“History is the first border I have to cross”

Remnants of Another Age, Nikola Madzirov, Bloodaxe, £9.95. , translated from the Macedonian by Peggy & Graham Reid, Magdalena Horvat & Adam Reed
reviewed by Fiona Moore

I haven’t belonged to anyone for ages
like a coin fallen from the edge of an old icon.
I am scattered among the strict inheritances and vows
behind the blinds of drawn destinies.
History is the first border I have to cross

These are the first few lines of ‘Revealing’. The bardic, dream-like voice and disembodied perspective are typical. So is the way the poem seems to float from one image to the next. There might be eight here, in 16 lines (though any demarcation is subjective), often original to a British ear – the poem ends:

only childhood is like honey
that never lets anything leave a trace in it.

Certain images recur throughout the book and acquire symbolic weight. Some seem to bring folklore with them – such as feathers, fishermen, waves – which can produce a Chagall-like effect, including when they are twisted in new directions: “a rare bird / from the other side of a banknote” (‘Flying’). Satellites, phone boxes, diggers, pilotless aircraft, or a lover’s hair in the waste-paper basket, blend in. Each poem unfolds with its own combination of images; the effect is kaleidoscopic, or like lifting the corners of a paper fortune-teller. Language, imagery and the underlying thought and themes are all striking enough to draw the reader further and further in, without any sense of monotony or excess.

Houses feature throughout, though not representing home and security. They can be transitory, as in ‘The Shadow of the World passes over my Heart’:

With hands parted and fingers joined
I indicate a roof.

The speakers of the poems often seem to be in transit too, or in flight; and many houses are in ruins. (Some passages remind me of Calvino’s Invisible Cities.) Macedonia itself may have escaped the conflict that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s; but Madzirov comes from a family of refugees from earlier Balkan conflicts. According to Carolyn Forché’s helpful introduction, his name comes from a word meaning ‘people without a home’. In ‘Home’,

I lived at the edge of the town
like a street lamp whose light bulb
no one ever replaces.
Cobwebs held the walls together,
and sweat our clasped hands.
I hid my teddy bear
in holes in crudely built stone walls
saving him from dreams.

The manuscript of this poem, which I remember Madzirov reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last November, is reproduced in a frontispiece. Remnants of Another Age is bilingual throughout – anyone who can read Cyrillic script and understands a Slav language will be able to get something out of the Macedonian text opposite its English version. The quartet of translators seem to have kept close to the original, and the tone and style of the translations is uniform. Madzirov writes (so far as I can tell) in free verse, with what appears to be fairly straightforward lineation, rarely heavily enjambed. His response to conflict and displacement is not fractured but a lyrical bringing-together of disparate elements.

The poems cross history’s border with ease – as did the events of the break-up of Yugoslavia. They feel timeless and, mostly, placeless; the symbols are all the place that is needed. When reading I find it hard not to have Bosnia, Kosovo etc constantly in mind, but also Syria and the Congo. But anyone who has visited Skopje may at once understand that ‘The Hands of the Clock’ refers to the earthquake that devastated Skopje in 1963; the station clock still stands at the fatal moment.

Try to be born
like the big hand after midnight
and the seconds will overtake you at once.

Madzirov clearly owes a debt to East European forerunners such as Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub or Wiesława Szymborska, though his often elegiac tone is very different; he can be epigrammatic and surreal but is always diffuse, not sharp or satirical. The blurb says he’s been compared to Tomas Tranströmer, which works – they both combine precision with a sort of bardic distance. Remnants of Another Age belongs in such company. This is a book that will last.

Fiona Moore

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