Author of the Week / 25 August 2023

The war of silence – the poetry of scars

Author of the Week: North Macedonia

When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed! 
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.[1]
(Constantine P. Cavafy, Walls)

It is hard to find silence even at funerals or behind the blurry windows of the city libraries and in all the falling asleep rituals. All formed identities have their own history of silence. In some regions in Latin America, when a child is born, the first thing they say to him when he starts crying is, ‘Be ready to keep silent in this world, to be patient.’ I used to live in a house where the words of three different generations fought for status – while some spoke of memories, a voice from the other side of the wall was full of expectations. In that daily war with bayonets of words, only listening to the music of Arvo Pärt or Coltrane with the volume turned up opened a loud space for the silence of thinking. I continue to live in temporary homes by crossing the borders of countries whose languages I dont understand, by developing memories I will never return to. I take photos of the rooms I leave instead of the monuments around the hotel. All the postcards transmit silence together with the frozen images of squares, monuments, human faces. ‘All deserted city corners, all sounds and things still have their own silences, just as, at midday in the mountains, there is the silence of hens, of the axe, of the cicadas.’[2] For the Balkan people, escaping is more a question of measuring time, rather than one of spatial absence. After so many wars, I believe more in the silence of people than in the loudness of monuments. Ingeborg Bachmann wrote: ‘The medal is awarded / when nothing more happens, / when the artillery falls silent, / when the enemy has grown invisible.’[3] The poet does not need a medal for telling the truth. The silence of peace is sufficient. During wars and dictatorships poetry needs to become a powerful fragility, a sign outside the instruments of power.

I am a descendant of Balkan Wars refugees who went on the move a hundred years ago, who used to keep silent hidden in the cellar in order to survive. Silence was their mother tongue. I was eighteen when new wars started in Yugoslavia. On my bed, the dogs of war put uniforms on my pyjamas of innocence. One political system was replaced by another one. Both changes came at the same time, destroying the glass walls of my childhood and the thick curtains of promised certainty. Suddenly, the authors that were on the reading lists in schools were declared either enemies of the state or classics, and that meant only one thing: no one was reading them anymore. I had to cut the umbilical cord myself, integrating into the broad framework of European literature. Since then, my entire life turned into an escape – from something terrifyingly unknown towards something appealingly unknown. I trust more the scars of time on our skin than the patterns on the uniforms. When a soldier gets killed, another takes his uniform and throws away all of his family photos and letters from the pockets. The silence of the dead is louder than the shout of the murderer. I only repeat the story of my ancestors who had to leave their homes because of the war, but also took a key with them that would unlock the gates of memory, and nothing else. I do not take the keys with me when travelling. Language has remained my only threshold of certainty. I often remember the words of Charles Simic who said that he wasn’t sure if being a refugee made him a poet, but it made him the kind of poet he is.[4] The Balkans are full of various official truths and the intensity of personal pain is similar across borders. The official wars exist so that the heroes can be counted. In all the unofficial wars there are only victims. I feel as a silent self-refugee in a time of imposed peace. The Cold War only taught me to seek warmth between two silences. I do not dream of a world changed by poetry, I would rather talk about worlds built by poetry. In the past few years a couple of anthologies have been published focusing on exile. It has happened that in the name of worldly omnipresence, a poet – covered with the shadow of instant despair – may be writing about tents full of the homeless while watching the news sitting in a warm soft armchair. If you steal a stanza, the law sets upon you. But what if you steal someone’s pain?

I could smell the open wounds of war by reading the postcard poems found in the pocket of Miklós Radnóti, by memorising the lines of Ukrainian poets in the silence between two heartbeats and bombs. Just as defeat or victory cannot be defined in military terms as Darwish pointed, the universality of words cannot be measured in the number of shares and likes, but in the depth of the scars on the fragile body of remembrance. Poetry remembers the scars of the forgotten ones. Poetry travels slowly and quietly as a feather among ruined buildings, it wanders far in time, like a letter without an address on the envelope.

When I pronounce the word Silence, / I destroy it.[5]
(Wisława Szymborska, ‘The Three Oddest Words’)

Silence as a simple absence of words scares me, since in the beginning it was not the word – it was the breath. Stockhausen said that there was no absolute silence in the world, and that he wanted to colour the silence, ‘always trying to expand the relationship between sound which is absent and sound which is heard’.[6] When I see a shadow, I dont think of the lost light, but of the tangible and beautiful shape of the object. Silence is the light that shapes the body of the words. The poet makes the sounds visible and turns them again into stillness through the very act of creating. Deleuze says that it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves, but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say.[7] Writing poetry is travelling through the dark veins of words’ imperfections, discovering that silence and darkness are the two halves of the core of the universal code of understanding. In silence all sounds are equal, in the darkness all objects are the same. Music has its own body, just as the text has its own voice. Coltrane wanted to show the divine to people in a musical language that transcended words. I used to think, as an unskilled messenger of my own thoughts, that by using words I could improve on silence. Dickinson wrote: ‘Silence is infinity.’[8] My grandmother used to tell me that only when we die, we become infinite. She believed that when we all stopped talking at the same time during supper and an unpleasant silence filled the room and our bodies, an angel glided above the table.

History put an equation mark between life and words, since silence is linked to the symmetry of graves. Yet it is over graves that one cries the loudest. As children we needed loneliness to make those weird silent faces of freedom in front of the mirror. We used to think it was an essential personal act, and only later we came to know that in fact we had all done the same thing. The world was being revealed to us when we started following the echo of individual truth by disclosing our secrets, carefully, fearfully, like the first steps of a stoned dog. Yet it is the act of creating that brings poetry to the spring of personal truth, to the depths of time outside of the calendar. Writing poetry is building a new language where silence starts, it is the quiet death of the fear of dying. Poetry is the beautiful and patient falling of the sand in the sandglass, rather than a loss of time.

Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; 
by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world…
(Susan Sontag, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’)

Tearing the pages may still be the most powerful audible manifestation of the author’s fight against self-censorship, while the burning of books in the squares reminds us of the dramatic end of an ideology. Now, at the push of a button, worlds and promises can silently disappear. Because of the shortage of paper during the siege of Sarajevo, many poets wrote on serviettes and toilet paper, both easily perforated by the pen, just as easily as the bullets went through their bodies. No time to change your written words, to change the echo of the silence travelling to the beginning of the world. Under such circumstances, the only revision one can make is the revision of ones own history, of that which has never been said nor written. The act of creation in the face of war does not arise out of inherited fears. It comes about when one creates a new language to speak of the loudness of the world with silence, like a bird which foretells a bombardment by going mum. Those who mystify the act of writing would say that the poet needs chains to speak about freedom or that a bird needs to be in a cage in order to sing about the sky. In both cases, a romantic distance is born that cannot break the chain links and cage bars. My father spoke of his time in the army much more often than he spoke of the time he spent with his fears and loves. He spoke wearing a uniform of shared pain, and I could see the tattoos of absence in his eyes. ‘The bullet I fired / during the great war / went around the globe / and hit me in the back,’[9] wrote Zbigniew Herbert in ‘A Small Heart’. It is the same with the words of historically shaped hatred. A silent live bird next to the dead body of a soldier or a dead bird in the palm of a crying child represent the ultimate death of freedom.

In times of imposed silence during dictatorships and wars, the poet has the right to the freedom of internal silence, the right to hear the language of his own blood, to take a breath before releasing the first word from the scars. The silence of oppression doesn’t kill the words, it stops the breathing. Bei Dao writes that freedom is nothing else but the distance between the hunter and the hunted.[10] When writing you are both the silent hunter and the beautiful prey, while poetry is the terribly close distance we call freedom.

(These thoughts have existed since I uttered my first word and were reshaped at MacDowell and Yaddo, US 2023)


[1] Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

[2] Walter Benjamin, ‘Marseilles’.

[3] Ingeborg Bachmann, ‘Every Day’, translated by Peter Filkins.

[4] Charles Simic, ‘Why You Should Be an Immigrant, For the Sake of Your Writing Career’.

[5] Translated by S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh.

[6] Fragment from an interview. Iara Lee interviewed Stockhausen in Frankfurt in August 1997 for the Modulations.

[7] Gilles Deleuze: Negotiations 1972–1990. Translated by Martin Joughin.

[8] Emily Dickinson, ‘Silence Is All We Dread’.

[9] Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott.

[10] Bei Dao, from the poem ‘Accomplices’, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall.


Nikola Madžirov

Nikola Madzirov (poet, essayist, translator) was born in 1973 in Strumica, in the family of refugees from the Balkan Wars. When he was 18, the collapse of Yugoslavia prompted a shift in his sense of identity – as a writer he reinvented himself in a country which felt new but was still nourished by deeply rooted historical traditions. His poems have been translated into more than forty languages. For his 2007 book Relocated Stone he was given the international Hubert Burda poetry award for writers born in Eastern Europe, as well as the most prestigious Macedonian poetry award Miladinov Brothers at the Struga Poetry Evenings. Other accolades include the Studentski Zbor award for the best poetry debut and Xu Zhimo Silver Leaf award for European poetry at King’s College, Cambridge in UK. American composers Oliver Lake, Michael League, Becca Stevens and Du Yun have composed music based on Madzirov’s poems. He was granted several international fellowships: International Writing Program (IWP) at University of Iowa; DAAD in Berlin; Marguerite Yourcenar in France and Civitella Ranieri in Italy. He edited the Macedonian edition of the Anthology of World’s Poetry: XX and XXI Century. He is one of the coordinators of the Berlin-based international poetry network Lyrikline (, and a 2023 member of the jury for the world’s largest international prize for a single book of poetry, The Griffin Poetry Prize.



Photo by Thomas Kierok