Elenkova Reviewed

A collection that got slightly lost when it was published by Tebot Bach in 2013, Crookedness by Tsvetanka Elenkova, was happily recovered by Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books in 2019, in a smaller, more manageable edition. This is the second collection by Tsvetanka Elenkova, a poet on a European scale, that I have translated and is soon to be followed by Magnification Forty, which received a PEN Translates award.

It is so rare for a book of foreign poetry to be translated into English, and so little attention is paid to them, that one should be grateful when such a book of quality is reviewed in a magazine of the stature of The Poetry Review, the mouthpiece of the UK Poetry Society. I only just found out that Crookedness received such attention from the Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek (wonderful name!). Well, I have never had my translation described as “clean, almost earnest” before. Here is the part of the review that deals with Elenkova’s book:

Two other recent translations deal with quieter forms of disappearance and loss. Unlike Zurita, whose canvas is the oceans and seas, Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova chooses to dwell on the fine print of the physical world: the echo from a conch, or the wind heard “through the open throat” of a bottle. These images, from her opening poem (‘Pain’), give tender shape to what is otherwise hollow or invisible: “a single slight hiss / as of a punctured bicycle tyre”, or “pain from the emptied body”. She returns in later poems to chart the psychological experience of pain; the death of a friend, for instance, is compared with sitting “under the crown of a broad-leaved tree / which is an upturned conifer […] to watch the coming storm” (‘Hourglass’). The precision of Elenkova’s images shines through (and even transcends) the clean, almost earnest diction of Jonathan Dunne’s translation.

In a new introduction, Fiona Sampson describes Elenkova as a mystic of our times, her “lucid” observations bringing to light “a poetic world […] of religious mystery, mortality, love and desire”. Though Crookedness borrows liberally from tradition, the poet is quick to disclaim immediate parallels with Orthodox iconography: “Your body has nothing in common / with the cross”, she writes (and adds – “or Leonardo / or the sun god”, for good measure). What is at work here is not the stained-glass imagery of the church, but something plainer and still more sensuous: “an interweaving (of the ankles) / an open / eight / a curve (of the wrists)” (‘This Is It’). Such earthy and abundant beauty carries with it always the hard edge of impermanence, unless, of course, it is transformed into poetry. As one of the briefest poems in the collection’s second segment (‘Pansies after Rain’) puts it, “reflection is capture” (emphasis mine).

Crookedness actually contains one of my favourite poems by Elenkova (together with ‘The Time We Are Together’ from The Seventh Gesture, my absolute favourite, and ‘The Train’, which appeared in an issue of The Massachusetts Review and in their special sixtieth-anniversary issue And There Will Be Singing). It’s the poem that opens the book, ‘Pain’:

PAIN

When you hold a bottle and hear the wind
through the open throat
when you put a conch to your ear
the echo pain from the emptied body
and when a single slight hiss
as of a punctured bicycle tyre
finally fills the empty space
like a newborn’s wail
Take it carefully in your arms
and give it or don’t to its mother
but take it carefully
it’s so fragile all cartilage
Give it water or leave it on the shelf
by your head
Gallery

Orthodox Christmas in Bulgaria

These photos were taken in the Russian Church of St Nicholas and the Bulgarian Church of St Sophia, both in central Sofia, with the permission of their respective priests.

Berkovitsa

Sofia irradiates roads. I discuss the three that go to the Black Sea in my description of Sopot Waterfall. Then there’s the II-16 that takes you north along the Iskar Gorge to Bov and Dobravitsa. And the E79 (or the A3 motorway) that takes you south to Ovchartsi and then Greece. The E871 heading south-west in the direction of Polska Skakavitsa and Kyustendil. And don’t forget the II-63 that takes you west to Tran on the Serbian border (I still remember visiting Bilintsi Monastery along this road and meeting the abbot, who gave us tea next to an open pit and had taken it upon himself to ‘improve’ the ancient frescoes in the church).

Well, here we are going to take the II-81, which also heads north from Sofia in the direction of Montana and Lom. It is as if Sofia has antlers – the II-81 on the left, and the II-16 on the right. What makes the II-81 famous is Petrohan Pass, which you must pass over in order to reach north-west Bulgaria (Vidin and Romania). You leave Sofia through the district of Nadezhda and cross the ring road. The II-81 starts gently enough, passing through Kostinbrod and Buchin Prohod (from here you can turn right and cut across to the II-16 if you’re suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to visit Dobravitsa Waterfall).

After Buchin Prohod, ignore the turning to Godech on the left (though this, for me, is a very attractive part of Bulgaria with the wonderful Razboishte Rock Monastery) and the ‘Historical Road’ (the main road continues left), and pass through the pretty village of Gintsi, much favoured by artists and beekeepers. The road then begins to twist and turn as it climbs Petrohan Pass. The pass is often closed in winter because of snow, but the rest of the year it’s normally fine. The top of the pass is 65 km north of Sofia. There’s a large reservoir, which I understand was once a fish farm.

The road then descends on the other side. More twists and turns (try not to get stuck behind a van!). Ten more kilometres, and you reach what in my parlance would be called a ‘roadside caff’ on the other side of the road, a restaurant much favoured by my father-in-law, I am told (he was a famous opera singer and his family hailed from Vidin) – you can always stop here to try the kebabs and meatballs. Another six kilometres, and you enter Barzia, the Gintsi of the north, so to speak. From here, a road heads right to Klisura Monastery, well worth a visit, if you have the time.

But we must continue to the town of Berkovitsa in order to reach Haidushki Waterfall. So stay on the main road. Three kilometres out of Barzia, you will see a turning on the left, marked ‘Berkovitsa, 2 km’. Take this turning, climb the hill, and soon you will reach an OMV petrol station. I have a particular fondness for this petrol station, because this is where I bought Timon, the meerkat who features in The Lion King and was once my son’s favourite teddy.

You can stop here for petrol or a coffee. After OMV, the road goes right, alongside the railway. After 1000 m, the road goes right again, over the railway, but you go left. This turning is marked ‘x. Kom, 17 km’. Another 700 m, and you must take a turning right, marked ‘Kom Peak, 14 km’. Continue along here for 2½ km, passing a stadium on your right, until you reach a fork in the road. Take the right turning, and now you have a decision.

The road you are now on leads directly to the waterfall. I can’t tell you the distance, because I parked the car by the marble (‘mramor’) factory which is in front of you and walked. But plenty of people take the car further, there being lots of picnic places and several summer houses along the way. So you have a choice. How far do you want to walk?

The car journey from Sofia to this point is about 1 hour 45 minutes (90 km). The walk in front of you is the same, 1 hour along the flat, and then 45 minutes gently climbing the mountain. You never leave the road, though it becomes progressively more rutted and covered in leaves, and I wouldn’t want to think what happens if you’re on the mountain and meet a car coming the other way. You’ve also got the question of having to turn around. So it’s really the 1 hour on the flat that can be shortened. Plenty of people drive this distance, leaving the car as the road begins to climb (this point is marked by the beginning of an ecopath, for which there is a rusty yellow sign).

If you leave the car by the marble factory, you will have a 4½-hour outing there and back, including a lunch stop. You walk alongside the marble factory for ten minutes, the road then appears to fork – actually it continues on the left (this is where many people park), while a track heads right, up the hillside. After that, you can’t get lost, unless you want to. All along the road, there are picnic spots. It’s up to you how far you take the car. But after an hour’s walking, when the road begins to climb and the waterfall is only 45 minutes away, it really is time to leave the car behind and enjoy the nature.

We went at the end of October. Haidushki Waterfall is a series of beautiful short waterfalls, and one of the few waterfalls it doesn’t matter if you go in the spring (after the snow melt) or in the autumn. Leaves carpeted the ground. The river below the waterfalls shone black. Other leaves that hadn’t reached the ground yet seemed to rain down on us, but it was the river that kept drawing my attention. Sometimes the leaves on its surface meant you didn’t know it was there, and it was easy to put your foot in it – in fact, I did precisely this: I became part of the waterfall for a moment.

It is clear when you reach the waterfall, because there are several signs. You have to descend a little. There is a shelter with some benches, a small mirador, and then the waterfall in front of you, but don’t forget the other waterfall on your right, hidden around the corner. They’re both beautiful.

If you continue upriver or downriver, no doubt you will come across other cascades. The traffic coming back into Sofia was dense, I had to drive with only one sock (the other was wet), but we had had our adventure. Life is not a choice, we only think it is – it is an experience.

The OMV petrol station in Berkovitsa (the road goes right).
After 700 m, you take a turning right, marked ‘Kom Peak, 14 km’.
The stadium in Berkovitsa.
The fork in the road – the road on your right leads all the way to the waterfall, but becomes progressively more rutted and leaf-strewn.
The marble factory on your right – we parked here.
After ten minutes, the road continues on your left, while a track heads uphill.
Autumnal colours.
The road through the trees.
One of the picnic places.
Yellow sign indicating the start of an ecopath – the road begins to climb the mountain.
The river with leaves on its surface.
The road on the mountain.
A landscape painting.
Arrival at the waterfall (which can be seen bottom left).
The roof of the shelter.
Haidushki Waterfall (left).
Haidushki Waterfall (right).
The road back to Berkovitsa (being eaten by a tree).
Video

Notes on Slavko Vorkapich’s Short Film “Moods of the Sea” (1941)

I feel like a bird the water tries to crush, but without this danger – what kind of flight is it? Accelerating competitor in front of whom is a hard rock.

The best place for nesting is in the eaves, barely a few centimetres wide, beneath which is the abyss. Grooming is primary care. The main occupation, done with skilful étourderie. The fear of water teeming with mammals down below, the first serious conviction.

The sea, which embraces and instantly retreats like a timid or attentive lover.

Defeated armies that withdraw with their dignity intact as after a refusal to dance.

Huge waves like full lips. Waves like ocean waterfalls. Waves that invade like a shower of kisses and don’t let you breathe.

Weightlifters lined up, lifting in perfect synchrony, pushing up the weight of the world record.

Foam – the sea rises. It grows without ascending. Without wanting to, it rises. Like everything that rises, by the way.

Armies of clouds conspiratorially moving on the bias.

Cirrus clouds that depict the giant skeleton of a bird in flight. And then a tractor’s deep furrow in clay soil.

Only a drenched bird, a bird completely submerged in tons of water, has the right to jump to another space.

The ribs of the waves.

Birds that land on moving water.

Foam upon foam.

A bird that playfully sews the air to the blanket of water.

Flowing, running water that floods an island of smooth, calm water.

Birds that proudly resist the wind, as if the right to do so transforms their action into a reasonable position.

There is no similarity between the tide and all other tides.

There is no difference between the tide and the eruption of a volcano or the sun.

from The Heart Is Not a Creator (2013) by the Bulgarian poet Yordan Eftimov, translated by Jonathan Dunne

Sopot

The E871 is one of my favourite roads in Bulgaria. It’s even a little difficult to find. There are three roads heading east from Sofia. They all go to the sea. The E83/772 goes to Varna via the medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo, running north of the Balkan Mountains. The E80/773 goes to Burgas via Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv. The E871 doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though it does in fact drop down at the last moment and join the E773 on its way into Burgas – but only at the very last moment. Apart from that, it travels on the warmer side of the Balkan Mountains, the south side, and offers wonderful views of this beast that is the Balkan, scratching its belly (the mountain, I mean) in the early autumn sun.

I say it’s difficult to find because you leave Sofia in the east and if you’re not careful, you end up going to Varna. You have to hang a right, passing through the suburb of Dolni Bogrov, which always at weekends has lines of cars in the slow lane, parked for a market that takes place there and seems very well attended. Once past Dolni Bogrov, you again have to take a right (otherwise you’ll end up going to Varna), and then the journey begins. The road stretches in front of you, like a tree’s shadow, long and straight. You must up and over three hills (the second containing a bust of Bulgaria’s nineteenth-century freedom fighter, Vasil Levski, at its base). You then pass the turning for Chavdar, the first of the waterfalls along this road, which I described in an earlier post. You drive at under 50 km/h through the towns of Zlatitsa and Pirdop, twins joined at the hip. And then the fun starts. Numerous bridges, all with little bumps (I thought I counted five or seven on every bridge), from which people organize bungee jumps when it’s not too windy. Today was extremely windy, so there was nobody in sight (plus it’s the Bulgarian elections).

Just before Karnare, you pass the turning for the second of the waterfalls located near this wonderful road – Hristo Danovo, a stunning straight line like a windpipe. But be careful in Karnare – this is where Bulgaria’s freedom fighter Vasil Levski was betrayed to the Turks by a local priest, Pop Krustio! It’s also where a road dares to cross the Balkan Mountain from south to north, as if it’s suddenly decided to switch sides, passing through Troyan, the third most important Bulgarian monastery after Rila and Bachkovo.

One is not diverted, however, but continues along on the E871 (wonderful road that it is!) and after Anevo, just before entering Sopot proper, you will see a turning on the left for Anevo Fortress (2 km), followed immediately by another turning on the left for Sopot Lift (I think it was written ‘Lift Sopot’, 1 km). This is the turning you need. But you are not going to the lift. You actually need to head to one of Sopot’s two monasteries, the one dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus, which is situated at a distance of 1.2 km from the E871.

So when you see a sign for Sopot Lift (or Lift Sopot) saying ‘200 m’, don’t go there. Continue right and just around the corner the monastery will come into view. There is an open area where you can park the car.

With the monastery in front of you, look to the left. A narrow path hugs the wall of the monastery enclosure before, in theory, heading up the valley to the waterfall. You need to take this path. But this is where things get difficult. Let me explain.

In the past, a nice path ran all the way to the waterfall, passing a small chapel before reaching the waterfall after only 30 minutes. To our amazement, today no path was visible. It ended abruptly at the bridge just behind the monastery and had been replaced by an abyss, a drop down to the riverbed. There is no path anymore. A flash flood – or something like it – appears to have swept away not only the path that used to meander nicely among the trees, but also the very riverbank. There is no riverbank. I am not joking. You are forced to drop down to the riverbed and then to walk along the riverbed. So this outing is not for the fainthearted. But before you become discouraged, let me tell you an hour after we arrived at the waterfall, a gaggle of children all aged under ten arrived as well – I can’t believe how many there were, they started lobbing heavy stones into the pool at the foot of the waterfall – so it can’t have been all that difficult.

But let me repeat: there is no path. There isn’t even any earth. You are on the riverbed, jumping over rocks, threading your way through fallen trees. It took us an hour and a half (a little less coming back – my wife asked me why it’s always easier coming back, I thought it was perhaps because you already know the way). And here’s the lesson from our outing today.

As we walked beside the monastery wall, a glum-faced gentleman in his elder years droned that there was no point going on, the path ended after the bridge. He and his companions had evidently turned around.

Once we were on the riverbed, but still at the beginning, a younger couple (he looked particularly sporty, she was more elegant) also warned us against continuing. Ten minutes, and they had had to turn around.

If we had listened, we would have got back in the car and missed the most amazing beauty. So don’t listen when people try to dissuade you, when they try to make you lose faith. Listen only to your inner voice. It’s like Christ says in John chapter 8, the last day of the Festival of Booths: just believe.

It’s lucky our dog was there to help us choose the best route. I felt like Arthur Morgan in the computer game Red Dead Redemption 2, turning on eagle eye, which enables him to see the trail left by a cart or an animal. You find your way through, you continue up the riverbed (it’s actually very beautiful being this close to the river!), you ignore the gainsayers (don’t go, it’s not worth it!), and at the end you witness incredible beauty.

Because Sopot Waterfall is a heart. It is a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 4:14 – have you read John’s Gospel? It is a fantastic book of short stories, of intimate encounters). Hristo Danovo is purity. Polska Skakavitsa, southwest of Sofia, is baptism – you cannot help but get immersed. Sopot is love, and so it ranks among my top waterfalls (even if there is no path, even if you have to walk through the air to get there). The water makes the shape of a heart. It is like a knot. A heart is a knot, two interlocked fingers.

And don’t let anybody tell you any different.

The path (it doesn’t last long) follows the wall of the Monastery of the Ascension.
It then abruptly ends. Here you can see how the riverbank has been obliterated – all that is left is the riverbed.
Miraculously, the path does reappear at one moment.
The magic of water.
Here you get a good idea of the terrain that you must cross to get to the waterfall.
The ruined chapel.
A pile of leaves – underwater!
In the absence of a path, people have taken to stacking stones when they reach the waterfall.
Sopot Waterfall.
A close-up of the heart.
The waterfall also resembles an hourglass.
The Monastery of the Ascension, which you can visit on your return.
Video

Theological English (15): Atom

In this sixteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the progression from the A of creation to the I of the Fall to the O of repentance/realization, which was the subject of the second video. Having already seen how this progression AIO can be found between words such as “what”, “why” and “who/how”, he examines to what extent this progression can be found inside words. When we draw a line through the selfish demands of the ego (I) and form a cross (†), which is also a plus-sign (+), A+O, we get the name of God in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible: Alpha and Omega. This in turn gives “and” (A ’N’ O) and its reverse “DNA”. When we use the Greek letter omega (“w”), we get “man” (A ’N’ W). So the idea expressed by Christ of denying the self, taking up our cross and following him is at the heart of language and in our very genes.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.

Video

Theological English (14): The Names of God

In this fifteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of names. “Name” is “man” in reverse with a final “e”, and we read in Genesis chapter 2 that God brought the creatures to Adam so that he could “name” them – in effect, so that he could translate them and choose the right word. God didn’t ask Adam to make the creatures because he is not an author – he cannot create out of nothing. He, and the rest of humankind, are translators. So “name” is central to man’s role in this world. What can the names of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary tell us about their roles? And what meaning can we find in the names of people like Strauss and Grant Gustin, and countries like Ukraine?

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.

Video

Theological English (13): Believe

In this fourteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of the word “believe” in the Christian Gospel. The word “believe” crops up again and again in the Gospel – this is what God requires of us: to believe in him, to believe in his name, in order to receive – the power to become children of God, eternal life, salvation, healing. When we believe, all things become possible. The video focuses on John 7:38 and the verse from Scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Once again, language is not only used to convey the message – it is the message.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.

Gallery

Vitosha, Water

It is remarkable that “water” has four of the same letters as “earth”. And where would the earth be without water? “Earth” has the same letters as “heart”. Without water, our heart would shrivel up.

What amazes me is the way it flows constantly. Even in the night, when I am not there. During the week. All the time until my next visit, it flows.

Sometimes it is blue, like the sky. Sometimes it is reddish brown, like a brick. Sometimes it takes on the colour of my shadow.

It is whatever is thrown at it. But sometimes it becomes a blur – too fast for my eyes to distinguish.

In the night, it is black – unless there is a moon, I imagine.

Water always finds a way – even if it has to go underground. Or fly through the air.

On Vitosha, I have seen it so calm it resembled a mirror. But I have also seen it rage after a storm. Then it is no longer transparent, it seems to boil.

We step on the land; without water, we would sink, as in a desert. Too much water, and we swim.

Water lies on a bed of gravel. And rests its head on rock pillows. It rises up from the rock. It slips through gaps. It causes us to build bridges – that is a good thing.

When it enters the air, it is smashed into smithereens.

Later, in the sea, it evaporates to fall on my head. Then I walk through a sauna. The water is so prevalent it climbs up my legs. I have sat in the car as it beat down with unusual ferocity. Still I got out.

I like it when it’s the mountain and me. Today I walked through the hordes, as if I came from another planet. Another age.

Water is most beautiful on the mountain. It is like a curtain. Or a seam. The mountain shudders. Sends the water tumbling. It resists – for now.

I know a secret place where I sit and watch it gleam.

27 August 2022

Text and photographs by Jonathan Dunne, photograph selection by Tsvetanka Elenkova.

Vitosha is the mountain that lies just south of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.