Review by Nick DePascal
REMNANTS OF ANOTHER AGE
by Nikola Madzirov
BOA Editions Ltd.
250 N Goodman St., Ste 306
Rochester, NY 14607
2011, 103 pp., $16.00
In his introduction to Vasko Popa’s, Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems, Charles Simic ascribes part of Popa’s appeal to the fact that his “aim is to present the known in terms of the unknown and recover its mythical potential.” Much the same could be said for Nikola Madzirov’s newest poetry collection, Remnants of Another Age, in that the clarity and simplicity of the language of the poems belie the deeper movings beneath their surfaces that shift the reader’s perception of seemingly common and mundane objects and events from the obvious to the strange. In this collection Madzirov is most concerned with issues of stillness versus movement, home versus absence, and location versus displacement, and succeeds most where these issues are shown to the reader rather than described.
One of the most intriguing things about the collection is the voice of the speaker that persists throughout, and the way in which this voice serves a variety of functions. In regards to this particular collection, it seems helpful to conceive of there being a single speaker for nearly all, if not all, of the poems. The speaker switches between the first person singular and first person plural mostly, with an occasional trip into the second person, but never seems to use the third person. And yet despite using the first and third person throughout, the speaker manages to keep his or her distance from the reader. When the “we” and “us” are used in a poem, they typically seem to leave the reader out, as if the reader is watching the action surreptitiously from an external location to the world of the poems. In “Shadows Pass Us By,” the reader is privy to what seems like a communiqué between lovers:
We’ll meet one day,
like a paper boat and
a watermelon that’s been cooling in the river.
The anxiety of the world will
be with us. Our palms
will eclipse the sun and we’ll
approach each other holding lanterns.
A few page later, in “What We Have Said Haunts Us,” the reader again encounters a similar interaction of which we’re not part of: “We’ve christened our children/with affectionate nicknames/taken from letters/read only once,” and “What we have said without witnesses/will long haunt us.// The winters have piled up in us/without ever being mentioned.” In both of these poems the reader is purposely kept out of the “we” of the poem, and the poems themselves read like love letters that we’ve discovered by accident. This exclusion from the “we” can be disorienting at first for the reader, but it actually serves a clever purpose. By not including the reader in the “we” as often happens in the poetry, the speaker makes a witness out of the reader, thereby implicitly ensuring that what is being said will not haunt the speaker and his or her companion, and it also avoids the clichéd pitfall of the “we” by not proposing to speak on behalf of the reader. The reader then, not feeling boxed in by the “we” of the poem is welcome to make of the scene what they will, to look for the emotion of the poem in its images or the way it moves on the page, in the syntax and word choice. In this way, the speaker is cleverly offering the reader a way into the poem without proclaiming or projecting anything onto them.
Interestingly, even when the speaker uses an occasional dangerous “you” in a poem, it never feels addressed to the reader, but again reads as the “you” of a letter might. Take for example the poem “Ruined Homes,” where the speaker discloses, “In the wastebasket, I saw locks of hair/you’d brushed while the birds and the world were waking.” A few pages later, “Everything is a Caress” begins, “The snow was folding its wings/over the hills, I was laying my palms/over your body like a tape measure.” Its clear that the “you” in these poems (and others) is not the typical “dear reader” of other poets, but again, an utterance from one lover to another, something that feels quite private, and again places the reader firmly in the role of a peeping tom.
However, the feeling of confusion, of displacement, of “outsiderness” that permeates the collection is not only cultivated through the speaker’s choice of pronouns. Madzirov also has a talent for making the mundane seem new, and for creating atmospheres of both loss and hope through evocative imagery. It is exactly this commonness that is celebrated in the poem “A Way of Existing,” which begins, “Too many rises and falls/are not recorded in the books/that are burned in usual wars.” The poem tracks just those mundane things that the histories of the world ignore, those things that fail to be seen in the larger events, but that for most people are what constitutes life, even during periods of loss and war. These books “write of the fall/of empires and epochs but not/of the old man who looks at a toy/dug up by a bulldozer.” It is these small objects and events that happen on the individual level that are passed on through generations as a sort of family history that often reflects life as it was lived more accurately than the most well-researched and elegantly written history books. And perhaps no poem in the collection creates a sense of absence than the very first poem, “After Us.” It begins:
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.
Here, the images of the folded blankets and the sorted letters suggest what’s left behind when we die. Blankets to be cleaned, and perhaps donated. And the image of the letters suggests the anthropologist ordering and studying humans from the past, trying to make sense of the way they save their letters and their strange, individual rituals. And later in the poem, we see the plight of the refugee, the person always on the move, as the speaker opines, “One day the ache will return to our backs/from the weight of hotel room keys/and the receptionist’s suspicion/as he hands over the TV remote control.” The collection is punctuated by these seemingly simple images–the keys, the remote control, the letters, the blankets (all given greater emotional by being paired with something more unique–that something as light as a key could cause a backache for example)–that as they accrue energy from poem to poem, suggest the will and the voice of the collective calling out to be heard.
As the reader makes their way through the collection, they may begin to question exactly where and how this speaker exists in space or time, as the speaker is prone to making quite large and grand statements about their existence within, or perhaps more accurately, without the world. In “When Time Ceases,” our speaker tells us “We are remnants of another age. // That’s why I cannot speak/of home, or death/or preordained pains.” Later, in “Revealing,” our speaker says, “I haven’t belonged to anyone for ages/like a coin fallen from the edge of an old icon…History is the first border I have to cross…Every day my home/secretly changes under the world’s tent,/only childhood is like honey/that never lets anything leave a trace in it.” At these times the speaker seems to projecting a voice, an aura of ancient wisdom, almost as if the speaker were a lonely deity or the manifestation of some sort of eternal, ethereal idea traveling through time, looking for a place to land. But we know this speaker is no god, or else he or she wouldn’t be so insistent on the need for answers, and so ready to admit that he or she doesn’t have those answers.
What comes across is that through his or her ruminations on presence and absence, creation and destruction, home and travel, the speaker indeed wishes to commune with and give voice to all those who have been displaced in one way or another, those who have trouble answering the question of where they call home, those who, like the speaker, wish to probe the wound of a vanished homeland. And its Madzirov’s willingness to ask these big questions, and his clever ability to allow the reader to serve as witness, that ultimately gives Remnants of Another Age its freshness and power.
Nick DePascal currently lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife and son, where he’s working towards his MFA in Poetry at the University of New Mexico. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Sugar House Review, Adobe Walls, The Houston Literary Review, Breadcrumb Scabs and more.