Geo Milev: ‘The Icons are Sleeping’ and ‘September’ Translated by Tom Phillips

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The Bulgarian poet, translator and critic Geo Milev (1895-1925) was a leading figure in European modernism, but his work has only rarely been translated into English. The poems here are considered to be among his most important: ‘The Idols Are Sleeping’ (1922) is a reworking of five traditional Bulgarian songs while ‘September’ (1924) is Milev’s response to the violent suppression of a popular uprising against the right-wing coup in Bulgaria in 1923. Milev was secretly executed during state-led reprisals against the communist bombing of Sofia’s St Nedelya church in 1925.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the originals Milev makes much use of rhyme and that even those of us  with no Bulgarian may appreciate the opportunity of  listening to the astonishing sound effects he achieves in a poem like ‘September’. I have therefore added a link to it at the bottom of this feature.

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Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and translator living in Sofia, Bulgaria. His own work has been published internationally in journals and anthologies, as well as in pamphlets and the full-length poetry collections Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016), Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Burning Omaha (Firewater, 2003). He currently teaches creative writing at Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski. He is indebted to Angel Igov and Bozhil Hristov for their help with translating the poetry of Geo Milev.

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NB: You Can access the orignal texts by clicking on the titles.

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Geo Milev: ‘The Icons are Sleeping’
translated by Tom Phillips

SERPENT

xxxxxxxxxxxxx‘Me, mother, the serpent loves me …’

Leave me be!

xxxxxxxxxxxxx– The Fire Serpent is my lover!
xxxxxxxxxxxxxin flame and blasting storms
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– serpents with white steeds
xxxxxxxxxxxxxserpents in golden coaches –
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxon stretched
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfar-reaching
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwings
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxevery evening
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhe comes to me.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxCome!

xxxxxxxxxxxxxClasp me with wild and savage arms
xxxxxxxxxxxxxagainst your scaly breast’s red stars
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxyour brutal heart
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxdrenched in purple blood:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxtake me, scald me with the fury
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof your fiery kiss –
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhaul me from here
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxtake to the air
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand bear me
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– away, faraway, faraway –
xxxxxxover forests, peaks, clefts and boneyards,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxto your nameless kingdom
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– oh monster, oh dream! –
xxxxxxwhere there’s no morning, evening, days nor years:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxthere!

xxxxxxxxxxxxxOh, I am sure:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxYou are He!
xxxxxxDon’t deny my one prayer,
xxxxxxsate my one desire –
xxxxxxxxxxxxxoh … stay! – –
xxxxxxafter fierce, torrid strife,
xxxxxxout cold, I won’t know –
xxxxxxxxxxxxxI’ll fade – stripped –
xxxxxxin sweet, unholy embrace
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– no, no, no! –
xxxxxxxxxxxxx I fall
xxxxxxxxxxxxx – you too –
xxxxxxxxxxxxx and we fly
xxxxxxxxxxxxxthrough fire and stars and smoke,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxgreen whirlpools of snakes
xxxxxxxxxxxxxbristling lances –
xxxxxxon steep paths unseen –
xxxxxxxxxxxxx: ash, crash,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxclang and clash :
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– no, no, no!

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxOh!

xxxxxxxxxxxxx– awakened by
xxxxxxxxxxxxxthe carillon’s chime.

xxxxxxAt dawn in a deserted land
xxxxxxxxxxdown on my knees
xxxxxxxxxxxxxI mourn

xxxxxtthe monstrous corpse of my dream.

LAMENT

xxxxxxx‘Mourn, forest, mourn, sister, let us mourn together’

The cold winter forest unfolds
xxxxxxxwoeful paths for me ahead:
an early – (wounded) – dawn
xxxxxxxbehind black branches burns.

The world draws me on through fearful places,
xxxxxxxsteaming, I shudder in barren marshes
xxxxxxxxxxxx– oh forest, my black sister!
xxxxxxxyour black leaves
weep my tears – slowly – sourly repeat
xxxxxxxmy lament, my cries, my grief:
xxxxxxxxxxxxOh – where is he!

(There – perhaps my grieving love’s grave is calling.)

xxxxxxxxxxxxDay and night
xxxxxxxxxxxxno respite
xxxxxxxI search him out,
xxxxxxxgoing ongoing on
xxxxxxxxxxxxthrough the world
xxxxxxxon bloodied legs and lifeless
xxxxxxx– soul deep in the night –
xxxxxxxxxxxxnight and day
xxxxxxxxxxxxno delay,
xxxxxxxyears untold
xxxxxxxxxxxxand uncounted:
xxxxxxxxxxxxwhere is he?

(And the winter wind sends forth
xxxxxxxa cold, heart-rending cry
xxxxxxx– a petrified howl –
and the distant earth darkens
xxxxxxxin painless grief.)

– Oh forest, my black sister! –

xxxIn blind caves he’s murdered by the sun:
xxxon grim nights, no stars, no light,
xxxhe rises, wading through blood
to the crossroads stitched into the meadows.
xxxxxxxMy pain gains upon him
xxxxxxx– ghost with no flesh.
Red from murder, black from dead fog,
xxxxxxxhe comes into my dreams
xxxxxxx(the icons are sleeping)
alien, awful, before the dawn
xxxxxxx(the icons are sleeping)
and throws at my feet
black heads and bloody shirts

xxxxxxx(the icons are sleeping.)

I have no eyes, no face anymore
xxxxxxx– Oh forest, my black sister!
xxxxxxxand the way before me winds
its bitter coil beneath the ghastly dawn.

CROSS

‘How come, lass, you’ve turned into a nun …’

Simply robbed of all relief
– in the mountains’ stern expanse –
today your beauty’s besieged
by black cloister cross and stone …

(‘Nameless stone in a lifeless expanse’)

The evening bells mourn
your dying young dream;
for whom it tolls; keen sound –
in your lust-tormented breasts …

(‘Last without a waking dream’)

But naked beneath your gown –
a burning finger inside
thrusts you on to love – through
a universe pierced with yearning …

(‘Above me, hollow black dust’)

GRAVE

‘… there I’ll make my grave,
I’ll write my name
and my heavy burdens!’

Into your green gaze I’m sinking –
sinister, passionless, pale,
to me your smile is grim as ice,
and every touch – harsh metal;
I drink warm draughts of ash-water,
no wailing, no mourning, no grief;
oh, a sour fleeting hour lures me deep
into rocks and lichen and wasteland.

Hidden in darkness, there my grave awaits me
– no weeping willow nor cypress –
and carved on the headstone
my name alone: sour record
of my love …
xxxxxxxxxxxxInfinity hangs blind.
Pale garland sunk in silence there.
One blood moon – last quarter –
amid rocks and lichen, wasteland and bones.

END

‘Dobri walked …’

xxxxxxThe true seed of happiness
xxxxxxxxthe white dove won’t smite

xxxxxx: a charmless marble glaze:
xxxxxx: the seed of love is sterile:
xxxxxx: the white dove won’t fly
xxxxxxxxto where my dream cries,
xxxxxxnailed to a crimson post:

xxxxxxxxxxx one
xxxxxxxxstays in my hand
xxxxxx: here – this very moment – now:
xxxxxxxxa pistol, painless,
xxxxxxxxone last cry: the end!

Without love’s plaint or vengeance’s rout,
xxxxxxbury me where I fall:
xxxxxxbeneath the eternal sacred soil
xxxxx– silent, steadfast, cold –
xxxxxxThere, where my head falls
xxxxx – crazed by hollow exhortations –
xxxxxxlongings, laments, orations –
xxxxxxxxbuild
a cloister there
xxxxxxxx: with tuneful wailing bells
xxxxxxxxand the true cross
on gold vaults gleaming with flame:
xxxxxxxxand there
with infinite zeal and humility pray
xxxxxxxxfor my soul
xxxxxx– perhaps because the soul is a lie –
xxxxxx– because perhaps I don’t know –

xxxxxxxxThere in the graveyard
xxxxxxxxxxx– lifeless –
xxxxxxmy heart lies revealing a mouth
xxxxxxtorn open by death –
xxxxxxxxbuild a fountain there:

Oh, gentle milk of the suckling earth
xxxxxx– unfeeling water –
xxxxxxxxmy heart’s
xxxxxxonly blood
my blood’s own mad flood
xxxxxxxxunleashed
xxxxxxxx– and –
how serenely it will freeze
xxxxxxin burning wastes
of souls by bitter passion burnt
xxxxxxxxeach
xxxxxxcrystal-clear dispassionate
xxxxxxxxdrop:

xxxxxxoh, gentle pearl of peace,
xxxxxxcold alabaster of reconciliation.

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Geo Milev: ‘September’
translated by Tom Phillips

SEPTEMBER

1
Night’s fatal womb gives birth
to the slave’s unending wrath:
a red rage –
unsurpassed.

Deep in darkness and mist.

From valleys dark
– before daybreak,
from every peak
barren brakes
starving leas
from muddy lots
villages
hamlets
plots
from cottages, cabins,
watermill, warehouse, workshop
factories
freight yards
foundries
forges
granaries
crofts:

on roads and paths,
high scarp,
summit, moorland, scree,
by boundary stones
and boulders
through dim hollows
forests autumn-yellow
on stony ground
through water
murky streams
garden
pasture
field
sheepfold
vineyard
hawthorn
brambles
scorched stubble
swamp:

muddy
ragged
hungry
haggard
exhausted by labour
worn by heat and cold
deformed
disfigured
begrimed
hirsute
barefoot
tattered
rugged
rough
wrathful
raging
xxxxxx– no roses
xxxxxxno songs
xxxxxxno music, no drums,
xxxxxxno clarinets, no pipes,
xxxxxxno hurdy-gurdies, no horns:

on their backs shabby sacks
in their hands – no glittering swords,
but crude clubs,
peasants with staves,
with goads
with staffs
picks
pitchforks
axes
hatchets
scythes
and sunflowers
xxxxxx– young and old –
sweeping down from all sides
– an unleashed herd
of heedless beasts
countless
angry bulls –
with yells
with cries
(behind them – night’s stony skies)
they flew on
without order
xxxxxxirresistible
xxxxxxterrible
xxxxxxglorious:
xxxxxxTHE PEOPLE!

2
Light split the night
on the peaks.
T h e s u n f l o w e r s
l o o k e d o n t h e s u n!
From a dream the dawn
awoke
to the thunder of guns.
And from the far
slopes
– blow after blow –
wild lead
bullets
started to crack
like elephants
with gaping jaws
the cannon were roaring …
Fear and trepidation.
The sunflowers fell in the dust.

3
Voice of the people:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxVoice of God.
A nation
stabbed by
a thousand knives –
brought down
brought low –
poorer than beggars –
abandoned
without thought
without feeling –
rose
into the troubled dark
of their own lives –
and in their own blood wrote:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxFREEDOM!

Chapter one:
xxxxxxSeptember.

– Voice of the people –
– Voice of God –
O, God!
Support the sacred cause
of lost dark souls:
fill our thunderous hearts
with valour:
You desire none to be slaves
and here – we swear on our graves –
we’ll bring free man
back to life
on this earth.
Before us lies death –
xxxxxxso be it!
But beyond:
there Canaan blooms,
promised to us
by Justice –
eternal spring of the living dream …
We believe! We know! We desire it!
Let our God be with us!

4
September! September!
O, month of blood!
Of uprising
and rout!
Maglizh was first,
Then Stara ]
xxxxxxAnd ] Zagora
xxxxxxNova ]
Chirpan
Lom
Ferdinand
Berkovitsa
Sarambey
Medkovets
xxxxxx(with Father Andrey)
town and village.

5
The people rose –
– with hammer
in hand,
showered with soot, sparks, cinders,
– and in the fields with a sickle,
drenched with wet and cold:
silently enduring
children of toil –
(not experts
agitators
zealots
artists
orators
entrepreneurs
aeronauts
writers
pedants
proprietors
generals
musicians
or die-hard reactionaries)

But

villagers
workers
peasants
landless
illiterate
rough
coarse
tough
– common as cattle:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthousands
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe masses
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe people:

thousands of faiths
– faith in the people’s advance
thousands of wills
– will for a bright world
thousands of hearts untamed
– and a blaze in every heart
thousands of black hands
– eagerly lifting on high
into the red circle of space
red
flags
unfurled
xxxxxxhigh
xxxxxxand wide
across a terror-struck tormented land
fearsome fruit of the storm:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthousands –
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe masses –
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe people.

5
Blazing
over our Balkan home
navel raised
against the sky
and our eternal sun
xxxxxxlightning
xxxxxx– thunder
struck
straight to the heart
of the great
one-hundred-year
oak.
A fast-flying echo
from hill to hill
despatched
from rocky peaks
massifs
to plunging vales
and stony pits
– a flaming bed –
where, coiled, sleep
vipers and adders
caves
of serpents and dragons
remote witches’ hollows

– and echo merged
with far-off echo:
echo and roar
of cataracts,
torrents
and streams –
pouring
raging,
thunderous,
into the chasm.

7
The tragedy begins! –

8
Those in front
fell in blood.

Bullets met
the rebel flood.
Flags in tatters
fluttered.
The mountain roared …
Up there on high
hills near and far
turned dark
strung with men
– blank swarming ranks:
paid regulars,
hateful militias —
all of them thinking:
‘The Motherland’s
in peril!’
sublime:
but – what is the Motherland?
And the machine guns
angrily barked …

Those in front
fell in blood.

Beyond the distant
peaks
artillery roared.
Towns
and villages
shook.
Dead meat
– bloody corpses –
heaped
in hollows
on slopes
beside roads —
on horseback
with sabres drawn
they hunted down
broken peasants
– struck them down,
shot them with shrapnel, mortars –
fleeing horror from all sides,
herded back to their homes
and hacked to pieces there
beneath low roofs
by bloody sabres
to the screams
of terrified mothers,
wives and children …
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

9
The soldiers advanced.

Beneath the shrapnel’s ugly blast
even the bravest
trembled:
bare hands raised to the sky.
Every face froze
in inglorious horror –
their eyes beyond pain.
xxxxxx‘Every man
xxxxxxfor himself!’

On every road
troupe after troupe’s unleashed
– infantry
cavalry
battery.
Drums beat
for the attack.
Panic
– swooping high
above tattered
red banners –
whiplash of crimson fire.

There
in utter turmoil
alone,
like an epic hero
possessed
Father
Andrey
fired
shell after shell
from his famed cannon –
and in the last moment
cried,
magnificent, enraged:
‘Death to Satan!’
He turned
his cannon
to aim
the last shot
there –
into the House of God
where litanies and liturgies he’d sung.

And surrendered.
‘Let the red priest be hanged!
No cross for him! No grave!’

Against a telegraph pole
they made him stand.
The hangman beside him.
The captain
with rope
in hand.
The peaks
grew dark,
the sky
severe.
The priest stood tall,
drawn up to full height,
all calm
like granite –
no remorse
no regret
– Christ’s cross on his chest
and gaze fixed on the mountains –
afar
as if on the future …
– Butchers, cowards
you turn your eyes
from a man about to die!
What does the death
of one man signify?
Amen! –
A snort
and spit.
Quickly he slipped
his own neck through the noose
and
with no look to the heavens
– hanged –
teeth clenched
on tongue:

magnificent
sublime
unrivalled!

10
Autumn
flew by
torn wildly
by shrieks and gales and night.
A storm rolled
over black mountains –
darkness and light –
a flock of cawing ravens –

Bloody sweat
broke out on earth’s back.
House and hovel baulked
in fear and horror.
Pogrom!
A shriek
split heaven’s vault.

11
Then the worst
horror came:
in their hearts
the alarm bell
furiously struck:
– beating, clanging, ringing …
Dreadful and thick,
the night fenced
every side.
Death
– a bloody witch crouching
in every corner of the dark –
screeched out,
reached out
far and wide in the night:
with arms stretched, gaunt –
– endless, distended –
seized and squeezed
a terrified heart
behind each and every wall.
O night of nameless secrets!
– both secret and plain:
again bloody scarlet in the squares.
Death-screams from slit throats.
Sinister clanking of chains.
Humans packed into prisons.
In barrack-yard,
in jail-yard
volleys echo on command.
All gates are locked.
Petitioners knock.
On the doorstep a son
sprawled dead, hand on gun.
The father hanged.
The sister raped.
Peasants dragged from villages
and behind them – troops:
a sombre troupe:
to be shot.
The order: Halt!
‘Aim!’
xxxxxxBolts click:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxKu
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxKlux
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxKlan –

‘Fire!’
– barrage.
Ten bodies
splashed
from the bank
into the dead dark waters
of the Maritsa.
Grieving,
the bloodstained river,
sucked them in.
Somewhere afar
thundered the music of war
along deserted streets
‘Shumi Maritsa …’
Stained in blood.

Among thistles and thorns
wild grasses
in trampled fields
scarlet heads roll
with slashed disfigured faces.
Gallows spread black arms
(spectres in lifeless fog).
The relentless, ceaseless crack of the axe
into bone. Hamlets burn,
blazing on the horizon.
Bloody streams flow.
The sacrilegious tongue
of flaming pyres lick
the sacred foot
of God’s throne.
The stench of live flesh.
Horrified on high in the heavens
the blessed denizens of paradise
unleashed their cries
– to God a savage Hosanna –

The end.

End of the whirlwind.
The gale
stopped at last:
calm
and silence
came
to the land.
The gods’ rite of blood.

12
O Muse, extol the baleful wrath of Achilles …

Achilles was brute force.
War daemon.
Long-time general
of HRH Agamemnon.
Hero
with countless
medals, crosses, ribbons …
Pillar
of order and peace
in the land …

But today
we don’t believe in heroes any more
– neither foreign, nor our own.

Troy was burnt and razed.
Priam and Hercules killed.
Achilles the victor ..
– What’s Hecuba to him? –
His wild and raging soul
doesn’t hear
the tears of the holy mother, torn
over the nameless graves grown
in a moment
– so many –
countless.
– What’s Hecuba to him? –
Achilles the hero.
Achilles the great.

The scourge of God sent by God.
But Achilles will die in damnation and wrath.
… And he did,
xxxxxxfell in a shameful fall:
the killer’s true reward.
Agamemnon killed Iphigenia
xxxxxx– and died.
Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon
xxxxxx– and died.
Orestes and Electra killed Clytemnestra
xxxxxx– and died …
One remains
– enduring, sustained
through the centuries –
prophetess Cassandra:
who foresaw retribution
– a n d e v e r y t h i n g c o m e s t r u e.

Eternal amusements, pastimes, caprice
of the gods.
Divine fury blossoms.
They love every death.
For them, every grief is a joke.
Death and murder and blood!
How long? How long?
Almighty Zeus
xxxxxxxxJupiter
xxxxxxxxAhuru Mazda
xxxxxxxxIndra
xxxxxxxxThoth
xxxxxxxxRa
xxxxxxxxJehovah
xxxxxxxxLord of Hosts:
xxxxxxxx– a n s w e r !

Through the smoke of the fires
arise and assail your ears
the cries of the dead,
the roar
of countless martyrs
on burning wood pyres:
– who
b e t r a y e d o u r f a i t h?
Answer!
You’re silent?
Don’t you know?
– We know!
Hear our cry:
with one leap we leap
straight to Heaven:
DOWN WITH GOD!
– throw a bomb in your heart,
storm and take Heaven:
DOWN WITH GOD!
and hurl you dead
from your throne
into the iron abyss,
starless, universal
DOWN WITH GOD!
From on high, from the endless
bridges of heaven
we’ll haul down
that blessed paradise
with ropes and spars
to the grieving
blood-drenched
Earth.

Everything poets, philosophers wrote
will come true!
– No gods! No masters!
September will be May.
Human life
will be an endless ascent
– higher and higher!
E a r t h s h a l l b e H e a v e n –
it shall!

Note: Even readers with no Bulgarian (like the editor!) may  like to get some sense of Milev’s  astonishing sound effects in  this poem: September 

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