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