An Enjoyable Book of Poems

By Victor Bivell

Speech for the launch of Walking on a Wire, by Zaklina Mihajlova

Firstly, congratulations Zaklina on completing your book. It's always an important moment for authors, so well done, and it's a good book too.

I won't speak for long, as my role was just at the end: to edit the English language translations and make sure the translations were faithful to the poetry of the original Macedonian poems, and also that the translations stood alone and worked as English language poems.

To help me do that, my resources, I had my native Macedonian language. This is probably best described as broken village Macedonian from the 1940s and 50s. So it couldn't help me with some of the big words Zaklina uses. Fortunately I also have a few good dictionaries. When there were words not in the dictionaries I used the internet to find their meanings or instances of their useage.

I also pasted a few poems and phrases into Google translator. I found this an interesting exercise and although it had some uses I came to the conclusion that professional poets are in no danger of being made redundant by machines for at least the next couple of hundred years.

This is because you can't just whack poems into Google translator and have masterpieces pop out. Poems are far too complex for that - they have ideas, meaning, sense, phrasing, tone, and they have to work as art.

One interesting example of this was the poem Jesus, which has quite an unexpected and striking ending. In Macedonian it is:

Isoos, sine,
da ne si zadoen od
Makedonsko vime?

After some work the English version is:

Jesus, my son,
have you not suckled
at the Macedonian breast?

Now, if you put the original into Google translator, and after correcting for half words and crazy grammar, you get:

have you not imbued
Macedonian mammary glands?

Now most people and especially the Australians here will know that "Macedonian mammary glands" is not poetry.

It's the same if you use the Serbian, Croatian and Bulgarian translator. You get "Macedonian udders". Cows have udders, so again it's not poetry. In this case, if I can put it this way, "breast" is best.

But it was good fun. It shows that translating poetry needs care. It has to be done word by word, line by line, and verse by verse. Machines can't do that, because poetry is about people and what goes on inside them.

When I studied literature at university I was told that literature was the hardest subject (take that, philosophy). And I think the reason is because we are trying to understand people.

The poems in this book tell us about people. They are good poems, and they are enjoyable to read. And one of the reasons is that they are accessible.

It's an irony that one of the oldest forms of writing, and one of the most practised, is also one of the least read. This is a shame, and it's a long standing issue for poets.

I think it's because a lot poetry is either self indulgent or inaccessible. If people want to be self-indulgent, that's OK, but the poetry should stay personal.

Inaccessible poetry puts people off, because a lot of poems are like a cryptic crossword puzzle that takes days and weeks to tease out the meanings and allusions. Poetry is big enough to have a genre like that, and it suits academia. But it's not what most people want. They want poetry that is accessible.

Zaklina's poems are tight. The writing is disciplined. And they are very accessible. I'll give a couple of examples.

This is a poem called Angels. As I think you'll see, all of us who are parents can quickly pick up on the feelings towards our children.


Mummy's little angels
joy and love,
hope and happiness.
Every day more words,
every day new desires
every day another dawn,
every day a white day.

Raised without dust,
protected, wrapped up,
groomed, well bred,
well traveled, spoilt!

How will I open my arms
to let you fly?

As I said, the ideas and the feelings are very accessible, and we can all understand them straightaway.

I'll give another example.

Positive Poem

If you want to climb higher
smile, say a nice word,
praise someone,

If you want to climb higher
in the bright sun ask for tranquility,
open widely the gates of your soul,
gather goodness in your heart
and be silent, be blind,
don't be offended,
be tolerant!

Everything is good,
mine and yours
ours and theirs
even everyone's is good!

If you want to climb higher,
wish strongly,
believe and go!
Only forward!

Another reason these are enjoyable poems is because they have a good range of themes and subjects, and together the combination is quite rare.

I think Zaklina you said there are 33 poems in the book. And there are just over a hundred of us here tonight. If everyone here wrote 33 poems, and most of us probably have, and we compared them, if we put the themes and subjects on a spreadsheet and did a statistical analysis, I think they'd fall into two main groups.

The first would be those that have common themes and subjects, the things we share, and there would be a lot of those.

The second would be the huge variety of ideas and subjects we would choose to hang those themes on. I think many of us would look at these and go - how did you think of that, where did that come from, I would never have thought of that!

With that exercise we'd get an illustration of how much we share, and at the same time the huge range of ideas and subjects we have as individuals. Now Zaklina has written 33 poems, and we see this in her themes and subjects.

Zaklina's has three main themes. The first one is life, and we would all include that.

The second main theme is Macedonia, and straightaway that cuts out about 99.9 per cent of the world's population.

The third theme is Australia, and that cuts out the other 99.9 per cent of the world's population.

On life, the themes she writes about are destiny and pre-determination, time, love, family, friends, day to day life, emotions, dreams, secrets, history and others.

But within these common themes there is a wide choice of subjects. I won't list them; I'll let you discover them. But I'll read one example.

This is poem called Bipolar, and it's to a friend. Now most of us know someone with a mental condition and have wanted express our concern for them.


For my friend

Where does it come,
be gone!
It creates confusion and nightmare.
It comes without warning. It comes to stay.
Too much of a good thing
is not a good thing!
The highest high
brings happiness and joy
and strength until euphoria.
The fall below, however,
a hole into the abyss…
So bad indeed,
even to the worst.
Unwanted worm, worming its way,
often, into the wise mind.
Is it an inherited gene,
is it personal,
to be cursed?
Is it a toll a debt
for other people's sins?

In some ways this is a more complex subject. The poem is very accessible on first reading, but it gets more complex if you go back and re-read it and take a closer look at the emotions and phrases and the questions it asks.

The poems on Macedonia have a lot of the traditional Macedonian themes and subjects such as the country of Macedonia, food, dancing, freedom and revolution, and of course suffering. Where would we be without our 'maka'?

For non-Macedonians the poems are a good introduction to the character of Macedonians and what they think and care about. I'll read one example, a poem called Elegy for Macedonia.

Elegy for Macedonia

What are you hiding, my dear country?
What pain are you keeping to yourself?
What troubles are you suffering?
Why are you crying?
Why are you forbidden to speak?
Everything in you is the truth,
everything in you is valuable,
in each rock, under every stone,
in each river, in your body,
in the graves visible and invisible,
in the air, in your breath, in the spirit
everywhere, hidden, are messages.

Who can interpret them correctly?
Who will believe you are true?
Who will love you sincerely
millennium beauty,
primordial country,
my Macedonia!

This talks about the country of Macedonia and its hidden treasures, especially the discovery of its archaeology and the uncovering of its history. It alludes to the controversies and political oppression for which Macedonia is known, and asks who can be trusted to interpret its treasures.

What is also clear is Zaklina's real love and care for Macedonia.

The poems on Australia show her love for a new country. Much of that is about discovering the landscape. So we get a variety of places: Sydney, Uluru, Kangaroo Island, and Talbingo. We find out something about these places as well as Zaklina's sensibilities.

I've been to Talbingo, by the way and it has very good dam for swimming, especially on a hot day.

So if you put all these things together, the interesting themes and subjects, the accessibility of the poems, and Zaklina's love for what she writes about, you get a book of poems that are enjoyable.

What most people look for in a poem is some intellectual or emotional pay-off. Some sort of sparkle. It might be an insight, a clear emotion, a turn of phrase, a witticism; the reader is looking for something that sparkles.

And we get that here. I'll give one short example that I particularly like. It's from the poem: The twinkles of Talbingo

At the entrance to Talbingo
like a tunnel of old gold
hang unusual
twinkles above the road.

The image has sparkles in it and the passage also has a sparkle. These poems have plenty of sparkles. Read them and enjoy them.

Walking on a Wire, by Zaklina Mihajlova, is published by the Macedonian Literary Association of Australia Grigor Prlichev.


© Copyright, March 2013