I want to end 2013 with poetry, because people have been shouting about the death of poetry for so long, and yet, poetry manages to survive like a wild flower in winter. It is minus six degrees in Macedonia, where the poet Nikola Madrizov lives. He has a high temperature and can’t keep his eyes open, but he writes to me, fevered words. He says we need poetry to believe that known things and the things that repeat themselves are not routine, but ritual. Poems, he says, come from time, they inhabit time, and they are buried by time.
Nikola was born in 1973, in the former Republic of Yugoslavia ruled by Marshall Tito. He was 18 when Macedonia gained independence. Much of his poetry has to do with unfinished buildings, rootlessness and “the embrace on the corner” where “you will recognise someone’s going away somewhere”. In his remarkable collection, Remnants of Another Age (translated from the Macedonian), he writes, “History is the first border I have to cross,” which might well be a kind of songline for someone who refers to himself as an “involuntary descendant of refugees”. Nikola remembers growing up in a time when poverty made people imaginative. When empty soda cans were converted to pen holders, bureaucratic papers were used to make paper cones for the street vendor’s pumpkin seeds, and bottle caps supported the legs of wobbly tables and chairs.
Memory, and the aesthetics of memory, are the scaffold on which his poems stand. “They write of the fall/ of empires and epochs but not/of the old man who looks at a toy/dug up by a bulldozer.” He tells me about his ancestors—refugees from the Balkan wars, who dug the new land in order to build their homes. And how, when they dug, they found ancient swords from the Ottoman Empire, but also worms, which they used for fishing, their livelihood. Political and personal, absence and presence, shadow and light—these are the interstices along which his poems live. It is a beguiling landscape filled with uncertainty and beauty—where light streams out from the hollow between hips and rib cages, eternity is passed around, and people come out of their buildings with vases in their hands, setting out for the meadows.
Nikola is interested in the “theft of memory”. The ability for the living to remember things the dead may never have remembered; for dictators to become self-proclaimed prophets, offering memories of things that never happened. “Memory becomes a home and a sanctuary,” he tells me, “while the house is transformed into a museum of conserved emotional exhibits… My father remembers in order to live. He sings songs from the year of my birth; he calls streets by the names of heroes from old history books; he asks taxi drivers to stop in front of buildings that don’t exist any more… I write in order not to remember. I imagine in order to forget.”
Why do we need poetry? Because we all want to speak of eternity in the temporary embrace. Because even though it is never really winter in Madras, I too can feel “the winters have piled up in us/ without ever being mentioned”. I too feel like “I haven’t belonged to anyone in ages”.