#RivetingReviews: Maria Jastrzębska reviews MAGNIFICATION FORTY by Tsvetanka Elenkova

Blake told us we could see the world in a grain of sand. Tsvetanka Elenkova invites us to explore entire landscapes, deserts, animals, shadows and snow in the close-ups created by her poems. Throughout the first section of her collection, Magnification Forty, entitled ‘Samples’, she examines the unevenness of things, both everyday and grandiose, the reefs, fissures, wounds carried. It is not only the surfaces of the material world we encounter in such magnification but the nature our own perception. “You piece together the pieces / and understand how little / darkness really is” she writes in the poem ‘CHOCOLATE, dark’.

There are constant shifts in perspective from the everyday to deeper, ever more mindful, emotional and spiritual encounters. A grandmother’s spittle, purity in opposition to pain, a fingernail, a rose’s thorn – in all her examining of the universe, Elenkova is always flicking back and forth between vastness and miniaturisation as she maps the world. In the poem ‘Earth’ we see her ars poetica itself: “the whole falls apart crumbles separates / into lots of hearts / the small and the big are inter linked.” While gazing at tiny particles, the act of writing itself becomes “a sword in the hands of Archangel Michael.” Her translator Jonathan Dunne conveys Elenkova’s paradoxes to us with deftness. 

In the second section of the book, ‘Waterfalls’, Elenkova takes up the immense challenge, for any artist, of describing the movement of water, capturing that which defies capture, that which is never still – a metaphor surely for creative practice itself. There are life-drawing-like depictions, full of faces and stone, which echo the paradoxes of the first section. “Each geometric shape / yearns towards you from the icon lamp,” she writes in ‘Bela Voda.’ These waterfalls are from her native Bulgaria, and from Greece. She references painting (Turner, Soulange et al), the lives of Christian martyrs, Orthodox icons, Bulgarian legend, deepening our spiritual connection to each place of water.

The crack which passes
between your two eyes and makes them uneven
is a contour of her body
which continues above your head
in a flame blessing

[from ‘Kademliya’]

In the final, third section of her book, ‘Directions’, Tsvetanka Elenkova writes of different places she has visited from Rome to London to Berlin, the island of Skopelos, commune of Lodève. Here, though no longer employing her microscope to explore, Elenkova focuses with such clarity and imagination that the distinction between viewer and object begins to dissolve. I was especially drawn to her ‘Skopelos’ sequence where we encounter water again this time dipping into the sea in a way that will resonate with all swimmers and ending with the words of a Serbian monk:

The way you are with a snorkel
under the water
to let your cares
pass over you
lightly lick your forehead
so you barely notice

A deified mind moves in God
like a fish in water

Reviewed by Maria Jastrzębska

MAGNIFICATION FORTY

by Tsvetanka Elenkova

translated by Jonathan Dunne

published by Shearsman Books (2023)  

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Poet, editor and translator, Maria Jastrzębska was born in Warsaw, Poland and came to England as a child. Her most recent, fifth full length collection is Small Odysseys. She was the co-founder of Queer Writing South and South Pole and co-edited Queer in Brighton (New Writing South 2014) with Anthony Luvera. Her poetry features in the British Library project Poetry Between Two Worlds and her drama Dementia Diaries toured nationally to sell-out audiences with Lewes Live Literature. Maria Jastrzębska co-translated Elsewhere by Iztok Osojnik with Ana Jelnikar (Pighog Press 2011). Her translation of Justyna Bargielska’s selected poems The Great Plan B was published by Smokestack Press in November 2017.

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