On the fourth floor of the National Museum
of Natural History, leaves and stems and dried
flower heads of native plants are arranged with pins,
coded and labelled, on painted boards – Verbena
officinalis, Adonis vernalis. Some
are as old as I am, all colour drained out of them
as they dessicate and curl. But there is beauty
in their withering, as if these were the bones
of Bulgaria’s flowers, their skeletons. Inside
their glass cases, they tell of loss – and what heals,
what’s worth preserving. Many I recognise, stirred by
a ghost of blue or an elegant thorn, old friends –
Centaurea cyanus, our cornflower,
and Leonurus cardiaca, motherwort.
Frosted panes diffuse the brunt of the sun. Silence
plays across the chessboard floor. Other visitors
prefer the drama downstairs of bats and bears,
tigers and eagles, in stricken poses stilled
according to a taxidermist’s whim. Pilgrim
here, I’m more moved by this room of flowers than
the Russian church next door, for all the almond-eyed saints
blessing its walls. I’ve come to ask not for my own soul
to be saved but these tissue refugees, precious
plants – their natural physick, an esperanto
of seed, rib, heart and vein – Laburnum vulgare,
Carlina acanthifolia. Hear my confession,
my sins: irredeemable gravity, this passion
for what can’t be bought or sold, a faith in silence.
Another display, devoted to mountain plants,
shows four Vitosha tulips clinging to what’s left
of their green and gold. A recent addition – faint
sign someone still thinks they’re worth saving: more
hope in a speck of pollen than our whole poisoned
anthropocene world. Trollius europaeus.
Today they can’t help looking like an epitaph.
As I leave, descend, all the creatures in the ark
follow me, eyes black with hunger, blame. Beneath
my feet, great cracks in the marble floor are spreading;
a deep fault that can only widen and slide right
open, taking us all down with it – animal,
vegetable and mineral, the country’s biggest
ammonite and its tiniest flake of stolen moon.
9th July 2016
On Nasturtium Street
July, behind the school
no one enjoys
the shade of the chestnuts
conversations in the garden –
the past is inside
a wall of crooked stones
supports a line of box
my aching back
no cry of cicadas
just the sound of a baby
the only bloom
on next door’s patch –
an abandoned parasol
concrete tiles, concrete bricks
a shoot of ivy on a trunk –
is it strong enough?
Linda tells us
about 24 hour poetry
the plot of the clouds thickens
new grass comes in squares
slugs and ladybirds
trees in the yard
nature constrained –
a human soul in the world.
A 9-verse ‘simultaneous renga’
in the Literature & Translation House,
Latinka Street, Sofia,
on 27th July 2016.
Unusual to work with a group of folk for whom English isn’t their first language writing in English in their own country – hence the impromptu/simultaneous nature of this renga and the three-line verses throughout. Everyone responded to the space and wrote their own verse and then we worked on the editing of the whole piece together. It was a great chance to share the renga form in a country where it is unknown and a lovely way to get to know more people there interested in writing and poetry.
Also, a sort of blessing for the Literature House, which is in the middle of renovation and expanding into its wonderful role as a sanctuary and resource for writers and translators from all over the world. It’s on Latinka Street, which means Nasturtium in English! We also had in our midst a Geranium (Zdravka) and a Marguerite (Margarita)…
Photo by Zdravka Mihaylova
Saturday 30th July
Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.
There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.
You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.
A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.
After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.
Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.
Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).
In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.
Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.
Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.
Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.
It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.
As well as a library, it’s also an information point, which helps with the funding. Brainchild of the writer Alexander Shpatov – he told me they’re trying to figure out a way to create another one to house all the books they’ve acquired. The fee for joining is the donation of one book.
Sofia is a city of dramatic contrasts, history and geography under pressure from all quarters. It is sometimes confounding, sometimes beguiling. Now I’m back here after my time away on the coast, it’s strange to see how much it feels like ‘home’.
‘A city called Wisdom should float on clouds…
…Reality is never clear. It’s never final. You can always change it or see it in a different way.’
From ‘Solo’ by Rana Dasgupta
Today we had a tour of Vitosha Nature Park by the Director and an expert botanist called Toni. A massive pick-up truck transported us 2000 metres up within sight of the Black Peak.
1489 plants have been recorded at Vitosha – about half of the native Bulgarian flora and one third more than the whole of the U.K. flora.
Even at the highest point it was still hot but up there, the land was boggy, disguising the ever-diminishing reserves of peat. Small blue butterflies and big orange ones, bees and crickets were busy feeding on the nectar. We saw a couple of incredibly graceful kestrel practically floating in the enormous blue sky.
It’s not a problem untilI try to articulate my experience and find it impossible – words inadequate, the wrong medium. Birdsong might do it or some Scandinavian yoiking. All I know is when we came down my ears were full up and the city appeared too soon, also full, intoxicated with its own cacophony.