Daring to Remember

Before We Were Born

  • Read in Macedonian by the author
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  • Before We Were Born by Nikola Madzirov
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A selection of poems by Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov, translated by Peggy & Graham W. Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed


The streets were asphalted
before we were born and all
the constellations were already formed.
The leaves were rotting
on the edge of the pavement,
the silver was tarnishing
on the workers’ skin,
someone’s bones were growing through
the length of the sleep.

Europe was uniting
before we were born and
a woman’s hair was spreading
calmly over the surface
of the sea.

Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid


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 shoebox
where we hoard pyjama-buttons,
not-quite-dead batteries and hunger.

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.

Others’ pity will set out after us
like the moon after some wandering child.

Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid


For Marjan K.

In the embrace on the corner you will recognize
someone’s going away somewhere. It’s always so.
I live between two truths
like a neon light trembling in
an empty hall. My heart collects
more and more people, since they’re not here anymore.
It’s always so. One fourth of our waking hours
is 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. When someone goes away
everything that’s been done comes back.

Tanslated by Magdalena Horvat


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.

One day, the wind won’t
change direction.
The birch will send away leaves
into our shoes on the doorstep.
The wolves will come after
our innocence.
The butterflies will leave
their dust on our cheeks.

An old woman will tell stories
about us in the waiting room every morning.
Even what I’m saying has
been said already: we’re waiting for the wind
like two flags on a border.

One day every shadow
will pass us by.

Translated by Magdalena Horvat


It’s true the town
sprang up as the consequence of a lie
essential to people,
flowerpots and pets

(that’s how I equip myself
with the necessary justifications)

It’s true that all the people
are coming out of all the buildings
(as if there’d been an earthquake)
and with vases in their hands
set out for the meadows.

They return three times sadder
with dust on their hands
and certain sounds
like holes in their memories.

the shared silence again.

Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid


I lived at the edge of the town
like a streetlamp whose light bulb
no one ever replaces.
Cobwebs held the walls together,
and sweat our clasped hands.
I hid my teddy bear
in holes in crudely built stone walls
saving him from dreams.

Day and night I made the threshold come alive
returning like a bee that
always returns to the previous flower.
It was a time of peace when I left home:

the bitten apple was not bruised,
on the letter a stamp with an old abandoned house.

From birth I’ve migrated to quiet places
and voids have clung beneath me
like snow that doesn’t know if it belongs
to the earth or to the air.

Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid


I open the door fearfully
to draw a border on the carpet
with the sunrays.
I feel like saying something
but the echo of the unfurnished room
is faster than me.
The sweat on the doorknob is not mine
nor do the lichens on my neck
belong to this world.
I realized myself
in several layers of memories,
my soul is a womb palimpsest
of a distant mother.
Hence the afterthought of returning
and the soft creak of the hinges.

I would expand the space with a step
to multiply the grains of dust
and the hairs that fall down,
always white because of
the light.

Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid


Everything is a caress.
The snow was folding its wings
over the hills, I was laying my palms
over your body like a tape measure
which unfolds only along the length
of other things.
The universe existed
so that we'd be born in different places,
so that our homeland could be the rainbow
that joins two gardens
which don't know of one another.
And so time went on:
we were raising the fear within us,
while awe was being born in others.
Our shadows were sinking
in poisoned wells,
spoken words were disappearing
and reappearing like shards of glass on a sandy beach,
sharp and shattered.
Everything is a memory.
The dream was nearby,
what's distant was what we were dreaming of.

Translated by Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed


It is easy to live in a house of forgetfulness where the landscapes of our views of the past habitually remain the same and desolate. The construction of historical time, pressing onwards like an express train in an unknown direction, is such that all the images and places seen through the window of subjectivity move backwards towards what we have left behind and what we recall only when we seek a place of rest in mental solitude. Gabriel Marquez gives priority to the memories of the heart which erases the bad and celebrates the good because thanks to this conscious deceit we manage to bear the burden of the past.

The risk in Orpheus’ backward look in space and time like that of Lot’s wife is realised through a lasting loss of time spent together with their loved ones and through a deep entrenchment in the mechanism of a static eternity in such a way that Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt after her backward look. Today many statues of forgotten revolutionaries stand upright and besmirched in parks and factory yards, reminding us of an ideology and a shared memory of something that was in fact announced as a prophecy: communism, brotherhood and unity. According to the architecture of the then new linguistic awareness, these pieces of worked stone were called ‘monuments’ or ‘memorials’ whose task was not to commemorate but to extend the frontiers of shared memory through the celebration of suffering, absence and sacrifice to an ideal.

After the fall of communism for the first time I saw these monuments to pain covered with graffiti that carried personal memories of someone’s lost first love or a dialogue as to whether punk and Nietzsche were dead. Into the revolutionarily outstretched hands of these monuments passersby had put empty coca-cola bottles or empty fast food packaging as a mark of their own presence and vitality in an attempt to forget the pain of imposed memories.

The aesthetics of memory is built up through a continual interweaving of presence and absence until the frontier between them is erased in the interstice of mental reality. The wife of a friend of mine who died at the age of thirty desperately preserves the only record of his voice, on their answerphone, which calmly states: ‘We are not at home. Leave a message.’ Five days after his death she gave birth, and still, virtually every day, she plays to her now seven-year-old son the tape of his father’s voice saying: ‘We are not at home…’. A voice of a presence announcing absence. A voice of a memory announcing oblivion.

In Macedonia people still take food for the dead when visiting their graves as a manifestation of the absolutist instinct of the living to maintain their feeling of superiority and security. This ritual prolongation of the personal time of the dead is also most frequently realised through a selective memory of moments of their lives that those who are no longer living might well not have remembered themselves. In fact this is how a theft of memory is born, something that was a chief method of survival for dictators in these parts. From the chrysalis of the self-proclaimed prophet who is concerned for a better tomorrow, the dictator develops into a resplendent protector who offers merely memories of things that never happened. The risk of reality in the cradle of a dictatorial regime is far greater than the risk of remembering. People verbalise and in their memories give life to all their longings and unrealised wishes, their daydreams. What they remember least of all is the touch of life and its spatial and temporal frontiers.

Memory becomes a home and a sanctuary, 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 the old history books; he asks taxi-drivers to stop in front of buildings that don’t exist any more; my father still remembers the national TV channel as being number 1 on the remote control. Gaston Bachelard says that in order to analyse our existence in the hierarchy of an ontology, it is necessary to desocialise our larger memories and to reach the level of daydreams that we have experienced in the realms of our solitude. Perhaps in his revisitations of shared projected memories my father is seeking a way to be on his own, to weave the fence of his sociological and emotional security because sometimes it seems to me his memories are longer lasting than death.

I am a descendant of refugees from the Balkan Wars of the beginning of the last century, and through the stories of my ancestors I have learned that home is a memory which is not inherited. After every war there are many abandoned houses, but there are even more abandoned homes.

When last I visited Bosnia, people were dividing time according to a notional shared constant: before and after the war. Youth, childhood, illnesses did not exist. The war was the thing that could not be forgotten, while other things were only war's good and bad lovers. Derrida says that only things that cannot be forgotten are forgiven, or: to forgive does not mean to forget. The Balkans wait for decades and generations to pass in order to forget all the fear and trembling which have wiped out the sanctity of the everyday in these past years and lives. Perhaps it is better to forgive but not to forget.

History has long been invested in, in the dominant form of collective memory, until it was transformed into a common truth which did not seek new memories or doubts, because each absolute is created exclusively in order to be respected and not in order to be remembered. An image has been created that in the Balkans we have no future without memories, but such a future becomes a historical problem even before it has become the present. Here, saints and dictators don't have their own memories, instead they are settled for a long time in our minds and our hearts as memories of a perpetual insecurity.

Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid


© Nikola Madzirov
Nikola Madzirov from Macedonia
Nikola Madzirov was born in 1973 in Strumica, Macedonia, where he lives today. He works as a poet, essayist, literary translator and editor. He is the coordinator responsible for Macedonia within the international poetry network “Lyrikline”, and has also edited the poetry section of the literary magazine “Blesok”. His poems have been translated into 30 languages. He has published numerous books, the most recent of which are Premesten kamen (Shifted Stone) (Skopje, 2007), Vo gradot, nekade (In The City, Somewhere) (Skopje, 2004); Nekade, nikade (Somewhere, Nowhere) (Radovis, 1999), Zakluceni vo gradot (Locked Into The City) (Skopje, 1999). He has been awarded the Hubert Burda Prize for authors from Eastern Europe (2007), as well as many national awards, such as the “Brothers Miladonov” Prize, the “Studentski zbor” prize and the “Aco Karamanov” prize. His poems have been published in magazines and anthologies in North and South America, Europe and Asia. He has received many international prizes and grants, for instance from the “International Writing Program” (IWP) at the University of Iowa, USA, the “Literarisches Tandem” in Berlin, the “KulturKontakt” scholarship in Vienna, the “International House of Authors” in Graz, the “Literatur Haus NÖ” in Krems und Villa  Waldberta in Munich.


Translation by Alexander Sitzmann
Alexander Sitzmann was born in 1974 in Stuttgart, Germany. He studied Scandinavian and Slavic Philology in Vienna, Austria, where he now researches and teaches the city’s University. Since 1999, he has been a free-lance literary translator from Bulgarian, Macedonian and the Scandinavian languages into German. He is the author of two linguistic monographies, as well as the editor of several anthologies and magazine features, an expert for KulturKontakt Austria and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture as well as various publishers at home and abroad. In 2004 he was awarded the Honorary Prize of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, followed by the Translators’ Prize of the Austrian Ministry of Culture in 2007, 2008 and 2009, as well as numerous grants.