Monday, 2 December 2019

Alexander Shurbanov's Dendrarium

Poets tend to return to certain things without realising that they’re doing it. In my case, it’s currently dogs (we have a lot of dogs in the street we live on in Sofia), birds (we have a fruit tree just outside our back window) and aeroplanes (we’re under the flight path into Sofia International Airport). The Bulgarian poet and translator Alexander Shurbanov has a similar place in his heart for trees – of which, of course, there are many in Sofia. Not so long ago, his Bulgarian publisher Scalino published a collection of these poems in Bulgarian – Дендрариум – and has now followed this with an English version in a limited edition of 100 copies. As well as being a beautifully produced book, Dendrarium is a truly rewarding collection of work translated by the author himself. From the simplest of everyday observations, Shurbanov creates poems of great beauty, both celebrating the magnificence of these extraordinary plants and acknowledging the implicit warning that what we value in life may not actually be what’s important for the survival of all our species and of the planet itself. The trees in these poems, in other words, simultaneously act as reminders of the beauty of the natural world and our threat to it as humans and inadequate carers for our environment. At the same time, they also help us to understand what is, in fact, truly valuable and why we should value it. The poems themselves are sparse, often focussing on details which might otherwise be overlooked, but the images that they create are reliably beautiful and astounding – they will make you look again at these extraordinary things which we too often take for granted in a new light. They will also hopefully make you want to read more of Shurbanov’s poetry which, as I said in my review of his previous English-language book from Scalino, Foresun, “continually repays close attention”.

Pic: Scalino 

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Poems: Foreign in Europe

One year on from the DIY pamphlet from Sofia that I put up on here called 'Present Continuous', here is another. 'Foreign in Europe' consists of 14 14-line poems, also written in Sofia, but this time under  Brexit's ever-thickening cloud cover. As the epigraph to the pamphlet makes clear, the title originates in a comment my father made after that other, earlier referendum about the United Kingdom's membership of the then EC in 1975. As with 'Present Continuous', the pamphlet has benefitted from editorial input from Peter Robinson and is entirely free to download here.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

From 'Avalanche'

Legally/copyright-speaking, this is highly dubious, because I don't have the translation rights, but I am currently reading the novel 'Лавина' ('Avalanche') by Blaga Dimitrova and so I am posting my translation of a few pages from it in the hopes that the publisher and author's estate won't be too cross, because really I simply want to draw attention to this novel and its rule-breaking genius.

From ‘Avalanche’ by Blaga Dimitrova (pp.18-20)

You’re in pursuit

The individual’s steps are always in pursuit of someone or something.
You’re thinking who knows what is happening there without you.
The others advance. Outstrip you.
They’re joyful.
But you, you’re angry to the point of tears.
Even though you’ve woken up early, you feel tarnished, like you’ve overslept, like you’ve missed the freshest morning of your life.
Their way is intriguing, full of new things.
You fall behind. They’re getting away. They’re climbing high.
But you’re still below, at the bottom.
They step onto a peak. The whole world is before them, in the palm of their hand, and it belongs to them.
But you have nothing but your intent to reach them.
For the world is only habitable inside the circle of their presence, their voices, their steps. Outside this space is chaos, aimlessness, impenetrability.
Your tiny human solitude is much bigger than the great solitude of the mountains.
They live intensively, in a common whole.
Your being is emptied.
They forget you. Without you they can.
But without them, you cannot.
You’re superfluous. You don’t exist.
You’re not pursuing them, but yourself.
Even when they rebuke you, ridicule you, renounce you – they again confirm your existence.
They are WE. You are alone, I.
They are everything together.
You are nothing without them.


We, the group, are a special being.
We hardly think about you, punishing you for being late, for staying behind.
If we think and discuss the situation, it would be an even greater punishment for you. And you know that.
When we’re beyond your view, you suddenly see us in our entirety, as if you’re discovering us for the first time.
We’re moving in a column as one. Conquering the heights. Try to reach us!
Our feet in sturdy hiking books leave prints in the freshly fallen snow. We advance in a line at a specified distance from one another. Each of us deepens the traces of the one in front.
Your place has been filled. Occupied by another. And once you lose your place in the line, where is your place in the world?
Our packed rucksacks aren’t yet weighing us down. Youthful faces, flushed with joy. We feel our own glow as a warmth inside.
A common blood flows through our group. We won’t laugh until you catch up with us. You’ll be pale, nervy, cut off from the flow of Strong blood.
We’re overwhelmed by the mountain’s gravity, the opposite of the earth’s, not downwards, but upwards. Maybe that’s the ancient drive to resist the earth’s pull.
Imperceptibly, the snow absorbs the stains, the fumes, the poisons that have filled our souls – and it cleanses us.
We stretch ourselves, as if we’ve been tied up and finally given our freedom.
When the mountains turn white, we get the intoxicating feeling that we are taking the very first steps here. The snow exudes a sense of primacy.
We fill our lungs with deep breaths. Until yesterday we were scattered, dispersed, drowned in the muddy concrete wells of the city. Now we’ve come together, WE. A steady and self-confident being that no barrier stops. All powerful in our collectivity, impenetrable to others from outside. The other is not a being, but an element. It isn’t permitted.
We feel our coming together and the closing of our circle as liberation.
Liberation from the state of “alert”, which always tightly binds the singular entity in barbed wire: finding your own bearings in a divergent world, conforming, not missing out, watching your back. And hardest of all: not losing self-control.
Once we’ve grown into WE, responsibility is shared and doesn’t weigh so heavily on us. We draw a breath.
Eh, discipline still has to be respected. But it is far lighter than self-discipline.
Lightness – that’s a collective virtue.
The mountains swell beneath our steps. Above us only sky, below us the abyss.
One impetus unites us. We walk one behind another, brought together by the mountains. At a steady pace, which fills us with a primordial pleasure in the walk itself.

Translated by Tom Phillips

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Freedom in the form of a stray dog

Where the nightmare tramples words,
as if elite were equality misspelt,
picture a small child by a fence,
by a fence with railings,
and a dog, matted fur, a stray,
limping its way across waste ground.

Picture the autumn shadows cast
by a sculpted apartment block,
coloured carpets on the balconies,
the deep wet fallen leaves
(even fallen leaves cast a shadow).
The dog stops to sniff at a tree root.

The kid runs about, watches, breathes in.
Birds squabble on leafless branches.
Above it all, a half-hearted sun
does its best to vanquish the clouds.
We’re living in a post-war thriller.
The dog may well have its day.

Everything is unexpurgated.
That’s how it is: made of cardboard,
the erased URL of a porn film,
the great damn breasts of a dog
that suture the wounds which cut
into the place where we are.

I’ve had enough of this.
But I can’t walk away.
I’m on the corner of a street.
And that’s precisely where I am.
Architecture inherits its own tyranny.
Love’s simply not up to so much

as a Greek island where blue paint
and an out-of-focus beach is all we need
and a stray dog shits on the pavement.
And the kid … well, the kid just turns away.

Tom Phillips

Written in Sofia, 2018, for 1,000 Poets For Change and published in Mitko Gogo's Macedonian translation here

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Present Continuous - poems from Sofia

Having lived in Sofia for close on a year, it seems apposite to put together a little pamphlet of poems that I've written in the city. The majority of these have already been made public in one way or another - the first few are revised versions of poems originally written while I was a translator-in-residence at Sofia Literature and Translation House and published in Raceme magazine thereafter, while quite a few others first saw the light of day on the Colourful Star blog with accompanying paintings by Marina Shiderova. Some were originally written in English, others continue the thread of 'Unknown Translations' (my 2016 book published here by Scalino) and were originally written in Bulgarian. Putting together a little self-published pamphlet is always a dangerous game and so I'd particularly like to thank Peter Robinson for taking the time to offer invaluable editorial advice. Hopefully, you should be able to download the PDF version by clicking here.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Those seven books

Moderato Cantabile – Marguerite Duras
This was actually a set text for my French A-level back in 1980-2 and I’m eternally grateful to the exam board that put Duras on the curriculum. For that exam board, it can’t have been the most obvious of choices, but it had a big effect on me and meant that I spent many long hours during our visits to France over the course of the next twenty years tracking down other Durassian tomes, many of which haven’t been translated into English or indeed published more than once in small editions. Not everything Duras wrote falls into the ‘genius’ category, by any means, and the films are a bit wobbly, to say the least (although Gerard Depardieu’s turn as a washing machine salesman in one of the early ones is quite something) … but she’s probably taught me more about writing than anyone else and continues to engage and intrigue whatever she happens to be writing about.

The Successor – Ismail Kadare
The first one by Kadare that I came across … The lesser-known ‘The Concert’ is probably my actual favourite novel by him (it includes a particularly amusing incident involving Chairman Mao and a great big field of marijuana) … but this is also great because it breaks all the stupid rules about perspective that creative writing teachers seem obsessed with imposing. It’s essentially a thriller, but every chapter is told from a different point of view. And brilliantly. There’s all kinds of political shit going on which means he won’t probably ever be a Nobel Laureate – but he deserves to be.

Raiders’ Dawn – Alun Lewis
The first poet that I conned myself into thinking that I’d ‘discovered’ – with the help of my extraordinary adopted great aunt Dorothy who used to run a bookshop in pre- and post-war London. Said aunt left me first editions of this and ‘Ha! Ha! Amongst the Trumpets’ when she died and before I’d ever read a word of Lewis’ work. The title poem of this collection still sends shivers down my spine and the last few poems in the second volume are quite astonishing.

A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor
I’m not alone in picking this as being amongst the best travel books ever. To be honest, it’s in a league of its own. Only Norman Lewis’ ‘Naples ‘44’ gets anywhere close – and that’s not really a travel book anyway. PLF just observes everything with a precision and non-judgmental attitude (oh, OK, he is sometimes judgmental – but that’s usually only when he’s encountering drunken Nazis in a 1930s German beer hall), which is so refreshing in an age of opinionated Tripadvisor-style ‘reviews’ and high-concept travel bollocks. The second volume, ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, is arguably even better and the third, posthumous volume, ‘The Broken Road’, works surprisingly well, given that it was pieced together from fragments, diaries and whatever else.

The Complete Poems – Elizabeth Bishop
For a long time, EB was overshadowed by her somewhat self-obsessed friend Robert Lowell … thankfully, that’s been changing for a good while now and her own poems are being read properly and not as some kind of weird adjunct of the so-say ‘confessionals’ (with which she really has very little to do) or the decidedly macho how-big-is-your-novel-as-a-doorstop post-war American literary maleness (Lowell, Mailer, Vidal, blah di blah). Bishop isn’t a wannabe ‘great’ or a fake news panderer. Her every poem just sings in a light and gracious and unexpectedly deep way.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
From my ‘epic novel’ phase … when I just wanted to read the longest, biggest novels ever (and yep, that contradicts entirely the previous note re: Elizabeth Bishop and the post-war American cock-centric boys) … This, though, is very different. A great story – and indeed a fine balance. Dickens with an added layer of humanity. The kind of novel that you just want to be immersed in forever. I read numerous other Indian novels after reading this – all of which were never less than engaging – but this is the one which really grabbed me and made me want to read and read and read …

Collected Essays, Letters & Journalism – George Orwell
Yeah, yeah, there’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ … Great though they are, much of Orwell’s best writing is here … in his second wife Sonia’s four-volume collection for Penguin which was still widely available when I was at school. I can remember gathering up these four volumes and reading them one by one and just thinking … Well, I’m not sure what I was thinking, but it probably involved me wanting to try and make my living as a writer and realising that you can write about just about anything if you want to and if you can see beyond the usual bollocks.

Tom Phillips

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Revolution of the Mind

Here's my prefatory note to my latest published translation - Anatoli Gradinarov's 'Revolution of the Mind' - which is now available as an e-book from Amazon and elsewhere.

What is your true potential as a human being? That is the central question running through Revolution of the Mind. Clearly and succinctly challenging orthodox understandings of how the human mind works, the book presents us with the tools to examine our own mental behaviour and recognise the complex of interactions between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious which give rise to, distort and ultimately trap us inside our thoughts, our emotions and what Gradinarov calls ‘the nightmare of the self’. This, though, is not a self-help manual. It certainly doesn’t provide a readymade programme for transforming your life. On the contrary, Gradinarov challenges any kind of programme or dogma and instead encourages an inquisitive form of self-observation which can take us beyond the self-created roles, mental self-images and illusory virtual worlds generated by our territorially motivated egos. Those already familiar with Zen Buddhism, Jungian psychology, phenomenology and even existentialism will recognise some of the strands which feed into Revolution of the Mind, but Gradinarov brings a whole new perspective to questions of identity, perception, understanding and, above all, happiness. In many ways, the answers he indicates are simple – but they are answers which you have to find for yourself.
In translating Revolution of the Mind, what struck me is the precision of Gradinarov’s language. For a translator, of course, this is a challenge – but one which, I hope, with the generous input of the author himself, we have managed to overcome. The precision of language too reflects the precision of the ideas contained in this book which are illustrated with experiences from everyday life that all of us can recognise. This English translation from the original Bulgarian text is a collaborative work and, to me, that also serves as an example of what Gradinarov is talking about: translation is not something which happens according to a programme. You can’t simply feed the original text into one end of a matrix and expect a perfect translation to emerge at the other. It’s about collaboration and calibration, about being prepared to relinquish your own territory in the name of finding common ground. As Revolution of the Mind repeatedly reminds us, the borders which exist between us are entirely of our own construction. All we have to do is recognise them for what they are.

Tom Phillips