I first came upon the poetry of Ani Ilkov secondhand, in the late 1990s, at the tail end of high school, while reading the work of another Bulgarian poet, Georgi Gospodinov. Gospodinov, who was something of an early poetic father for me, was much influenced by Ilkov and I decided to find out why. Who was this poet who influenced the poet who in turn had influenced me? It was a personal quest of sorts and a genealogical mission—an attempt to track down the grandfather I had never known.
The encounter was a revelation, or rather, because Ilkov offers so little space for revelation, a glimpse of the possible future. I especially liked his book Etymologicals, which is perhaps his least known and discussed, yet made the greatest impression on me. It describes a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where humans stagger between animals and machines, pastoralism and environmental collapse, sex and advanced mathematics. Ilkov’s language, too, hovers in a liminal space of twilight, oscillating between sentimentalism and irony, banality and originality, naturalism and surrealism. Here, the bleak ruins of post-communist Bulgaria have become psychic landscapes of dilapidation, sites of social collapse, where old folk traditions exist in fragments and divinity, if there is such a thing, hides somewhere in outer space. There is little chance for salvation in these poems, yet desolation shimmers with its own kind of beauty.
Unlike other Ilkov books, which are full of intertextual references to Bulgarian literary works and are very difficult to render into English without the help of footnotes, the poems in Etymologicals exist in sort of vacuum, perfect for translation. I hope I have managed to convey some of their original power.
Robots and ships are sailing above me
while I drown in air.
I look at my loves
pet my souls
Robots and ships
loaded with vice and relativity
are returning from work
(returning from India).
I lounge about
listen to music fall on my back
they pass by greet me
Good-bye dear Earth! Good-bye dear Animals!
We’ll probably return again in a millennium
But not astride you Earth and not among you Animals.
We’ll return some day in white-blue vessels.
And you’d know us then the way a mother does
Who’s lost her child but by a secret birthmark
She makes him out among the ragged beggars
And falling on her knees she cries and spills her heart
And all within her blooms—because she is a mother.
When we descend into the world of gloom and dark
and find inside the stone a brother’s kindly spark
All starts to shine and then to blossom too
We would know you thus—this would be you!
No scents by the apartment blocks.
The cur has come.
It’s coming from the brambles:
from the Thracian tombs
and antique masonry.
How he scampered
on the dusty roads
at his back a swarm of wasps
and he doesn’t know:
who is he,
where is he going,
From the brambles of terror
to the alleys and garages
he digs a tunnel.
I’m sure of it.
(you’re sure of it also!)
We know his goal.
We know who sent him
to burrow here
and his wasps to buzz here.
we are right here
and right here he digs.
When you find a hole just sit inside.
And when your dog
comes begging that you come back home—
you drag the dog into your eyes
deep into you.
(but better chain him to your nose,
for in the desert he’d get lost).
Out of thirst he’d dig a well
or discover an artesian spring
and your desert would be lush
with verdant rice and leafy grass.
But if the spring is much too strong
you’d drown yourself. And your dog.
Thus you’d turn into a well
and your ballad would be sung
by maidens that have come to quell
their maiden thirst.