Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Air Around the Butterfly

The Air Around the Butterfly
Въздухът около пеперудата
by Katerina Stoykova
Sofia, Bulgaria: Fakel Express; First edition (August, 2009)
SBN: 978-954-9772-64-7
Size: 6.5" x 8.5", 147 pages
Price: $10.00

Bilingual poetry books are relatively rare today, particularly those where the English text is paired with one in a non-Latin alphabet.  The interesting thing about the above book--the author's first--is that she wrote the poems in English--her second language--and then translated them back into her native Bulgarian.

The 59 poems presented in this book are grouped into three sections, each representing a different period in the poet’s life.  The first section, “My Mother Was Going to War”, is a collection of poetic vignettes: of a mother who was dying; of a grandfather as a young guerrilla; of the first time she tried to leave home while yet a child; of a colonel's heart not yet thawed from the Cold War.  The second section,  “E.T. and I Phone Home” covers the poet's departure from her native Bulgaria to her arrival and settling in America, unsure of what that would entail, but "diving in" nonetheless.  The third section, titled “The Apple Who Wanted to Become a Pinecone”, is a collection of memories, observations and self-reflections where she acknowledges that "Here I've Already Been Lost”, yet she emerges finally, fully at home, as a writer and poet.

What particularly interested me about this book was first, its bilingualality--it introduces me to a language with which I am totally unfamiliar; and second, it offers an intriguing glimpse of the emotional seesaw that results from leaving one's home in one country to spend the rest of your life in another; of the nostalgic reluctance in letting go, coupled with the magnetic pull toward the unknown--and of the need, above all, to be one's Self.

This is reflected quite clearly in the poem  “Sus-toss”, which in the Hopi culture is a word that describes the disease that people suffer when they move to live on new lands.  Here are some excerpts:

Sus-toss is a disease that makes you not want the things you want . . .

It is the disease of living in a walnut shell
and spending all your strength to keep it closed. . .

Sus-toss . . . causes different parts of you to live in different places. . .

It makes you eat cheesecake when all you want is bread. . .

When you have sus-toss you are afraid to be happy.

Sus-toss makes you feel as though you are living somebody else's life.
Somebody ordinary.
Somebody terrified by the thought of not being successful.
Somebody who does not want to care about anything
and is bothered by that.

Sus-toss makes you want proof that it was all worth it.
You can see the rest of your life and predict every day
until the very end.
You feel as though you are sleep-living.

When I first sounded out the word "sus-toss", I had a mental image of people being thrown into the air, landing all twisted and confused, scrambling to unwobble themselves.  "It's us, tossed" was the word equivalent that came to mind, which implies a kind of forced ejection, like mandatory exile.  But deliberately choosing to take oneself out of one land, self-launching permanently toward another also, apparently, subjects a person to "sus-toss."

Katerina Stoykova plunges into her new life in America, still  “Slow Dancing with My Demons", asking the mirror to forget everything it's seen so far and to wipe the slate clean, as she leaps ahead with manifest


The space in my heart
intentionally left blank

Some of the poems in the book are three pages long; others, but a single word:

Impatience Kills


The poems are a mixture of pathos and humor, expectation and disappointment, of having to eat “bitter cookies” and being lost, hanging on to  “The Rope to Nowhere”--yet finding a way to soar,  “still intact, flying elsewhere”.

This poet definitely has a sense of humor. The poem “Reluctance” is about a spare tire who “is constantly afraid/ that one day/ it will be his turn/ to start carrying the weight/ of the car/ in which/ he has been riding.”  He whispers his fears to the windshield wipers but "they just shake their heads."  He longs to be like the wheels, "so confident and groovy."   "Crossing" is a witty poem about an alphabet marching to the border, intent on taking over, to "help people".

In sum, this book is a delightful find. And I've learned a few Bulgarian words as well.

How To Write a Poem

Catch the air
 Around the butterfly

I admit I was a bit puzzled as to the meaning of the above poem, whose phrase "the air around the butterfly" was also chosen as the title for this book.  What does it mean to "catch the air" around a butterfly?  And assuming one can catch it, what then?  How does a poem arise from capturing butterfly air?

When a butterfly is at rest, the air around it is calm.  But when it flies and flaps its wings, it creates a small disturbance in the air. Miniscule, probably.  Chaos theory posits that even the smallest event can have large, widespread consequences, for example, meterologically.  Culturally speaking, its metaphorical equivalent, "the bufferfly effect,"  suggests that seemingly insignificant moments in our lives can alter our history and shape our destinies, depending, of course, on which path we ultimately choose to take (the operative words here being "can" (not "will"), and "choose".  Nothing is set in stone, or 100% predictable, when it comes to an individual life.   Possiblity, and creativity, I think, may trump "fate" in this regard.

An event happens, or a series of events occur, and we consider whether to go forward or to remain right where we are.  (Sometimes one doesn't have a choice.  One of Stoykova's poems describes a ladybug whose feet are stuck in tar:  "You will not come out whole," she warns, "even if you flap your wings/ very, very fast.") But wholeness, like happiness, is a matter of perception.  In immersing herself in "the air around the butterfly," Stoykova has let it gently lead her to the air beyond the air--enabling her to transform this experience into poetry.

This all seems to relate back to her poem "Sus-Toss", that existential malaise that manifests in a gnawing sense of the loss of connection--between what was left behind, and what has taken its place.  One attempts to live  both "here" and "there", simultaneously, so to speak.  Choosing not to go back doesn't mean  the longing for certain continuities will disappear.  Because this is an abiding interest--the pull between the there and the here, the then and the now--and its effect on those involved (as a phenomenon, rife with fascinating examples), it perhaps held special significance for me, and yet it bespeaks of a certain universality.  

Sometimes, in reading poetry, one hastens to be carried farther, beyond the words, and sometimes one simply prefers to remain still, content to rest with the words on the page and savor the moment.  Such was my reaction to Katerina Stoykova's collection of poems, on a twofold level: first, seeing the words themselves, as words; and second, following their collective story.  

Ms. Stoykova has, in effect, I think, caught the air around the butterfly, became a part of it, and these poems are the result.  In the final poem, an unnamed interviewer asks an apple why it wants to become a pinecone.  Well, for one, it's tired of being "sweet, and round, and rosy" and of having humans "look at it and salivate".  There is more to me than that, it seems to be hinting.  To become a pinecone, it plans to "elongate" and "develop scales," among other things, and finally, to "fall far, far, far from the tree."  Where this became a "story" for me, was in its unspoken echo back to a previous poem suggesting the same theme, i.e., breaking with the past (stretching out, unfolding, "elongating"), bracing oneself for the future, yet not wanting to lose the self in the process. But like the ladybug stuck in the tar, extracting oneself from a place of being stuck, or from one's roots, is never easy.  In the poem "Tree", Stoykova describes the stem of the tree as being the thickest around its hollow, that "if you lay it sideways/ it will look like/ a boa constrictor/ digesting an elephant."  The tree, anchored in the earth by its roots, its stem likened to a boa constrictor that can swallow one whole (i.e., suffocate, bring death)--one understandably would want to get "far, far, far away"  from such a stranglehold.

Perhaps the poet  intended no such correlation, between the desire of the apple to transform itself, break free, and fall "far, far, far away" from the tree to which it was attached, and the reference to the thickest part of the tree as resembling a boa constrictor, a possible harbinger of death. The idea of death of self, though, is also implied in the poem "Loss" where the poet describes, in so many words, what happens when you attempt to be who you are not:

if a butterfly tries to be an ant
if an ant tries to be a butterfly
the world loses an ant
the world loses a butterfly

The apple wanting to be a pinecone plans to "develop scales", while the speaker in the poem "A Dream", glues fish scales to his/her body. (The scales on a pinecone and the scales on a fish function as a  protection, the way a soldier's armor protects him from being killed.)  When asked by a passerby "Why in the world are you doing this?", the narrator in "A Dream" replies, "I open and close/ open and close/ open and close/ my mouth."  In the dream, he/she is without a voice, tries to speak but can only mimic the motion, like a fish out of water, gasping for life.  Likewise, the apple, if  it becomes a pinecone, would open and close its scales, but it, too, would have no real voice.  It would only "dry up and turn brown."  But then along came that butterfly, the one with the intoxicating air around it; the poet somehow "caught its air", and the rest is history.  The poet's voice comes out, loud and clear, in these poems, pairing words from the land from which she came to words in her new language, reconnecting, completing the circle, so to speak, reuniting the there and the here, the then and the now.

An interesting book of poems. I look forward to its sequel, to learn more about what happens when the journey has ended, or if already ended, what garlands of insights have been collected, what new worlds of words she has discovered.

About the poet:

Katerina Stoykova emigrated from Bulgaria to the United States at the age of 24 and worked as an engineer at IBM and Lexmark.  She holds an MFA in poetry from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky and serves as Deputy Editor in Chief of the English language edition of the online magazine Public Republic. She also hosts "Accents", a radio show for literature, art and culture, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Her website can be found here.

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