Monthly Features: Two essays by Nikola Madzirov
Nikola Madzirov (poet, essayist, translator) was born in 1973 in R. Macedonia, in the family of war refugees from the Balkan Wars. His book Relocated Stone (2007) was given the East European Hubert Burda poetry award and the most prestigious Macedonian poetry prize Miladinov Brothers at Struga Poetry Evenings. Other awards include the DJS poetry prize in China; Xu Zhimo's Silver Willow Award for European poetry at King's College in Cambridge, UK; Studentski Zbor award for best debut in Macedonia and Aco Karamanov award for the book Somewhere Nowhere. The contemporary jazz composer and collaborator of Björk and Lou Reed, Oliver Lake, has composed music based on Madzirov's poems. Madzirov was granted several international fellowships: International Writing Program (IWP) at University of Iowa in USA; DAAD and LCB in Berlin or Marguerite Yourcenar in France. German weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" compared him to Tomas Tranströmer, while Pulitzer prize winner Mark Strand wrote: Madzirov's poetry is like discovering a new planet in the solar system of the imagination. His poetry has been translated into forty languages and his book in English, Remnants of Another Age, was published in USA, UK and Australia.
CITIES OF BIRTHS AND MEMORIES
"There is a nearby street forbidden to my steps"
Jorge Luis Borges
When I met Adam Zagajewski in Berlin a few years ago at the east side of the ruined wall of temporary partings and constant doubt, and when I pronounced in Macedonian the name of his native city as Lavov, he said that at that moment he became richer for one more name of his birthplace. I often question myself how many birthplaces should one have in order to be able to escape his own death or to escape the memory of cities where he lost someone? Many of my close friends mispronounce the name of my city as Strumisa, or Strumika, thus giving me a new birthplace based solely on the architecture of language and our consciousness. And when that other place is natural, when it is not situated in the houses of the past, then it is immeasurable (Gaston Bachelard). But is anyone able to construct a city with no houses of memories in it and with no monuments that exist just because of the tourist maps and the collective historical losses? If we look at photographs from our travels, we'll see that we always stand beside a monumental building or a square of historical significance. The least numerous in our albums are the photos of the houses in which we live and the spaces where the cities of our own ancestors and inheritors expand, slowly, like local cemeteries which in the course of time conquer the nearby hill. The world is big, but inside us it is as deep as sea, wrote Rilke. We travel through space, through new cities to escape the archaeological sites of our inconstancy. We inhabit the space between the monument and the moment, between the itinerancy and the eternity.
The cities of memories are built upon the foundations of our ruined personal longings and dreams. We can move in and out of them without breaking any agreements for restricted movement kept in the archives of any two countries at war. Escaping to those invisible cities of certainty, I found a shelter from permanent inner exile, a neat hotel room for a guest who does not understand the language of the country where he has arrived. This emotional nomadism can be the basis for a new architectonic harmony of the limitless spaces. Alain Bosquet moved the coordinates of the tangible by saying that the poet is in the city only to prove that the city itself is located somewhere else. And so by escaping towards something, not from something, the new cities open themselves, like the doors of a supermarket, abundant in everything except hopes with expired dates.
The city is our new nature, a new forest that does not bear fruit, a polygon of our mythical childhood and a mausoleum of all particular hopes and ambitions. Even today, if I throw down the toys that are still kept in a carton box from a used television set, I could construct a city with all its elements that keep it alive - small "police" cars, traffic lights, train station, a small house with a yard and a dog near the wooden fence. Roland Barthes says that the toy always signifies something and this something is always closely connected with society and is composed of either myths or the methods of the contemporary life of adults. And the city of adults is predictable and large - just large enough to trigger the children's urge for reconstruction and harmony.
Therefore, I am not sure whether I belong to my birth city that is a manifestation of some geographical constant or of a cultural variable. When I was a child, by the principle of semiotic reduction, my parents first taught me to pronounce the name of my street and house number so that if I lost myself in the womb of the city I would be able to tell people where I live. At that time the name of my city was not important at all. But then in my first journey outside the city, in my suitcase I placed all local legends and stories that are deeply connected with its presence in the atlases of collective memory. I accepted all undecipherable letters incised in the stones, all successful and unsuccessful tactics of Macedonian emperors, all contours of the Byzantine crosses and all taxes of Ottoman invaders...
Such a city of the past does not ever sleep. Even in the densest darkness, when there is no harvest moon, when there is no reflection of the snow, it is open for new inhabitants that never carry a key with them. It has always been my notion that new cities are born where streetlights begin. I could imagine each measurable space sink in the dark, even my room, but never the city. Streetlights enabled me to see what was on earth, but never what was in the sky. When all the lights are extinguished at the same time like candles from a birthday cake, then the center and the ghetto become one. At the end of that light, the streets of longing for new paths begin. I have so many birthplaces; I wish I had as many places to die.
HOME – A PLACE TO BE LEFT
‘When returning home, you return to self’
True nomads build the homes before they leave them. The same is true for birds, lovers, and construction workers, who sleep on-site, until they finish building the home that does not belong to them. Only he who builds and leaves knows the secret of historical non-belonging, unlike those who build and then destroy, or the ones that move in and out. I would like to speak of leaving rather than living, as we often identify home through the prism of our own spatial impermanence, or by means of how genuinely our home leaves us, before we leave it. When birds leave their nests, they fly away; when people leave their homes – they remember.
Each house has its own foundations; it has its own walls and a roof to protect it from rain, stray bullets, and false prophets. All inherited fears and longings are conserved into it; all shared stories and traces from the past are inscribed on its floor-boards. The home is an architectural construction of our personal memories and a place to be left as soon as the sense of being abandoned settles within our mental space. In fact, being abandoned is the state of lack of memories, and the state of staying in a vast space that extends both our shadow and the echo of our own voice.
Lacking memory of our own nativity, we zealously remember our native homes, thus erasing the hospitals of our birth from the maps of mutual living places. Native homes cannot be built – they are inherited, so leaving them is more an act of initiation rather than nomadism. Gaston Bachelard says that - even with no memories - our native home (as a counter-point to a dream home) is physically engraved within us, and that it is a group of organic habits. And habits are the deadliest enemies of leaving, of love, and of ideological disobedience. Here on the Balkans, the elderly women cross themselves almost each night - before they go to bed - claiming to do this for a painless transition to another, permanent home. I could not understand their habit, but the desire for a painless passing away has stayed in my memory as a lead weight on a scale, to balance the pain of birth.
Czeslaw Milosz wrote that, after leaving his socialist homeland, he felt like a person who could move around freely, but wherever he went he carried with him a long chain that was always pulling him to the same place - it was primarily an external chain, but it also existed within him. Regardless of all the imposed geopolitical fences, it is possible to escape ideology, as it is most often the antonym of memory and of present time, always offering a future only. And only false prophets together with traders of absolute truths are not able to escape a future. Homelessness occurs when we leave the places whose walls used to be thick enough for all the voices of collective happiness and of personal alienation. When we leave our home without turning back, then the very act of leaving becomes our home, while the rings of the lengthy chain remain tightly attached to us through the language of our mother, of childhood, through the sunrays falling upon the pillow in the nursery. In our memories, the walls of leaving are more real than the walls of living.
I often imagine a home that is never left. Its yard is fenced by the line of the horizon; it has high balconies with abandoned nests and dirty ashtrays; its windows uncover the dust of the city and the flickering lights of the TV set that someone forgot to turn off. I think about a home where one arrives and never leaves. A home that cannot be inherited. I think about the dynamic bond between the corporeality of the inhabitant and the geometry of space, about the length of thresholds and the area of desires. I think about the ‘refugees’ and their new, temporary homes that they supply with new insecurities and furniture arranged in the very same manner as the furniture of the home they have left. I think about all those who struggle to leave the life in their homes, those fortified altars of personal belonging.
I am an involuntary descendant of refugees, and an heir of temporal homes. I have not built a home, thus I have nothing to leave, even when I move my body-home from one place to another, from one geometrical truth to another.