In memoriam Nikola Vaptsarov

11/12/2009 by Christopher Buxton

Just returned from London and a recital inspired by the late Adrian Mitchell. Such a radical poet – I wonder if he’d known about his Bulgarian kindred spirit. Too late to find out now.

Anyway to celebrate one hundred years since his birth, I’ve translated three of Vaptsarov’s poems – ones I like very much.

Vaptsarov was born in Bansko, worked in a foundry, where he wrote the only work published in his lifetime – Engine Songs. His commitment to Communism in the thirties led him to be involved in wartime resistance to the government of Tsar Boris. He was arrested and shot in 1942. Boris canvased opinion among literary circles but was assured by the great and good that he was not ordering the death of a great Bulgarian poet.

Inevitably Communist Bulgaria turned him into a hero. Fortunately his genius still burns in the postcommunist hangover.

Spring in the Factory

She wanted to clock on with the first shift

But the engine swore


“Oh no you don’t

I’m in charge here

Where will we end up without rules?

‘Ere – go ask the doorman!”

But she was right cheeky

And she didn’t ask the doorman. –

Slipped in.

Opened some window up high

And hidden from the engine

Stuck out her tongue.

And straight off a machine sang out.

But the workers

Were all fingers and thumbs.

Realising who was causing this

The engine said:

“I’ll chuck her out!”

– Chuck her out really? Mockingly


A good iron mixer.

– Just try, whirled the chattering stirrer,

We’ll come out on strike for her.

The engine shut up. The wind carried

From somewhere

Warm breath of black earth

A melody – broad and joyous –

And steps

Of cracked


Those who sometime had


The earth, snorted like horses,

And the others, windows thrown open,

Glowed before

The blue


The ticker tape machine shot out

Something rude.

A girl happily sang

A boy shot her

With a loving glance

And she blushed.

Just then the doorman came in quiet

And demanded

“Who’s snuck themselves in without my say-so?”

But he soon caught on, smiled guiltily

Combed his hair


And then shut up.


To my wife

Sometime I’ll come into your dreams

Like an unexpected, unwanted guest.

Don’t leave me outside on the street –

Don’t bolt the doors against me.

I’ll enter on tip-toe. I’ll approach so gently

I’ll narrow my eyes to see you in the dark

And when gorged with gazing at you –

I’ll kiss you and then be gone.


In The Krup Factories grenades pour out

Pack them up snugly! They’re made for us, mates,

They’ll drink up our blood out in the meadows

Pack them up snugly! Millions of us…

At Bayer they’ve found some kind of gas

From a new mix. And it’s just for us

It’ll just eat up our sooty lungs

It couldn’t be clearer…Don’t you want to puke?

At Vickers, they’ve bored machine gun muzzles

To shoot six hundred bullets a minute – for us.

So they can bang it into our thick skulls

Come on cheer up! Come on cheer up!

Come on cheer up! Don’t think how

The storm will catch us, the dark will smother us.

Present arms to the front of our modern era

But please…a bit of hush! But please…

No grumbling