The blood and poetry of non-belonging
Author of the Week: North Macedonia
Poetry and the experience of not belonging
‘Compared to the refined culture of sclerotic forms and frames, which mask everything, the lyrical mode is utterly barbarian in its expression. Its value resides precisely in its savage quality: it is only blood, sincerity, and fire.’ (Emil M. Cioran)
‘You come from the Balkans and there is no blood in your poetry?’, they ask me often. There is blood running through my memory. Every time I see a lonely tree, the inherited and witnessed fears of war make me think about the corpse of a soldier beneath its roots. I am not under the illusion that I am saying something new, because everything is present even without being documented, like minerals in a yet-to-be-discovered mine. I believe more in hidden toys than in the top secrets of wars. Sometimes, in order to write, one must stay in solitude which does not instil fears and memories greater than death itself. The most certain way to remember your last dream is to not look through the window when you wake up. I do believe that the urge for (re)telling will exist as long as the mystery of leaving and returning exists. Very often I feel safer when I speak in dreams and keep silent in reality. Critics have said that the first thing to remember about the ‘metaphysical’ John Donne is that he was a Catholic, and the second thing is that he had betrayed his faith. I think this is the silent curse that follows the writers: to betray the belonging the moment they feel they have started to belong. In one of his last interviews titled ‘I am a failed Catholic, but still a Catholic’, Adam Zagajewski said, ‘Search is in searching, not in strong definitions.’ Most of the time I feel like a nomad, even without moving my body-cage from one imposed reality to another. I have been travelling and searching extensively for more than twenty years, yet my grandmother used to tell me that she had changed so many countries just by sitting on her old couch in the living room. In the Balkans you can have these endless trips through ideologies, kingdoms and new borders simply by sitting in your chair.
Elizabeta Sheleva writes that the writers, regardless of the place where they live, are always strangers, and are always destined – based on the potency of their creative restlessness – to remain and exist as homeless. On the one hand, homelessness means sitting in front of the hearth and feeling the sharpness of the wind, but when one is away from home, it means reading the world under the light of the fireplace.
I feel safe in the open cave of non-belonging. The mystery of artistic creation is at the heart of the surprising metamorphosis when the eternal turns into ephemeral and vice versa – when an angel needs an oxygen mask to enter the hospital trying to help a dying patient or when a ball kicked over the roof becomes a part of an undiscovered constellation. A modern metamorphosis is happening now – people open the curtains of their everyday life and put down the mask in order to show a fake face. Dubravka Ugrešić unmasked the current reality when she said that ‘Participants in the carnival in the pre-digital ages wore masks, today everyone does their level best to show their own face.’ In my early childhood, I used to write on the walls of the rooms before I even learned about letters and the imperfection of words. My parents had to repaint the walls white each summer. It sounds absurd, but those walls were the first palimpsest of my freedom. I started writing poetry when I understood the letters, yet I started understanding poetry when I learned about silence. Of course, this happened before the war in Yugoslavia. The war helped me understand the need to be loud on the paper when everything and everyone around me becomes louder. I know that nowadays it sounds pathetic when you hear that a poet has used his blood instead of ink to write down his last verses, but in the region where I live some people used other people’s blood to write down new histories and imposed myths.
Wars start with changing the names of cities and bridges, with reconstructing the personal memory – the harsh language of the bullet comes after. In the Balkans people often glorify history in the wrong way, because they are afraid that their languages will become history. The language in which I write is spoken by only two million people who are emigrating every day in search of a secure home, placing their memories in the new spaces even before arranging their furniture. In that panic-stricken fear of disappearance, many nations and temporary leaders in the Balkans have turned to history, which offered them a space and а campfire around which to tell scary stories. Poetry was built upon the aesthetics of disappearance (as Paul Virilio said) and fed on the roots of what was spoken and not yet written. In the Balkans, we were together in war and alone in poetry. Claustrophobia has become the leading philosophy of living – apartments with small balconies and low ceilings for better preservation of one’s own insecurity. The fragmentation of memory sleeps in every home. My ancestors were refugees and did not write poetry while crossing borders and mountains by foot, nor did they take any books with them when they fled their home, on account of their weight. On the other hand, there are so many books written about exoduses, which I believe cannot fit in all the abandoned houses around the world. Under such circumstances, I believe, writing is like planting a seed in a sleeping volcano.
I write about things, people and processes not to praise them, but to demystify the halo of history surrounding them. I live in a small town near three borders – Macedonian, Bulgarian and Greek – so crossing a border for me was like crossing the street when the traffic lights had stopped working. Kapka Kassabova wrote: ‘People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them.’ Sometimes I think each wrinkle on my body is just a reflection of the borders I have crossed. The biggest challenge for me was to cross the boundary of time, the border of history, since all Balkan wars start with conquering the past first – only after that do they talk about territories. Historical and hysterical – a perfect killing unity! In that sense, I see myself as an illegitimate archaeologist who, by writing poetry or essays, tries to demystify the inherited mythomania and all great narratives, putting them in a different perspective, brighter or darker. Telling stories about forgotten objects is more important than the letters and orders signed by war leaders. While travelling through the Caucasus, I stopped at some far-flung graves because they were different from all the graves I had ever seen before: there was not a single gravestone next to the mounds. Yet, I saw drawings on the horizontal stone plate that was covering the grave – drawings that depicted the life and death of the people buried under the stone. A beautiful example how people can transform themselves into stories and live on through the voices of witnesses who had never even met them while they were alive. I once wrote that poetry has always been far from the statistics of conventional popularity. Throughout history, it has had the lofty status of a courtly art form, but it has also been a punk-rock answer to social sterility or the bland national anthems. Poetry is not about reading; poetry is a dialogue. Ornamented or not, the verses will have a smaller circle of readers, much like mirrors – with or without ornamented frames, the reflection is just as limited. Poetry is close to silence, both when it is read in a bar to the sound of a coffee-machine or in a waiting room while waiting for a delayed train. I am not bothered by the fact that verses are printed on the wrapping of sugar sticks served with the coffee. That can be seen as a promoting alertness. Like all things produced by powerful industries, poetry is treated like a commodity, which is not far from one of Heidegger’s ideas about the origin of the works of art. However, it is aesthetics that moves poetry through the depth of time. Each verse is polished by the years like a pebble is polished by the sea. I am not sure what is more ‘iconic’ today: a poetry book placed at the cash register in a supermarket next to the razors and chewing gums, or a poetry book written about some local hero displayed behind a dirty museum showcase. My childhood was framed by an ideological system in which poetry had to be learned by heart. It was a chore, rather than an act of committing to memory. Political leaders are contemporary gods who want to turn poetry into a routine, and gods and routines have deadly power because they are unnoticed and unseen.
Szymborska says writing is ‘the revenge of a mortal hand’, and the loud utterance of the words is nothing more than their return to the source, to the borders of the incommunicable. In the Macedonian language, there is a particular word for translating poetry: ‘prepev’, literally ‘re-singing’ or ‘new-singing’, which is to say that poetry is being sung anew, reauthorised. Every time I read a ‘reauthorised’ poem, I seek the original voice of the author, although I know that this is like looking for a signature at the bottom of an icon. Postmodernism writes about the reader as an awoken mind that continues or reconstructs the story and the archived poetics, but increasingly I find myself believing in the reader as a different de-constructor, an active consciousness directed at the originality of the text. As such, the reader may recognise the secrets even in the most specific of verses, and embody the silence of the primordial. One of my grandmothers was a paid mourner at funerals, she used to ‘re-sing’ as they said in my hometown. She would translate all the quiet mourning into a loud cry, and with a voice that drowned out the priest she buried the hopes of the bereaved family, creating a cosmogenic cry at the grave of a person she did not even know. Oftentimes she would wake me up in the morning testing the strength of her voice in the back garden, entering my dream as a foreign absence, like a key to a door of a ruined home. I understood this ritual of mourning as the audibility of absence, and the awareness of quietude as the single sign of presence would nest within me. There is no sound quieter than the presence of a shadow. All the bedtime stories I had ever heard kept me awake, and in me they gave birth to the seed of their transfiguration. The flexibility of oral narration purged me of the fear of transience and deepened my faith in transformation, relieving me of the fear that the moths of time would devour the text which could be unravelled without the presence of its creator. In Malaysia, more specifically the Kelantan area, a transcendental ritual called Mak Yong is still practised, which alongside dance and playing the rubab, includes the voice of the narrators who always speak something different, often in a form of a dialogue, symbolising the meeting with the invisible, celebrating ‘angin’ – the metaphysical wind scattering the words through time and pouring them into souls. This oral ritual involves not only the courage to speak, but also the fear of what is written down. Nevertheless, literature as a testament to the world is important lest the ‘words [...] lose their meaning’ as Danilo Kiš would say. Sometimes when I write, it feels like voices of the past move through the cobweb of the present careful not to rip it. To write down the verse with which you live and which you reshape with each new retelling, is like painfully carving it into your bones. Hannah Arendt, after meeting W. H. Auden, wrote: ‘He constantly revised his own poems, agreeing with Valéry that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.’
Written words are like fish tossed into the well of a new reality – their swirling keeps the water clean.
Translated by Gorjan Kostovski
 Elizabeta Sheleva: ‘Otadžbina/domovina/tuđina’ (‘Fatherland/Homeland/Foreign Land’). Sarajevske sveske, no. 45/46, 2014.
 Dubravka Ugrešić: The Age of Skin. Open Letter, 2020.
 Kapka Kassabova: Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Graywolf Press, 2017.
 From Wisława Szymborska’s poem ‘The Joy of Writing’ (View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, Harcourt Brace, 1995).
 Danilo Kiš: The Lute and the Scars (‘Lauta i ožiljci’). Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.
 Hannah Arendt: Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975. Schocken, 2018.
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 (https://www.lyrikline.org/en/home/), 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