‘Penelope of the Twentieth Century’ by Elisaveta Bagryana

We are kneaded from the dregs of the past,
layered unknowingly in us through time.
It lends the violet or scarlet colour to our blood,
it gives the lighter or darker shading to our soul.

And look- is there an ossicle of my skull,
a rounding of my flesh, a fingernail,
a soaring of my soul, a surge of my heart-
without parents begat from the start of time?

Oh, the past! You- inevitable evil or good;
you- bright gift or burdening blackness-
a miser hoarding heaps of garbage and gold,
tireless, pitiless, sleepless archivist-
 
You exist despite protests or our will-power –
amassing old inventories in our hearts,
joining the balance sheets of our triumphs
and long lists of our loves and hates!
 
And we – covetors or creators of freedom-
we’re nothing but puppets in your hands:
we signal moving backwards and forwards,
we shout and fight, stumble and rise…
 
Oh these invisible and terrfiying threads,
which you snag then slacken yet never snap,
which manipulate our fates, and permanently bind us
to unborn offspring and dead progenitors!
 
With one leap into infinity I’d like
to snap off each knot-so as to glimpse,
free, separate-myself- my image,
with no past, no rank, no age, no name!
 
2.

I am not Penelope of ancient Greece-
humbly weaving then unpicking,
waiting twenty years for Odysseus-
while he loitered over land and sea,
lured by sirens to unknown islands,-
returning to me in his own good time,-
when the dog hardly knew him.
 
I don’t want to fade and flicker like an icon lamp
in the cell of a nun,
to melt away like a forgotten candle
into its barren flame,
to shed tears on an outstretched map
as if it were a shroud
to explore my thoughts for
latitudes and strange coves,
to fear every Eve on earth-
the pale cold northerner,
or the dark and fiery southerner…
 
No inventions satisfy me,
the endless cables, anntennae,
that ensnare air, earth, and sea,
so your terse telegrams tap out to me
your scattered love!
 
I want to feel it here, life-quickening,
with the most primitive discoveries-
the five senses given us with life-
like the last man upon this globe,
like the poorest creature on earth,
like the first and last woman!
 
3.

Oh, take me you countless roads,
winding serpents hissing in the sky,
and on earth, and at sea.
 
Take my uncalm and bright thirst
and from one end of the world to the other, take
them up and shake the oceans,
 
so that an ocean of human masses
could overflow its shores
and clean up the hearth of this earth,
 
to shake up the fortified,
ossified soulessness
of this century submerged in dark greed!
 
In the earthquake I will see- amid victorious thunder
and in a bolt that lights the whole sky-
man appear-the human – the creator.
 

Elisaveta Bagryana-Penelope of the Twentieth Century,Trans Brenda Walker, Valentine Borrisov, Belin Tonchev

Elisaveta Bagryana was born in Sofia in 1893 and died aged 98 in 1991. Published: Forest Books 1993