My great-grandfather, who hung through my childhood at the centre of a shrine tended by my great-aunt, now hangs in my house. After eighty-six years of exposure, his ghost is gently parting from the paper, which feels strange as, despite the chains of office, his cocked head and half grin suggest real warmth. His attitude’s too casual for a formal portrait, leaving me staring into the past, into the family version of La Giaconda, wondering about him as, by degrees, the relentless harshness of the day works at bereaving the family a second time. As a teenager, my defining memory of the Balkan war of the 1990s was of a refugee stuffing a hard drive into his rucksack, explaining to the camera that this contained everything, his whole life. Those fragile magnetic discs were a powerful metaphor for the atrocity. Family histories, unlike the official record, cannot depend upon multiple copies and archive quality acid-free paper. We will all eventually fade to white.
Nikola Madzirov’s Remnants of Another Age opens with the measured, elegiac After Us, where ‘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. // One day someone will rearrange the room’s furniture / like chessmen at the start of a new game, / will open the old shoe box / where we hoard pajama-buttons, / not-quite-dead batteries and hunger.’ The repetition of ‘One day’ and the voicing of each sentence as a statement creates a sense of inevitability. The repetition of ‘One day’ also suggests the systematic way in which a life lived is wiped from the Earth. In the first stanza, physical traces are erased through the cleaning and the recycling of the blankets but, at a mental and emotional level, the fragile connections between memories, as represented by the letters, are irrevocably destroyed as a scholarly chronology is imposed. The same is true of the configuration of the furniture, and unyielding systems and methodologies march jack-booted over the most fragile memories.
When Someone Goes Away Everything That’s Been Done Comes Back develops this theme with a sobering telescoping of time, which contrasts with After Us’s formal structure. ‘One fourth of our waking hours / are spent in blinking. We forget / things even before we lose them – / the calligraphy notebook, for instance. / Nothing’s ever new. The bus / seat is always warm./ Last words are carried over / like oblique buckets to an ordinary summer fire. / The same will happen all over again tomorrow – / the face, before it vanishes from the photo, / will lose the wrinkles.’ The inclusive ‘we’ encourages us to recognize the irony of our situation: we are all lonely and forgetful together, and the image of the warm, empty bus seat adds an element of comfort – intimacy even – to the loss and loneliness.
However, in The Hands of the Clock, Madzirov questions these fragile links in the human chain, as you ‘Inherit your childhood / from the photo album.’ At one level, inherit means to become an heir, suggesting a warm, human succession of history and values. However, I’m left wondering about our family photograph album and whether certain vivid childhood memories are memories, or whether they have been implanted by the photographs we know. Inherited like this, the childhood that lives on in the adult memory is little more than the construct given to replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
It’s worth noting that the poems in Remnants of Another Age are presented in facing translation, together with their Macedonian body doubles and, as a reader with no experience of the oral and written cultures of the region, I’m almost loath to read the translations too closely, searching for traces that aren’t there, and missing those that are. Despite these frailties in the reader, Madzirov’s poems sing from the page. Sometimes the voice is husky and intimate, and sometimes it wails and moans like the professional mourner, Madzirov’s grandmother, who, at the height of the Balkan horror, sometimes keened at the wrong grave. This makes more sense to me now, as the anonymous and freshly filled hole, like the warm bus seat, is a sign of where someone was only a fraction of a second ago, but the blink of the eye is a little act of forgetting.