The International Literary Quarterly

November 2008


Gillian Beer
Amit Chaudhuri
Jonathan Dunne
Tsvetanka Elenkova
Ernest Farrés
Paul Giles
Mina Gorji
Geoffrey Hartman
Christopher Lane
Andrew Motion
Wendy O' Shea-Meddour
Tanyo Ravicz
Lawrence Venuti
Stanley Wells
Augustus Young

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 5 Guest Artist: Tom Phillips

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Poems by Tsvetanka Elenkova
Translated by Jonathan Dunne


Tsvetanka Elenkova’s father was the internationally renowned opera singer Stefan Elenkov, which means from an early age her ears were exposed to the intricacies of music. So the poems in this selection, all taken from her latest collection, The Seventh Gesture (Sedmiyat jest, 2005), resemble musical phrases, a baton or wand she picks up to conduct a motif, express magic, ending on the dominant (to our satisfaction) or hauntingly, in mid-air, like the carriage taking us from the opera house, which disappeared on the stroke of midnight and we came down with a bump. Poems that, when typed and revised, were all seven lines long, the eighty-four poems in the book (and the others). Not only that. The poems are actually seventy-seven, plus seven (an epilogue of the days of Creation). When I translated the poems on to the screen, they were also seven lines long, though Time and a choice of fonts has put paid to that. Our imagination is also piqued by the preponderance of the definite article, the rat-a-tat effect Bulgarian is famous for, leaving us to wonder what exactly these rivers, stones, were she refers to as the.


Tsvetanka Elenkova’s gesture is, while we observe the body, to show us a detail or, while we pick out a route, to take us down the middle (where we thought there was a barrier and we couldn’t go). This is what sets her poetry apart – three collections to date including The Stakes of the Legion (1995) and Amphipolis of the Nine Roads (1998) – and has led to her poetry being published abroad in fifteen countries, from Argentina to Hungary to Turkey.

Jonathan Dunne  


When you enter the track, keep going. Don’t stop at every station. Be like an express, like a water-slide, but not at its beginning and end. Your speed must be measured. That’s why there are tunnels, covered water-slides. So that you don’t fly off. Except for birds, only aeroplanes can fly – and spiders. Not trucks for lifting cars, but which drop from the ceiling to the floor of our rooms. They make their own tracks and these are invisible. That’s why we talk about flying. Even birds follow a path. In the scheme of the cosmos.



As the moon raises the oceans, so illnesses come with their younger sisters, pains. From beyond. Forces that gather our bodies, organs, beat them and lay them out again. As a tornado the fences, houses and trees. The following morning the earth dishevelled, the earth ill with measles. As winter grit dashes against our faces in summer. And they burn as in a fever. And then people go out, sweep the yards, wash their hands and build fires. This is how earthquakes happened. With a drill on the teeth and without anaesthetic.



Those severed heads in photos are not as horrific as in films. Although they’re of our nearest and dearest and we carry them in our bags, sleep with them on the bedside table, talk to them. In the gloom of the church they are not horrific either – they say it’s a holy place, far from all violence. It must be the lack of blood, but for the past and future. Only one with the crown of thorns and the closed-open eyes frightens me. Observing me from every angle. Only the woman who died in a car accident with a photo of Our Lady in her bag.



At the beginning of every film, as at the end, there are several black frames where it is joined to the cartridge and to the spool of the camera so that it can rewind, so that it isn’t exposed. While in the cartridge, the whole film is black. If it has advanced and you open it in the light, it also turns black. So sensitive on the road to Damascus or some other city. Colours are laid in the dark only with measured light. As much as filters through a straw hat or a pair of sunglasses. A flash. And when it’s processed we look at the pictures.



They say that windows are the eyes of houses but through some it’s difficult to look in. Rain-spattered, poorly washed, with frosted flowers or scratched. Others with paint from the frames. However, I remember one evening, when the curtains were not yet drawn, they became a mirror. What they reflected on the inside they let out, sleek and opaque with that indeterminate colour of a reptile’s body – or better of its skin, cast next to a stone. Like the difference in houses reflected in the water of a single harbour at two separate times.



There is a wire between the thighs and palate. A wire on which the organs are hung like laundry. Trousers with their two legs, corsets, handkerchieves of various sizes. In a gust of wind the line comes undone and they all fall down. There is a wire that conducts electricity, and at each end a small tongue. Sometimes there’s a short circuit and the electricity board sends someone out. They open the door of the meter affixed to the wall, check the seals, you pay up. If you do not wish to pay, they lay your wire underground.



The comb was indented from too much combing. Its teeth thinning. Because the hair was thick and difficult to comb. The hair was indented from too much combing. Its strands thinning. Because the hair was thick and difficult to comb. First the comb, then the hair were thinning. In the photograph they look so alike. Bone comb. Brown hair. Bunches at the side, white with age. Sharp-pointed with a parting in the middle, dividing them into two equal parts. Thick or sparse hair. Electrified. Like the comb.



Even if the gods are silent, I will trust you again. Like rape covering the fields of central Europe. Which no one sees or knows about, except for the farmers. But from an aeroplane, for example, you can sweep it all with a single glance. Even if the gods are silent, I will trust you again, like oil drawn from this same rape – which is not sunflower oil or olive or vegetable or palm. Even if I haven’t tasted it, I will take after it, its yellow blossom – which is not gold or sickness. So low but from above so lush.



In the time we are not together, time sinks. Like a pressed piano key. Even though it emits tone, music. In the time we are together, time is silence. You do not even press the right-hand pedal, which doesn’t give out a sound but sustains it. The time we are together is silent. Our hands interlocked as for prayer. You’ve already written the words I wanted to say to you. And I will write the words you have to hear. The time we are together is so silent in our absence you can hear only the rustle of one or two leaves.



As I see it, so scattered among us all – a suddenly broken necklace or spilt rice – so shattered – crystal on tiles, glass from a stone – I think that we serve it, not the other way round. Or it also served us, but before it dispersed – drops of mercury or sand. We took our temperature with it, decorated our shelves, our necks, ate. Now we sweep it up, wipe the floor and rinse the cloth. That’s all. ‘In any situation,’ I say to my son, ‘wear slippers and wash your hands. For a piece not to lodge in you.’ Of the Word.



I want you exhausted like a blue cloud which has just stopped raining, like a mature brandy, like a snail whose shell has been broken, which ever so slowly descends a steep slope, like laundry which dried long ago, like an old woman’s mottled hands, I want you exhausted like a blue cloud hanging over me, as I wait at a red light and a warm spring breeze rises, melting the snow, sifting the leaves, and we sit in short sleeves at the café tables, I want you exhausted like a sliced liver.



‘A tree can wither by the crown or roots,’ my grandmother used to say, seated in a wheelchair, sheltered from the sun and wind. Some people in their cars career into the wind and sun, sunroof open, windows down, hands hanging out, thumping music, wheelchair sent flying. Slam on the brakes, skid marks, blow a tyre. And yellow in the pants, around the mouth, on the nose, as if you had smelt a flower. ‘A tree can wither by the crown or roots,’ my grandmother used to say, ‘or by both at once.’



Like a sudden whirlwind, poems come. Like lightning far off in the sky but touching the earth. And always caught in a season. The flurry of leaves, the short circuit with the wet grass. You know that they’ve been from the swept yards, from the flattened clover, from the scent of coriander. Sometimes you can even trace their tracks – two skid marks from slamming on the brakes, two cart-ruts in the mud lane. And a procession of people at the rear. And poems have their funeral.



Some things are like the inner threads of a shirt – frayed because we’ve worn it a lot – and others like the outer – they don’t rub against our body but are damaged from the outside. Or when we wash them unreversed. We bear them, a sack of gifts or cross on the shoulder. Non-stop Christmases and Easters. We untie them but in fact they tie us, we hand them round but in fact they gather us, and vice versa, as if linked like a flowerpot with a pail of water when we’re not at home. Or the knots of winds that gather only on deck.



Sweetness is in the sun, bitterness in the soil. Like cucumbers, whose roots are not edible by late autumn. Unless you pickle them. Like apricots, peaches, cherries (those black ones) – what need of toffees? The taste of a tanned body before you’ve gone for a dip in the sea, before you’ve sweated on the road to the beach, early in the morning or in the gloaming, when you half-close your eyes, suck me, rend me with your fingernails, to get at the stone, this sun half over the hills.



We’re caves and run inside. Whether it’s raining out or dry. We always run inside. Even more forcefully when torrents come. The underground rivers are many, I cannot count them all. Every single one salty. As is clear from the stalactites and stalagmites. From the white rocks. Rocks, did I say? They shred like Easter cakes. Stratified. We run most in the corners, where the jaws, the clavicles, join. And this smell of dampness, and this blackness, only thin out at the entrance. Bristle, which you scrape off with a knife.



Inside I smell of the taste of earth. Earth that a child bites, having fallen flat on its face. Earth that in the east they sprinkled their heads with in sadness. Earth that alone flies in the mouth, left over from winter, from the dusty summer, in the first spring days. I refuse to swallow it. I’m even afraid. I spit at length in the street, a smoker, I spit, although it’s not the done thing. I rinse my mouth. But I still smell of earth, a scrap of food lodged between two of my teeth. I probe it at length with a toothpick, till it bleeds.


Translated from Bulgarian by Jonathan Dunne