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Review: Six Macedonian Poets, ed. Igor Isakovski

David Hart, A Welcome Immigration, Stride Magazine, 2011

Of the six poets represented here (three women, three men) two graduated in English, one of whom has held posts in Scotland and the USA, another is a vice-president of PEN, another has a degree in World and Comparative Literature and translates both ways to/from English, Elizabeta Bakovska has translated her own, and I would guess that most if not all speak English.

The book has Macedonian (Cyrillic) and English on facing pages, English gets into one of the original poems (by Lidija Dimkovska) in a brief dialogue of religions as [Taoism] shit happens, / [Buddhism] it is only an illusion of shit happening, and so on, and, as a broad generalisation, the book conveys a forthrightness, sometimes a brashness, streetwise, bold anyway.

Perhaps a defining aspect of this is the rare use of metaphor, with one notable exception, the poems of Elizabeta Bakovska, of whose writing this might be a fair example, the opening of The way you finally made me leave:

I'm cutting the fingernails
of this thick silence
with my pocket knife -
crescents of silence
collected in wet handkerchiefs.

Compare this from Igor Isakovski's How to write a poem (translated by the author with E.B. above):

say something sad in the poem
everyone likes sad images sad people
horrible though this truth is
everyone finds comfort in someone else's shit
and wants to see how they win through

Is this international language now, or is it that we are in the process of discovering each other's demotic?

The introduction by the editor emphasises the oral tradition still alive in Macedonia, there is pride in the nation's collective spirit in regards to oral poetry, representing cultural diversity and the social, religious and ethnic mix of all the influences.

The oldest poet here is Bogomil Gjuzel, born 1939, and he has ten translators, including the Australian Tomas Shapcott. I say Australian, and the biographical information tells only this, while his first name tells of a prior heritage. He had a hand in only one of the poems into English, Prometheus's eagle, working with Ilija Casule [v accented on the C and s]. Here is the opening stanza:

The Caucasus is a cage for me too.
Even though I'm not chained to that cliff
I have to peck his liver all day long
so at night, of course, I'm just buggered.

Another poem, An island on land, translated by Peter H.Liotta, has a subscription, ...the Republic of Macedonia is a landlocked country... and begins:

Who says we haven't got a sea?
We don't have it now, it doesn't wash our borders
but once it was in our backyard
then it dried up, and what was left was confiscated
together with our homes, with us, refugees, left homeless.

I'm curious about what 'we haven't' translates from, as also the first line of the next stanza, 'How can we make do without a sea?' Curious, too, about 'buggered' in the previous extract. There's such a distinctive mode here, I'd like to know more about how the choices were made.

Kata Kulavkova has a very plain style. Her A Macedonian tale opens, translated by Zoran Ancevski [v on the c]:

Once there was a tribe
that spoke many languages.

And had many names -
for it conquered many worlds.
And many more remained beyond reach -
only to find many more behind.
And it stirred great envy -
amongst its own.
And forgot that tragedies, always
happen at home.

The dashes are at the beginnings of lines in the original and, differently placed line by line, having in this section six lines, the translation eight.

I don't know at all whether we are 'hearing' in the book something essential of the poets' 'voices'. They do seem to 'speak', a credit to the translators as far as I can know, but who really has created these poems? What is it that carries and what cannot?

Lidija Dimkovska writes longer lines and in one flow, no stanzas, all translated by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid. Most of her poems start at a run, setting off into a narration. One of these openings seems to me a glaring mistake, I took my perspective of the future to a thrift store. It's a misuse of 'perspective' one hears commonly in Britain, to mean 'point of view', but I hope no English-speaking poet would use it in a poem. And 'store' for shop or supermarket sounds to me American, not British English. How it goes.

Other of her opening lines get nicely into the swing of their poem with varying music: We spread a moisturizing mask for dry skin, How could the lightening forever mist up the bathroom mirror, My memory is a soldier's tin of bully beef. (She was born in 1971).

Jovica Ivanovski is perhaps the most hard edged of these poets; born 1961. Dry perhaps says it, I imagine him to be quietly solemn as a reader; some openings (translated by Zoran Ancevski):

The chapel is small and musty -
even the deceased has turned pale,
the priest has sung for half an hour -



Last night a million fire-crackers burst
a million balloons
we're careful not to step on them
as though they're condoms filled with explosives

After New Year

Such books - such poets - are I suppose a kind of immigration, welcomed by Arc, voices on the page free to come amongst us. Welcome.