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DOWN THE CANAL

Sofia is rich in rivers, although there are no ships and boats sailing on them. We talked about them one evening with the poet, journalist and ecoactivist Dimiter Kenarov. What is it like to go up (or down) stream along one of these rivers? Is there still romance in their waters? What do Sofia’s rivers tell us, and is there intelligible speech left in their babble? Dimiter tried to answer these and other questions, and a memory of this evening is the poem “Down the Canal”, which we are publishing as part of our focus Art and Environment.











Down the Canal

(for Linda and Nadya)


1.

Drive down the Canal, I tell the cabby,

and he only nods silently and exhales

cigarette smoke in the already smog-

filled air of Sofia. He has fully grasped

my meaning without considering

the words. I get him. When you live

in a privy, what choice do you have

but to get used to the smell? A question

of survival, some may say. If you stare

long enough at a stone wall, it turns

transparent. The apartment blocks

vanish, the plastic bags caught in

the branches vanish, the faces

of politicians, even the baby with

cerebral palsy vanishes, including

the entire city of two-million people,

just like in a horror flick, in which

the worst is invisible to the eyes. But

(here’s the rub) also the prettiest.

The blade of the knife gradually dulls

and you can’t cut yourself, you can’t slice

off your pinky, but neither can you cut into

the sweet June tomato. A dearth of blood

inevitably turns into a dearth of juice.


2.

The gypsy kids are frolicking in the Canal

in their swimming trunks and then lie down

to bask in the sun on the concrete bank, as if

on the Canaries. I wonder if they’ve shut

their eyes, just like the rest of the city, or

on the contrary, they boast the most tenacious

imagination, seeing a metaphor in each object?

Invisible, buried in the c-section scar of Sofia,

they are born for a second life, every day

sliding through the infected canal pipe.


3.

Down the Canal, I say, but sometimes,

when I walk on foot in the summer day

and the chestnuts have unfurled their

secession leaves and the lindens spray

their French perfume in the plastic air,

I remember this is the Perlovska river,

where, I’ve heard, they used to pan gold

in the past, and the cattle would come

down at dusk to drink, like in a Constable.

I don’t wish to romanticize – I’m aware

people of every century destroy

their world so they can dream on its

ruins – but nevertheless it’s pleasant

to recall that the stone rivers of Vitosha

are still giving birth to water, which babbles

in thousands of languages and enters our

dreams, in spite of the inverse, stone-like

logic of engineers and city officials.


4.

To track down the source, to make visible

the springs of the tongue: this may be

the task of the poets. To translate the reader

not across the river, from one bank to the other,

like Charon carrying the souls of the dead

given the proper payment, but to go against

the current, upwards, where even in June

shards of pearly snow still glow white on

Vitosha, between the double Reznyov peaks.

Linda, Nadya, lead me on, show me the way.

Here, I give you my almost human hand.



© Photo: Dimiter Kenarov

DIMITER KENAROV is a writer, translator and freelance journalist. He studied in the United States (Middlebury College; University of California – Berkeley). He is the author of two collections of Bulgarian poetry Пътуване към кухнята and Апокрифни животни. His English-language writing has appeared in New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic, The Nation, Foreign Policy, The International New York Times, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, among many others. His work has also been anthologized three times in The Best American Travel Writing (2009; 2012; 2013), and in 2022 Audible/Amazon created the podcast series Radioman based on his literary journalistic material.
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