Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Ice and Flowers - Bulgarian Poet Ivan Davidkov

The poetry of Ivan Davidkov, Bulgarian writer and artist, fuses balladic lyricism with philosophical and spiritual themes, and, according to Simeon Hadjikosev of Sofia University, The many images in his verse - landscape, to do with things - are built upon the principle of dematerialisation and disembodiment of the image.

The Mirror

The mirror is an abyss.  In it
images quietly sink
without our hearing a sound, without our seeing
the rippling of running waves.
There, on the bottom, lies hidden
the secret soul of our house,
where we are born, where others sometimes
lived before us.

No matter whether we cry or pray,
they won't float up again
out of the wordless depth.
And cracked by our wrinkles,
silvery like morning mist,
the mirror keeps its silence.

Davidkov was born in 1926, in the town of Zhivovtsi, in the Bulgarian region of Mihailovgrad, and is the author of many works of poetry and prose.  His translator, Czech chemist Ewald Osers, who died in 2011, was born a century ago this year, and in the preface to Davidkov's Fires of the Sunflower (Forest 1988) described Davidkov's published works as related by subject, by reflection and by memories, which combine to present a colourful picture of life in a kind of dialogue about happiness, beauty, and the meaning of human existence.  Characterized by a sense of detail, their pictorial elements are drawn from nature. It would be difficult to separate Davidkov the prose writer from Davidkov the poet.

 I'll go and see the chestnut trees in bloom
along the banks of the Berkovitsa,
their blossom-spikes like starfish on the coast of Brittany
lie, mother-of-pearl-like, on the sea-wet meadows
when winter's floods receded but its spume still gleams
among the mountain ridges.
(From Prelude and Fugue)

Osers goes on to explain how Ivan Davidkov is not only a writer but also a painter of some distinction - a fact that emerges from his diction, no matter whether he writes philosophically reflective poems, or love lyrics, or playfully aphoristic short poems suggestive of miniature paintings.


Indeed, within the broader theme of a seasonal worldview, the details of natural imagery - real or imagined - pepper Davidkov's poetry with splashes of complicated colour - the suggestion of Cohen's poetry strikes me, in these lines from Prelude and Fugue:
I have received your letter from Babylon-
and as the lizards darted
before you over the fragments of granite and glory,
so do my eyes now dart about the roughnesses
of words.

Mirrors and reflections are prevalent:

I sought my image in the looking glass
and my glance wandered over its rim,
anxious that it should not spin off
to its yawning whirlpools.
I saw reflected there the vast blue sky,
I saw the eyes, too, that were piercing it
and birds were flitting through the slits,
I saw the golden cloudlets,
and the light was flashing from vast boundless meadows,
so clearly ready for the reaper's sickle.

as are portraits of fantastical folk, such as the unnamed artist in his threadbare scarf, whose simple lifestyle serves as an example of aestheticism:

In winter his little window was a murky patch.
And when outside he heard the blizzard raging
he'd light one sun upon his canvas
so it should warm not just his hands, but the trees.
Where had he got it from? The angry sky?
No, that  is black, an icy wind is dropping its needles.
He must have carried it hidden in his cap,
the way young boys do a fledgling sparrow
fallen from its nest.

and the tragic clown who ran at midnight to inform me that / the swallows had returned that evening, but of whom:

no-one rang at the hour when he walked
the narrow tightrope of his final breath
and when below his feet he clearly felt
not the brilliant vastness of the circus ring
but the infernal abyss in the eys of those
whom he was leaving behind.

The exchange of death and birth is one which occurs throughout Davidkov's work, and is often accentuated by the imagery of returning birds, as above and as in The Return of the Storks:

The storks arrived at early dawn
over our valley
not yet warmed by the sun.
From the purple Berkovitsa hills
the light was pouring
on their enormous flock.

The windows of the houses shone like fire.
People awoke and stepped outside
to see if they could recognize their storks.
Were they the same?
Even the telephone wires sang with joy.

This beautiful poem, almost Biblical in tone and symbolism,traces a homecoming through the eyes of both the birds:

The silver wreaths of wings
above smiles
above poplars
above white paths -
and then two storks flew down;
they'd found their old nest.

and the villagers below, who witness the returning storks:

cap in hand
the people stood,
leaning on their ploughs,
leaning against young trees.
Until that day you'd never seen them
so radiant, so inspired.

The morning had entranced them with a magic
which lent their souls a splendour of their own.
The valley silently observed a liturgy
that no religious creed have ever known.

Avian imagery flows richly through the work of this poet highly attuned to the natural world, and also to a sense of magic.  Consider the titles of some of his books fro the 1980's: The Eyes of a Bird (1983)  The Flight of the Starlings (1987)  but also The Ruler of Nocturnal Suns.  Simeon Hadjikosev suggests that Davidkov's poetry is more magical than his paintings, and that many of his evocations recall the ghostly landscapes of the Symbolists:

The flowers of the sunflower fields are dead.
Crows are the black charcoal with which autumn draws
the portrait of the rain on barren limestone cliffs.


How much of Davidkov's darker poetry is reflective of the political conditions under which he lived, and how far its sombre imagery was drawn from somewhere deeper within the poet's psyche, cannot be known, but undoubtedly the strain of living under Communism must surely be a factor behind the Orwellian elements of lines like:

If you attempt to heat your house with thoughts
you'll hear the ice tinkling in your kettle.
If you attempt to light the walls with memories of sunshine
you'll see the spider's dream gently rocking
in all the corners.Clouds will walk
along the words you've written
between the blackbird's voice and the banshee's
howling over the chimney.

But at the same time, the sadness inherent in so much of Davidkov's verse seems rooted in the personal rather than political, perhaps in bereavements or the losses of relationships:

I'll make myself a Trojan horse 
from the pitch-covered planks of sunken ships,
from my grief over lost friends,
from memories of markets and of ports
which wound me with their jagged edges
like a splintered mosaic

and is sometimes cast in comic mould, with a painter's eye for satirical detail:

This then was the spring's goodbye to us?

I saw the gardener walking
among the flowering bushes, secateurs in hand.
A moment later the most beautiful rose
dropped under the merciless steel,
curly wig tumbling
like the head of Marie Antoinette
under the clank of the guillotine.


According to Hadjikosev, in the mature poetry of Davidkov, hovers the halo of an unconquerable nostalgia, arising from the consciousness of the brevity and unrepeatability of human life.  The poet is aware that he is drawing with frozen breath upon heavenly silk, that what is created by man is impermanent and precisely for that reason is so tragically sublime.  

That Night

That summer day sky was like a bosom of fireflies
that night when I loved you,
when we were holding hands,
and walking through the dark forest
seemed more like crossing a ford in heaven,
and underneath our feet, tottering, moved
Perseus and Andromeda - 

where now
the laundered clouds are hanging
on the line strung up by a vanished aircraft
and only the yellowed grass
gives out sweet perfume to the sky
which - or was it just a dream? -
is like a bosom full of fireflies.

The indefinable nature of love, and the deep pains of parting and distance, are articulated in poems like the beautiful If Sometimes in the Night, which, again, reminds me in its understated tenderness, of some of the early poetry of Leonard Cohen:

If sometimes in the night a late wind
awakes you and you hear my voice
like the deaf foghorn of a ship
lost in an infinity,
know then that you have not set out alone
from the bare shore of your night:
I'm looking for you
just to hear your breath-
and nothing more.

while elsewhere, Davidkov knits together the pathos of the human heart, its longings and losses, with an embrace of something Universal, a spiritual awakening which unites human love with an awareness of our place in the ecological and philosophical plane of existence.  As Hadjikosev says, Spiritual and physical, material - bodily and intellectual - continually flow together and change places in the colour-impressionistic amalgam of his poetry.  From this maybe comes the feeling of a deeply pantheistic sense of the world of the poet:

At the tormenting hour She will come to mould
our faces out of clay and out of ash.
And streams of rain will wash our eyebrows, eyes and lips -
and we'll resemble roadside stones 
or clods of earth turned over by the plough.

Ultimately, I find Davidkov a poet of joy.  There is always a hint that, whatever dark dawns might be depicted in his harsher illustrations of a closed or deathly world, other, brighter realities hover on horizon.  Whether etching the obituaries of imagined artists,  painting serene visions of the cathedral of limetrees in blossom, celebrating longed-for homecomings, or foretelling of redemption, and of new beginnings, there is an undercurrent of regrowth, love, and hope:

I've picked up all the ice-flowers
from the window - and in my vases they
now gleam like silver and peacocks' tails,
waiting for you to come. Send me
a message by a bird, by a sunray flashing
through bare-branched poplars

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