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Lyubomir Levchev and Ashes of Light

Lyubomir Levchev is one of Bulgaria's most celebrated poets and Ashes of Light is a collection of the most important poems of his entire career beginning in 1957, as well as some new poems. It is interesting to note the way in which the poems are compiled in relation to history and Levchev's own life.However, the fact that the entire collection was translated into English poses some problems.

Born April 27, 1935, in Troyan, Bulgaria, Lyubomir Levchev is truly an international poet, publishing over 20 volumes of poetry that have been translated into many different languages from English to Greek to Hindi. He has won several awards including the Gold Medal for Poetry from the French government, and the Mate Zalka and Boris Polevy award in Russia. He has served as Chairman of the Union of Bulgarian Writers, First Deputy Minister of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, and was the editor of the international magazine Orpheus. Levchev's greatest contribution to his country was his leading role in the "April Generation," a group of poets that appeared on the scene during the late 1950's in the post-Stalinist years. They are Eastern European writers who began the independent arts scene out of and in spite of the political unrest all around them. A lot of their themes and motivations, including and especially Levchev's early work are similar to those of the Beat generation who were writing in the U.S. at about the same time, as counter-culture movements.

Ashes of Light, which is a compilation of Levchev's "bestsellers," from 1957 to 2005, is assembled in chronological order. It is a little disappointed that the author and translator did not put more effort and creativity into how the poems flowed thematically as opposed to just the dates they were published. However, at the same time there is a lot to be gained from seeing how Levchev changed and matured as a poet, especially because of the historical context in which he was rooted. The third poem in the anthology, published in 1962, just after the building of the Berlin wall and during the reign of Khrushchev in Russia, entitled "The Land of the Murdered Poets" evokes this historical context. In this poem, Levchev addresses his role as a poet in Eastern Europe, specifically Bulgaria, after the effects of communism have been made quite clear. He sites this land "between the Arctic Circle/ and the Tropic of Cancer/ (between passion/ and thought)" (6), referring to it as "A land for me!/ A land deep within me!/...the mad Maritza river of my blood". He says that from the land of the murdered poets, verses "well up dark./ They tear [him] to pieces" and that he is "learning/ to write down verses/ in the land of the murdered." This poem is about where he comes from and the responsibility he feels to his land and the murdered poets, which may or may not refer exclusively to writers.

Additionally, it is easiest to follow Levchev's historically literary journey through a series of numbered poems beginning in 1968 titled "Caprice." The first three, and most poignant of the poems were all published in 1968, followed by the fourth, fifth, seventh, and eleventh in 1974, 1976,1978, and 1980 respectively. The last two poems of the group to be included in the collection were the sixteenth, published in 1999, and "The Last Caprice," which was published in 2001. Using "caprice," meaning "a sudden, unpredictable action, change, or series of actions or changes" (www.dictionary.com), is also a reminiscent of the social and political scene of the late 60's and 70's, though they are not quite as bluntly or directly about that as "The Land of the Murdered Poets" and a lot of his other early poems were. The most moving one is "Caprice No. 2," which begins:

Dammit!

This world is so mercurial,

so entertaining

and so kind

that it starts reminding me

of the house of a hanged man!

It continues to talk about how he and a friend of his play this game where they guess what girls' legs look like without looking at their faces and how it makes him giggle uncontrollably and almost inappropriately, but what he really feels like doing is talking about the rope by which the man hangs. This poem and a lot of the other Caprice poems suggest an attitude of absurdity towards the nature of the world, which is interesting because Levchev often uses God and religion as themes.

Levchev in Ashes of Light has a lot of very moving poems that have to be reread over and over again, not necessarily because they are dense or have complex language but because they are often ironic and do not come clear until the end, especially the last stanza. It begs the question of whether his poems read differently, stylistically, in their original form, Bulgarian. This is a challenge that all international writers have to face, but poets the most because of the nature of a poem; allusions are often missed or left out and sometimes the poet's voice is lost, masked by the translator. Valentin Krustev, also a Bulgarian poet, translated Levchev's anthology and has translated extensively from English and Russian. However, no matter how good a translator, there are just some things, some concepts that don't translate well between languages because they are so steeped in culture.