Bulgarian Poetry

Independence Square, Sofia.


We would like to thank Tom Phillips for editing and commissioning the work that has been featured in this issue.



Georgi Gospodinov Aksinia MihaylovaLyubomir Terziev •  Marin BodakovRosen KaramfilovMila LambovskaGeorgi Belorechky

The Translators

Tom Phillips • Aneta Pantaleeva • Katerina Stoykova-Klemer • Roumiana Tiholova • Zornitsa Hristova


Danijela Trajković on Balkan Poetry Today 2017 (edited by Tom Phillips)


Previous Translations

THW 7: September 10, 2017   THW6:  June 3, 2017               

THW5: March 7, 2017                 THW4: December 6, 2016     

THW3: September 1, 2016      THW2: June 1, 2016 

THW1: March 1, 2016


Georgi Gospodinov: Four Poems translated by Tom Phillips

Photograph © D Stoilova


The angel of sorrow
The angel of the writing hand’s shadow
The angel of harvested apple orchards
The angel of the room’s plaster cherubs
The angel of the empty vase
The angel of late afternoons
The angel of night
The angel of Sundays
The angel of awkward silences
(only just gone, they say)
The angel of yawning
The angel of the abandoned
The angel of the abandoning
sometimes one and the same.


I was small and I started to laugh
but my grandfather started to cry.

That’s the story.


The girl in the pullover and jeans
sits one step away from the Girl
with the Pearl Earring
their faces
one and the same

because time is
just a garment
an earring

The usher in the gallery
resembles Vermeer


Look for me where I’m not
Gaustin, final letter

At this moment I’m absent
from Sofia, London,
Madrid, Lisbon,
Pula, Tangier and Bologna,
Rome, Istanbul,
Casablanca, Panama,
Santiago, Locarno …

So many places
where I’m not.

Neither in the city of God,
nor in mine …

A world
with absences.

Georgi Gospodinov (1968- ) is one of Bulgaria’s best known and most widely translated contemporary authors. His work has won numerous awards – including the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize for his novel The Physics of Sorrow – and the short film Blind Vaysha, based on his short story of the same name, was nominated for an Oscar last year. The poems published here are from his latest collection Там, където не сме (There, where we are not, 2016).

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Aksinia Mihaylova: Poem translated by Katerina Stoykova-Klemer


Born out of May’s rain, amazed, it now observes
the garden – this sieve, heaping with flour;
it stretches a timid paw into the white,
then pulls it back as if singed
and mews pitifully on the kitchen threshold

like a person who awoke in the wrong season
with a pair of pruning shears in hand,
who stares at the hedge fence
enclosing the sparkling garden
of the first love,
the first death,
expecting someone to lift him in their arms
and carry him into the shelter of the shed.


Aksinia Mihaylova: Poem translated by Katerina Stoykova-Klemer


Is it because we live in different latitudes
and autumn arrives early in my land
while you travel from city to city,
reading poems and analyzing Cendrars,
trying to explain why
“if you love, you must leave”,

that I stir the plum jam on the stove
with my Grandma’s big wooden spoon,
watch the garden, always the same in September,
watch life, always bigger than us,
and I understand that there are no synonyms.

The hens in the yard bicker
over one freshly-dug worm,
the neighbor in the middle of his apiary
tries to initiate the new queen bee
in the beehive, which he placed last night,
because it’s impossible for two queens
to live under the same roof,

and I take out one deluded bee
about to drown
in the third jar of jam.


Aksinia Mihaylova: Poem translated by Roumiana Tiholova


For a long time,
we’ve been passing the winters
at different points of the South,
and our dreams are different now,
but for we forget our stories at dawn,
we’re still flying together.

It’s impossible to tell you about:
a red silk scarf
is the day of March in this town,
I tie the edges of the dawn
to the river’s mouth,
yet the wind is bulging them,
flowing them across the boroughs’
alleys and flower pots sprout up
on the balconies
heavy with scarlet geraniums.

I’m carrying mud and a straw in my beak
for a new nest
and I’m flying high over the cobblestone streets,
and I’m flying low over the roofs
and the place hasn’t been there –
at the end of the main street
are the remains of the day,
walking around your neck
like an open wound.

Aksinia Mihaylova (1963) is a poet and translator living and working in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is co-founder of the literary magazine Ah, Maria and the author of six poetry collections including: The Lowest Layer of the Sky (2008), Unbuttoning of the Body (2011) and Changing Mirrors (2015). She also writes in French and her poetry collection Ciel à Perdre (A Sky to Lose, 2014) received the Prix Guillaume Apollinaire. Mihaylova has translated over 35 books and her own poems have been translated into more than 20 languages.

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Lyubomir Terziev:Three poems translated by Tom Phillips


The point is that nothing happens.
The cloud doesn’t change its colour or form.
The rain doesn’t stop or strengthen.
The boat moves without moving.
The people on the bridge are going
exactly where they have been before.

Vislava Szymborska, ‘People on the bridge’

Conceived in the head of one
carved in cherry by another
printed in colour by a third
they are here now
caught in my worldwide web.

After all this art

the bridge is a bridge
with beams exactly like beams
the people are people
with umbrellas
that really look like that,
the boat is a wooden boat
which has texture,
and as the rain slants down
it will soak my mouse
the hills huddle in the background,
they’re actual hills.

Szymborska asks
what’s the point here:
why are some people sheltering
from the rain
and trying to cross a bridge
while a boat’s being rowed somewhere
worth a picture?

We might suppose
that the bridge crosses into the beyond,
that there’s something else beyond the mountains,
that the people are not going home
that the boat will reach
some kind of universal dock.

We might, but that would be romanticism on the cheap.

The meaning seems to be elsewhere.
Not in the mysteriously frozen time (of Szymborska )
but in the time which
is both time and not.
Not in the people’s passage
but in their antlike feet.
Not in the direction of the boat
but in the dumpy comma
that’s struggling to stand up
and is a boatman with a paddle.

The measure is on the edge
between what’s there
and what’s in nature.

It’s as if Hiroshige is saying
to the myriad artists after him:
“You will easily escape from photography
into cubes, squares, splashes, spots
but you’ll have trouble smoothing my edges.”

MOZART DAY (2006 )

In Mezzo
they measure out Mozart’s bars.
Luscious lads in puffed-up periwigs
abduct a dazzling diva from the Seraglio.
In Salzburg
violinists in stern black frockcoats
violinists with a kind of genius,
their mortgages paid,
steadily, beautifully,
walk light fingers
along the necks
of Guarneri, Stradivari,
and there I am, hooked.

I’m standing in the warmth
by the window and feel
the archangel Rafael emerging from the speakers
to cure my sickly paranoia.
In the ghetto opposite,
gypsies in luridly printed tracksuits,
gypsies with a look of gypsies
up to their eyeballs in debt,
without care or tact sublimely
drag mangy carts
through a muddy meadow.
Maybe they’ll know about
Mozart and mozzarella post-mortem.


Good writers write about things
Phrase from a conversation between literati

In actual fact
both the good and bad
write around things
and not about things

not because things are final
not because things are equal
not because things are base

not because things kill
not because things smell
not because things are bitter

not because things don’t have meaning
not because things don’t signify
not because things don’t teach

not because things have already been written
not because things are determined by another
not because things are chewed and spat out

not because things have something else
not because the other lies beyond things
not because things look towards nothing

but because

in things there is so much of a thing
that nobody knows what things are.


Lyubomir Terziev:Poems translated by Tom Phillips and the author

For Eugenia

When will it strike
or how will it strike?


Will it be a blow with a shovel
to a head full of eternal questions
or a gentle stroke
on the breast empty of nightingales?

Video and audio:

Will it be seen
high and bright in the tunnel
or only heard in the audible darkness
of Gregorian chant?


Will lilac petals float
smoothly through the air
or will it suddenly smell
of Serbian sausages?


Will the fine taste of honey and mustard
flutter on the palate
or will uncompromising chilli
slice the throat?


Not yet discovered.
There are drugs, kisses and other things that help
the blood to flow from head to foot.
There are snacks, beer and other things that fill
the stomach with juices staving off hunger.

But they don’t guard the mind from eternal questions
nor do they fill the breast with nightingales.

Lubomir Terziev teaches English Literature of the 18th century and Romanticism and Creative Writing at Sofia University’s Department of English and American Studies. He also teaches Literature and Writing at the American University in Bulgaria. His research is focused on the correlation between politics and aesthetics in Romantic literature as well as on issues concerning literary education. Terziev has published three books of poetry: The Art of Procrastination (2008), Monologues of Water (2011), and Correspondences (2017).

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Marin Bodakov: Four poems translated by Zornitsa Hristova


malnourished poems.
The shoulder blades of words stick through the skin.
And yet they keep on sucking at his breast
and sweetly kicking.


For many days no one has touched me,
There’s nothing in myself I could have touched.
The flooring of my secret sags a little
Right here.

A dream up north,
In the warm armpit of the city,
In a house with a hole on the thumb
A ship’s smoke.


This place
has no cathedral spire from where to ask myself
why did I climb so far …
I’m as tall as this pot of somebody else’s soup,
a winter bowl for me.


with fewer
but neatly folded words
(I cannot pay for extra luggage).

Their clean clothes are too big for me –
as they’d be on a stranger.

Marin Bodakov was born in Veliko Tarnovo in 1971. An award-winning poet and cultural commentator now based in Sofia, he has published seven books of poetry including 2013’s Северна тетрадка (Northern Notebook) from which these poems have been translated.

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Rosen Karamfilov: Four Poems translated by Tom Phillips


I miss her eyes –
those two boundless lakes
which I glimpsed briefly
before the walls went up
between us again.

And I want nothing
more than to look
into their depths
and assure myself
that I am still there.


Undressed you are so beautiful.
Be quiet, I’ll draw you.
Don’t move, I’ll kiss you.
Words will fly off like dust
on the breeze and not return.

Undressed you are so beautiful.
And the silence suits you so!
Don’t move, I’ll kiss you.
And let’s distract death for a while –
its timeless pursuit of our shadows.

Undressed you are so beautiful.
Now let me admit it at last –
I don’t know how to hold a brush.
I don’t know how to draw a poem.


Inside her heart
someone careless broke a mirror.

She didn’t even shudder.
She didn’t even cry.

With no thought of the consequences,
the intruder left behind
pieces of glass and reflections.

As soon as he opened the door
the lover who came after him
wanted to take out the glass
from inside her heart.

so as not to hurt her.

a single tear falls.


I can’t let you sail off downstream,
my love lets me calm troubled waters.
I can’t let you sail off downstream
hoping to outstrip the eclipse.

I fell in love with you just as the stone fell in love with the hearth.
I fell in love with you just as the dust falls in love with the curtain.
I fell in love with you just as the river falls in love with its mouth.
I fell in love with you just as the mirror falls in love with reflection.

I can’t let you sail off downstream.
You are only one born here and you have been chosen
to warm like a candle, to burn like a wound.

But do you know –
I am not to blame …

I am not to blame,
because I loved you.

I am not to blame –
you are guilty …

Rosen Karamfilov was born in Sofia in 1992. He studied comparative literature in Vienna and applied linguistics in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. His poetry collections include Орелът и детето (The Eagle and the Child, 2011), Стерео тишина (Stereo Silence, 2013) and Церебрална поезия (Cerebral Poetry, 2016). His novel Колене (Knees) was published in 2014.

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Mila Lambovska: Three poems translated by Tom Phillips

Photograph © John Fru Jones


I penetrated your lips
two rays of shameless sunlight
I knew your feminine side
allegorical illusory weak
in flight
in the gabble of thoughtless jibes
a man who admires innocence
fantasies about Solomon’s virgins
sucked in by the passion of the turtle
that always runs faster than Achilles
into absurd logic
into the kiss

I can’t get enough of your forked tongue


little tear
a protagonist
in the handbook of fallen women

affectionate aboriginal
devoted doleful
with rims awry
thrown out by a majestic god
into the void

I like you


cling to me
like the hands of a child
taking its first steps
and trying to hang on

I’m keeping steady and still
without knowing if I’m a stork
whether to stand on one leg
or to fly

or I’m one of the Pillars of Hercules
the most ordinary rock
indifferent to the touch

Mila Lambovska was born on 21 December, the day of the winter solstice. She graduated from St Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia with a Master’s degree in clinical and consultative psychology. Working with people inspires her. She utilizes her experience in her consultative practice as a psychologist as well as in psychological astrology in her close co-operation with authors as an editor of literary works. Her latest poetry collection, The Year of Georgia, was published by Scalino in Sofia at the end of 2016.

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Georgi Belorechky: Three poems translated by Tom Phillips


‘Do you know what constitutes a great poet? He is a person without shame, incapable of blushing.’
Knut Hamsun, Mysteries

Poets can’t sleep,
they’re always awake,
even in everyday life
they seem somehow sluggish.
They watch, walk, act
like lunatic-somnambulists,
by day they swim among thoughts
who knows what they’ve fathomed.

Plucked birds
are their twins
in nature,
plucked they walk down streets
gathering human desires
from the walls…

And at night,
in small gleaming
they cut their ingots
from other people’s memoirs
in words.

October 2010, Cologne


At six in the morning
in the gypsy quarter
close to the new terminal
puddles stretched
between sleeping policemen
gathered sky on the asphalt,
stifling August
was blue with cold,
a Frenchwoman sat
on the seat next to mine.

I watched her so calm
I watched how outside
the blue hour was slipping
I watched and anger caught me up
from the earth into the sky.
She was leaving, I stayed,
the earth shrank back
to the size of a pea
and my pain
made notes in blue.

I slowed.
A sleeping policeman in a row,
and back down in second,
I ran over the puddles,
I laid my palm on French earth
and two tears
crossed my path.


I’m lost in the middle of the road,
I’m lost in the middle of days,
I’m untangling myself from thoughts,
I’m untangling myself from cares.

I’m looking ahead
and sighing behind,
slaking my thirst
with every step,

I’m carrying on. Somehow
the present has stopped –
the present continuous –
the navel of my beginning.

I’m carrying on,
without stopping,
without knowing where,
because I’m not aware
any other road.

Georgi Belorechky was born in Montana, Bulgaria, in 1990. He co-founded the literary project Letters of Flesh with the Bulgarian poet Iliyan Lyubomirov and translations of his poetry have previously appeared in Raceme magazine. He currently lives in Sofia, having previously lived and studied in Cologne..

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The Translators

Zornitsa Hristova is a cultural journalist, children’s author, publisher and literary translator. As well as Marin Bodakov’s poetry, she has translated Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel (Dalkey, 2005) into English.

Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and translator living in Sofia. He edits the journal Balkan Poetry Today (Red Hand Books) and has translated a range of contemporary Bulgarian poets. His publications include a bilingual collection of his own poems in Bulgarian and English, Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016).

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer was born in Burgas and emigrated to the USA in 1995. She writes poetry and prose in both Bulgarian and English and translates between the two languages. Her anthology of contemporary Bulgarian poetry, The Season of Delicate Hunger, was published by Accents in 2014.

Roumiana Tiholova holds a master’s degree in International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and is a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, USA.

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Tom Phillips (editor): Balkan Poetry Today 2017 reviewed by Danijela Trajković

Balkan Poetry Today 2017: edited Tom Phillips. Red Hand Books.  £8.99
Copies available here: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/

As the editor of Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips – the poet, playwright and translator from Bristol – brings something new to English-speaking readers. For Phillips, doing this was an experiment, a double-edged sword but, above all, a great challenge. How readers and critics are going to respond to novelty is always a risk, of course. The destiny of a translator – and Phillips is a fine one – is to offer one nation the opportunity to get to know other ones better. The most difficult but best way to do this is through poetry, just as the editor of Balkan Poetry Today has done. Also being a translator myself, I can appreciate the scale of the work that’s been put into this volume. Here, though, I would like to provide brief details of the Balkan countries (most of which do not belong completely to the Balkans) and their successes in literature when it comes to the Nobel Prize. The Balkan peninsula consists of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Turkey and Croatia. Italy has won the Nobel Prize for literature six times (Carducci, Deledda, Pirandello, Quasimodo, Montale and Fo), Greece twice (Seferis and Elytis), Serbia once (Andrić), Turkey once (Pamuk) and Romania once (Müller).

As I am from the Balkans myself, I can easily understand the messages in the poems presented in Balkan Poetry Today which have topical Balkan themes, especially those concerning war, such as the following:

For millennia we have quarreled,
for millennia we have built and demolished
the Balkan bridge
(over the Drina,
over the Danube,
over the Ujana e Keqe
in Albania) …

‘The Balkan bridge’


We are dancing towards a new millennium
and all we can see
in our future
is our past.

‘The Balkan dance’

Both these poems by Vladimir Levchev are inspired by the centuries of conflict in the Balkans, a place so often exposed to conquest. In her poem ‘The Navel of the World’, Aksinia Mihaylova says:

The Balkans are a swollen vein
which Europe slices open every few decades
to purify its aging blood.

Stevan Tontić writes about bombing: ‘After three months of fear about sheer survival, / Of running from bed to the bomb shelter.’ His poetry shows that, after all the disappointments he has experienced, everything for him becomes ‘so-called’ – everything apart from his wife who is ‘the only one not so-called’ in his poem ‘Trip to Paris’.

The majority of the poems in the volume are written in free verse. There are various themes which concern the poets. They write about love, nature, war, everyday life, animals, death, history, family relations, freedom, courage, human weakness and recklessness … There are purely local poems and there are poems with universal motifs. In ‘Room’, Zvonko Taneski writes about literature, saying that ‘literature is inseparable from the science about it’  and that ‘literature needs fresh love masks for modelling: / a water-bed, an exotic partner with different skin colour, faith,/ an unexpected adventure.’

In ‘Notes from a Cardboard Church’, Zvonko Karanović tells us about a man who seeks the meaning of life and his role in it – an eternal question that tortures every human being.

In my opinion, the best poem about love here is by Arian Leka who, in ‘Love in autumn is an ill-starred plant’, says: ‘Its fruits grow buried in the dark. / Its flowers don’t live long, nor do its leaves.’

Perhaps the best poem in the first issue of Balkan Poetry Today is ‘Next stop’ by Mircea Dan Duta which playfully inspires the reader to think and smile at the same time because ‘In the Paradise Garden there’s …

no apple stealing,
no snake killing,
no Polish speaking
and no metro passing through.
And even if it did,
it certainly wouldn’t stop,
so in any case we should get off
at the next station.

As anyone will realize, the choice of poems in Balkan Poetry Today is down to the taste of the editor and that means that every other reader is going to have their own likes and dislikes amongst them. Here I have offered my own shortlist of ‘likes’, trying not to say too much about them, but to intrigue the reader instead. Given his various and interesting observations, I believe that the editor intends not only to present the best poetry by contemporary Balkan poets, but also to pursue his own research and illustrate what is going across the Balkan poetry stage and how colourful it is. This, too, is only the beginning of a kaleidoscopic poetry trip which offers the opportunity to explore many new areas in future issues and, as a reader and critic, I warmly recommend Balkan Poetry Today, strongly believing that even the most fastidious readers will find poems that move them.

Danijela Trajković is a writer and translator from Vranje in Serbia. She has published a number of short stories and has just completed a post-graduate thesis on social and gender roles in Wuthering Heights.

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