The road winds through the forest.

We are unsure about it at first.

Will it be passable? Potholed?

Where does it begin?

It begins, as all things do,

at a crossroads,

which is to say

it has no beginning.

It comes out of nowhere,

leads somewhere,

but it doesn’t then end

– it is we who leave it.

The road continues through the trees.

Their shadows lie across the road

like corrugated iron,

a cattle grid,


They resemble the bars of a prison,

but they are just that

– shadows of trees

that from time to time

morph into potholes.

I steer carefully

to avoid sudden disappointment,

ranging from third to fourth

to neutral.

At one stage a golden leaf

has an unexpected burst of enthusiasm

and jangles (like your bracelets)

across the road,

reminding me of destiny.

Are we just Hardy’s playthings?

I have a different view.

Nothing begins or ends with us

(like the road).

Things pass through us,

or we pass through them

(like the forest).

What counts is how we respond

(with love or hatred).

It is our response

that makes us human.

We stop for lunch.

The sun lights up a patch of ground.

To the south,

Rila stands majestic.

In the north,

the Old Mountain belies his years

and blushes.

Tenderness abounds.

Jonathan Dunne, 17 February 2023

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’:


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

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


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.

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


for Takis


– H2O –

in reverse reads


a combination of

Jesus Christ,

the Second Person of the Trinity (O2),

and the Holy Spirit

or breath (H)

I think about this

as I cut through

the water

on this our last morning

on Ithaca

The water is so still

that the morning pollen

is visible

– golden balls of fluff

sitting on the surface –

I head for the white buoy

on the left

then the orange

followed by three yellow

and one that is neither

orange nor yellow

but both

This is my length

my 50-metre swimming pool

my daily rule


– if you have been taught properly –

is a mixture of prayer

work and


You stretch out your arms

and turn your hands upwards

in prayer

You rotate your hands

in order to pull back

with strength

And your feet

have no solid base

they push against nothingness

they strike

into the void

Prayer, work and faith

In this watery version

of reality

all lines become crooked


– the masts of the yachts

reflected in the water,

the ropes of the buoys,

the ripples of the waves –

there is no such thing

as a straight line,

which makes a mockery

of our passion

for laying claim

The buoys are like jack-in-the-boxes

on their springs

each coil

an individual ripple

like the ones

I created

when I entered the sea

and made the sign of the cross

on the water’s surface

sending ripples outwards

an arc of delight

a shiver on the surface

of reality

I swim up and down

I can do no more than this

Sometimes the sea is agitated

like the last two days


seemingly it has a surfeit

of us

it does not want us

in it

I can do nothing about

these circumstances

that turn against us

except hope

and swim

(prayer, work and faith)

until I crunch my knees

– suddenly all physical –

in the vicinity of

the beach

Jonathan Dunne, 1 July 2022

Jellyfish Sting

I swam

not with Tom Cruise,

not with Anthony Hopkins,

not with Kim Kardashian

but with a cormorant


in flips and furls

seemingly oblivious of me

as I cut silently

through the water

I start the day like this

– arms outstretched,

hands upturned,

palms white,

seeking the sun

and then I draw

a long arc

like Moses

watching the Israelites

fighting the Philistines

keeping God on their side

The sea is

an altar cloth

– an antimension –

which I open

and wipe with a sponge

I begin my prayer

above the water

“Lord Jesus Christ,

have mercy on me”

After a while

my prayer descends

I no longer enunciate

the words

as my mouth goes

below water

My mouth is now

the underside of the boat

(I have learned

something of

the spiritual life)

But when I turn

the sea changes

a dark cloak

has been cast over it

with coruscating


that prevent me


below the surface

A sudden

searing pain

wraps itself

around my wrist

I thought pain

was supposed to be

a knife

a spit

something driven in

not something wrapped around

an embrace

an arm around the shoulder

and what to do

when the threat

is your milieu

– you cannot get out

of it

except by swimming

to shore

you cannot stay still

Prayer is tossed

to the four winds

safety is the priority


and as I head

to the shore

another hidden enemy

still has time

to give me

a parting shot

On the beach

I accost some locals

unsure as yet

what has attacked me


they say

Then how do you swim?

I ask

The old Greek lady

gazes at me

through dark tinted


I can just make out

the pearls

of her eyes

We look,

she replies

Jonathan Dunne, 28 June 2022

Polis Bay

We swam to the little beach

where the cold water

was like

petrol on the surface

or someone had

dropped a slush puppie

We decided to swim

across the opening of the bay

despite the danger of




Tsveta panicked

because of a jellyfish

hanging in midwater

observing us from

a floor or two

below the surface

The water where it

became dark blue

was soft and warm

like a baby’s blanket

– not at all

the feared monster –

soft rolls of water

lapping against our faces

occasionally slapping my cheek

spitting in my ear

but only when I looked around

Eyes front,

they seemed to be telling me

A catamaran had entered

the bay

a sporty speedboat

made a pretence of

doing the same

only to exit just as quickly

A tease perhaps of fate

a distraction

a nick in the skin

of faith

The fact is

not a single boat

endangered our crossing,

unusually so in a bay

where speedboats

can come and go

every two minutes

What helped us across, I think,

was the reference of the beach

– Takis’ hut,

the end of the sunbeds,

the end of the beach,

only the rocks left

that line of primitive writing

that runs all around

this island of Ithaca

where we have arrived

and left again

Familiar landmarks

were staging posts

(there is no halfway point

and, even if there were,

it would have moved

by the time you got

to it

in this fluid

version of reality)

We aimed for the rocks

– the horse (or lion),

the kiss,

the wombs with a cross

and more writing

in them –

the rocks did not move,

only the water went

from dark blue

to turquoise green

to lemony

and I realised

I felt no fear

– no fear of the deep,

so deep you could not

see the bottom,

the bottom – like stabilisers,

like a father’s steadying hand –

had been removed

and God laughed

– I heard him –

lighting for us

a row of scintillating candles

pinpricks of light

on the sea’s surface

that were mirrored

from where we had come

Jonathan Dunne, 27 June 2022

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