Kristin Dimitrova is a 48-year-old Bulgarian poet, born in her country’s capital, Sofia. She is a career poet, publishing ten collections in Europe and winning the Bulgarian national poetry-of-the-year award five times. My Life in Squares is her second translation into English and the first published in England by Smokestack Books. She teaches Foreign Languages and has translated Donne into Bulgarian – this comes across in her style of writing, which has a definite metaphysical bent to it, along with an existential anxiety that is surely the most significant inheritance of any post-communist country, especially when we consider Bulgaria as the pre-eminent crossroad between Europe and Asia.
This is concisely and cunningly summarized in ‘After Babylon’, one of the best poems in this collection:
the small town sighs in the afternoon;
pears drop down through people’s dreams
and the town clock struck dumb at
ten to five like a calf gaping
at the men in bloodstained aprons.
The personification of the town along with the bright dreamy metaphors brings to mind the Vitebsk of Chagall. The line breaks here are restrained and unassuming, which contrasts brilliantly with the fantastical transformation of the town. The pears are a reference to the paramount status the fruit has in the Balkans, where it is used in cuisine and, most importantly in this context, in the production of strong hallucinogenic liquors. The ‘dumb’ clock evokes the long hegemony of the Turkish Ottomans, who proscribed clocks for many years, preferring the moons and suns of the Islamic holy calendar, and only began building them in their towns towards the end of the nineteenth century. The metaphor is developed seamlessly and with sound judgment into the ‘gaping’ calf, who can only stare innocently at the ‘men in bloodstained aprons’, who may represent the entire political spectrum of the twentieth century. Bulgaria has endured them all: feudal, liberal, fascist, communist.
It would be misleading to suggest that ‘After Babylon’ is representative of the tone and style of most of the poems My Life in Squares because it (unfortunately for some readers) isn’t. Dimitrova has a wonderful sense of humour and most existential or metaphysical posturings are heartily slapped down in favour of a sort of working-class common sense. A book premiere is interrupted by a gang of lady beggars who filch cheese rolls. The philosophical punt that a kitten may be the reincarnation of a ‘soldier / who died for me at the coliseum’ is roundly pooh-poohed by the kitten, who recommends that the poet ‘read better books’. The truth sets us free merely to ‘look for another job’. Dimitrova’s poems often end with bathetic punchlines which suggest a scepticism fostered by a region which has tragically embraced a kaleidoscopic range of idealisms and ideologies. Another excellent poem, which is easily as good as anything written by R.S Thomas or Yehuda Amichai, intellectualizes this post-Marxist scepticism into a wonderful metaphysical vignette:
We were playing cards with God
when he trumped my king with a two.
‘But God, according to the rules
you cannot do this’ …
‘Then think up of some
explanation’ he said.
And dealt again.
The syntax and rhythm of Dimitrova’s line is distinguished and refreshing due to the process of translation, which leaves her verse with a tangy pickled aftertaste: what Linda France has described as her ‘syncopated rhythms’, perhaps something which is in fact gained in translation. She is structurally experimental, often isolating clauses with line breaks and cutting her lines with bold enjambments. She is a politically and philosophically aware feminist who explores whatever interests her with good humour and a rare good faith. The style and content and humour of My Life in Squares, to quote the poem ‘Tibet’, ‘skins the fatigue, / frightens the habit’, it reminds us that we are ‘free people’ but ‘sometimes forget’.
Joe Dresner is 24 and lives and works in London. He is published in Ambit, The SHOP and Orbis. He won first prize in the South Bank Poetry Competition.