Non-Place and Place: “Remnants of Another Age” by Nikola Madzirov
February 2, 2014 4 Comments
Nikola Madzirov was born in Strumica in south-eastern Macedonia in 1973 and over the past few years has come to be recognized as “one of the most powerful voices in contemporary European poetry”, according to the blurb of Bloodaxe’s collection of his work, Remnants of Another Age. That might sound bombastic, but they may be right.
The book, which comes as a bilingual Macedonian-English edition (more on this later), has some breathtaking lines, like these in “Everything Is a Caress”:
The snow was folding its wings
over the hills, I was laying my palms
over your body like a tape measure
which unfolds only along the length
of other things.
The repetition of “folding” links the simile of the tape measure, which fulfils its purpose as it unfolds, not just to the speaker’s hands, but also to the snow, which too is nothing, until it falls on other things.
Or here, in “I Don’t Know”:
I dream of a house on the hill of our longings,
to watch how the waves of the sea draw
the cardiogram of our falls and loves,
where our emotional ups and downs are not just the regular scheme of things, but something that can be charted and is, like the waves, “influenced by atmospheric conditions” (a line from another poem, “Thoughts on the Weather”).
Madzirov’s is not overtly a poetry of place—nowhere and no one is named. At the same time, there is often little agency to the poems on the part of the speaker—it is often an unnamed “someone” who is acting. But for Madzirov, whose family were refugees in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), place and history lie scattered throughout the collection—and it’s worth remembering that Macedonia is the place in Europe where all history, even antiquity, is polemical. Place, history, the imprints of memory: these are the remnants of another age.
Because it’s a bilingual edition, I found myself tempted to look at the Macedonian, as although I can’t read it (and when I was there, could barely order a coffee), I can just about decipher it the words with help from Russian, the English parallel text, and some guessing. Despite the paper costs, all translated poetry should be printed like this, no matter how narrowly-spoken or different the language is: at its most superficial, it is aesthetically pleasing; at its deepest, it can add enormously to how the reader understands the work. (As an aside, when I quote Macedonian here, I’ll be transliterated it into the Latin alphabet.)
As I made my way through the Macedonian, certain words kept reappearing, like distant, truth, shadow, time, or someone, or age (of the title, that can also mean century or lifetime—it’s worth bearing in mind this broader meaning), and then more concrete words, like wall, stone, house or building. While it is never named, it’s in this way that that intangible Other Place, whether historical or geographical, threads its way continually through the poems.
This displacement is also present in Madzirov’s similes, that just as much as they link two ideas, often seem to push against our preconceptions and set the two sides of the simile almost in contradiction to one another. In “After Us”, “Others’ pity will set out after us / like the moon after some wandering child”, pity is exposed as empty, distant and waning. In “When Someone Goes Away Everything That’s Been Done Comes Back”, the speaker says, “I live between two truths / like a neon light trembling in / an empty hall” and truth is either the darkness on either side of the lamp, or the off or the on of its neon flicker—it is either darkness or two contradictory states. Or there is this simile from “I Don’t Know”, which appears to be from quantum mechanics: “…, we are alive / like a thermometer that is precise only when / we look at it”—are we only alive when we are being observed? And being observed by whom?
If the similes are displacement, then repetition is the trace of another age: they sit within the poem and draw the reader back to what has already been said. Many of the poems in the collection use anaphora in particular: for instance, in “I Don’t Know”, all but one stanza begin with the Macedonian word далечни (dalečni, distant). And in the same poem, an enigmatic question and its answer are repeated:
The distant reality every day questions me
like an unknown traveller who wakes me up in the middle of the journey
saying Is this the right bus?,
and I answer Yes, but I mean I don’t know, …
This repeats in the last stanza as:
The distant moment every day asks me
Is this the window? Is this the life? and I say
Yes, but I mean I don’t know, I don’t know if
birds will begin to speak, without uttering A sky.
The structural differences between English and Macedonian can make it hard to see that the repetition is in the questions, and well as the answers: in the original, all three are identically phrased: “Tоj li e avtobusot?” / “Toj li e prozorecot? Toj li e životot?” Assuming that “right” is understood in the original, the mental presence of the Other Place is constantly questioning the speaker’s faithfulness, but the very question and the distance is what causes the speaker to doubt himself.
One of Madzirov’s most effective uses of repetition is in the closure of poems, where it underlines the helplessness and impotence on the part of the I or the we of the poem. One example is “It Was Spring”, where after the “invader / burned the deeds to the land where we hunted birds”, Madzirov concludes with:
Mnogu nešta ottogaš go izmenija
svetot, mnogu nešta svetot izmeni vo nas.
Many things have changed the world
since then, the world has changed many things in us.
Macedonian word order is freer than in English and this makes it important that both clauses begin with “many things”, that most of the words are repeated and that “ottogaš” and “vo nas” have an assonant rhyme. Even though the first sentence seems to offer some kind of hope in that it’s impersonal and could conceivably (although it does seem unlikely) be positive, the second shuts it down, by framing the effects on “us” as an indirect consequence, making this “us” doubly impotent: “many things” (subject probably caused by the invader) change the world (direct object), which then changes us (indirect consequence). That we will move seems a mathematical formula and of little consequence to the invader of the poem.
Unsurprisingly, these consequences also affect our identity, especially in today’s footloose modernity:
Our e-mail letters cannot fade,
our addresses remain the same even when we run away from here,
from ourselves, from the wideness of our ancient dependence.
I saw someone else writing our names
on walls of fortresses and snow-covered basilicas.
The poem is called “Ruined Homes” and modernity here seems a threat to the identity that was built in those houses. Even as we become more mobile, are reachable everywhere and lose the connection to the land, part of us remains there. It’s unclear whether this “someone” “writing our names” has acquired the identity the speaker had, the identity that comes with the land, or whether, less innocently, this writing of names and creation of monuments is the final step in shutting the original inhabitants out of history by institutionalizing their absence in stone and sanitized artefacts, rather than in memory:
One day someone will fold our blankets
and send them to the cleaners
to scrub the last grain of salt from them,
will open our letters and sort them out by date
instead of by how often they’ve been read.
Nikola Madzirov, Remnants of Another Age / Остаток од друг век, Bloodaxe Books (UK, 2013)
- Watch Madzirov read some of his poems in English and Macedonian: http://vimeo.com/64131282
- Listen to Madzirov in conversation with Ilya Kaminsky on the Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audioitem/3384
- Read John Field’s review of Remnants of Another Age on Poor Rude Lines: http://johnfield.org/2013/09/22/nikola-madzirov-remnants-of-another-age/