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
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

Haven’t They Noticed My Absence Yet?

He fell asleep on the lilo

and woke up on the open sea.

How many missed calls are written on the phone buried in the sand?

Is there even a signal in this wild bay found after searching?

Will the sunset come quickly enough?

The burning on the open sea hurts more

than breathing in after laughter.

Haven’t they noticed my absence yet?

A friend affirms

the castaway has been saved already.

Terrible was the wandering sailor’s fate.

Haven’t they noticed my absence yet?

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

The Name

That is what the verse, my verse,

that of the chosen poets, is for.

To give eternity to things.

Herein lies, then,

its true birth.

Oh, the anguish of baptizing you,

waiting for the right word

to appear!

Followed by the pain,

that ardent pleasure

of making the waiting time eternal.

It will come without its name,

naked, through the silence.

Oh, the anguish of baptizing you,

the glorious miracle of finding your name!

Because there are words that lived

only a moment

(the font, in the shade,

the luminous altar,

the invested poet),

there are also dead words

and others that live alone.

And words that throb

in the blood of a priest’s fingers.

And words to close the eyes of the dying.

And light words

that are carried by the wind.

You can live…

The name that like a blanket

will cover your body awaits you.

It will get in your blood,

it will get in your life,

in your gestures and your hours.

It will watch over your sleep.

You will have the same fragrance as your name,

which, in silence,

will always be making you,

and will be the only part of you

you take from this world.

from Shadow on Air by Grass (1959) by the Galician poet Luís Pimentel, translated by Jonathan Dunne

Gallery

Frescoes

There are three major monasteries in Bulgaria: Rila in the south-west (a World Heritage site), Bachkovo in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains to the south, and Troyan in the Balkan Mountains in central Bulgaria.

But aside from these three major sites, there are many monasteries dotted about Bulgaria, in particular around the capital, Sofia, and many of these are inactive or abandoned. The monasteries around Sofia make up what is known as ‘the Little Holy Mountain’, a reference to the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos in Greece, famous for its monasticism.

You can be in Sofia and not realize that there is a different experience awaiting you only twenty minutes by car from the capital. Unfortunately, many people don’t get this opportunity to travel further afield or don’t know about these places. When you leave Sofia, you enter a different world, one of beautiful nature and one of great spirituality. We do not realize that nature has its own language and it takes time to begin to decipher it.

The Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova and I visited 140 monasteries from our home in Sofia during the period 2006-2012. The fruit of this pilgrimage was a series of ten essays by Tsvetanka contained in a book published in Bulgarian as Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root (Omophor, 2013), accompanied by more than a hundred of my photographs. These essays cover different feasts, from the Nativity of Christ to his Resurrection and Ascension. We have made a small selection of the best images to give people an idea of the riches hidden away in monasteries in Bulgaria that are often abandoned and can be difficult to get to.

The best example is Seslavtsi, a district of Sofia 12 km north-east of the capital. The frescoes here are breathtaking. They were painted by a famous iconographer, Pimen of Zograph, a monk from the Bulgarian monastery of Zograph on Mount Athos who was called by St George in a dream to return to his homeland and to build and paint churches, which he did at the start of the seventeenth century, four hundred years ago. The church containing these frescoes was used for target practice during Communism and is next to a uranium mine. The quality of the frescoes is so good that attempts have been made to cut them out of the wall and take them. The frescoes have not been restored, which gives them a lifelike quality. Once frescoes are restored, they lose something of their spontaneity and acquire a sheen.

Other monasteries containing high-quality frescoes in the environs of Sofia are Alino, a village on the south side of Mount Vitosha, the mountain that overlooks Sofia from the south; Eleshnitsa, a village 25 km north-east of Sofia; and Iliyantsi, a district of Sofia in the north.

Further afield, we find the church of Berende, a village 50 km north-west of Sofia in the direction of Serbia, overlooking a disused railway and with wonderful autumnal colours. Not far away from Berende is the village of Malo Malovo, a very difficult monastery to find. Our first attempt was unsuccessful. We were with our year-old baby and unexpectedly came across some young lads hanging out in the mountain. We caught the glint of metal, beat a hasty retreat and returned a week later, this time without our child, successfully locating the monastery, which was hidden away behind an elevation, perhaps deliberately if one considers that a lot of these monasteries were built during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria in the fourteenth-nineteenth centuries, when churches were not supposed to exceed the height of a man on horseback and so had to be dug into the ground.

To the north-east of Sofia, still in west Bulgaria, we find Strupets and Karlukovo. To the west of Sofia lies Bilintsi, on the road to Tran, which has a very attractive gorge. Here, we came across a monk who had taken it upon himself to paint over the old frescoes and who kindly offered us tea in the hovel he was living in (which had a large hole in the ground). Fortunately, his work of ‘restoration’ was incomplete and we were able to photograph some of the original frescoes.

South of Sofia, near the motorway to Greece, is Boboshevo, another excellent monastery for frescoes. And then in central Bulgaria, we have Arbanasi, a hill with old churches next to the medieval capital Veliko Tarnovo. One of these churches is the Church of the Nativity, an example of a building that is sunk into the ground, with sumptuous frescoes inside. A little to the north of Veliko Tarnovo, overlooking the river Yantra, with Holy Trinity Monastery on the other side, is Preobrazhenie (Transfiguration) Monastery, which has a wonderful Wheel of Life fresco on the outside.

These are only some of the monasteries we visited, but they are the ones with the most important images. Our aim in presenting these images is to show the high quality, the naivety (we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven), the deep spirituality of Bulgarian frescoes. In the West, our attention is drawn to the likes of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, considered a high example of religious art. Some of these monasteries – Seslavtsi, in particular – can quite rightly be included in the same canon of European religious art.

English and French editions of the book Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root are forthcoming. For more information, visit the book’s dedicated website.

Jonathan Dunne

(In the slideshow above, captions are by Tsvetanka Elenkova, photographs and translation are by Jonathan Dunne.)