“Nema problema!” the Macedonian
Taxi-driver screeched and the taxi screeched
At every unfenced corner on the pass,
“Beria! Beria! Beria!”
Screeched Vladimir Chupeski, every time
He smashed a vodka glass and filled another
During those days and nights of ’78
When we hardly sobered at the Struga
Was “honouree” and Caj Westerberg,
A Finnish Hamlet in black corduroy,
Sweated “on principle” (or was that just projection
Of my northern tweed-wearer’s contrariness?),
Also there: “Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
Unexpected. Sharp in panama hat,
Pressed-to-a-T cream linen suit. He gets
Away with it”.
And a sooth saying Dane
Of the avant-garde, squinting up at a squinch,
His eye as clear as the water and coral floor
Of Lake Ohrid. His first words to me were:
“Is this not you, these mosaics and madonnas?
You are a south. Jour bogs were summer bogs”.
In Belgrade I had found my west-in-east.
“Belmullet melancholy of huckster shops
And small shop windows. Unfresh bead, tinned peas,
Also, Belmullet elders in the streets.
Black Shawls, straight walk, the weather eye, the beads”.
The I saw men in fezes, left the known world
On the short and sweetening mud-slide of a coffee.
At the still centre of the cardinal points
The flypaper hung from our kitchen ceiling.
Honey-strip and death-trap, syrup of Styx
Sweating swart beads, a barley-sugar twist
Of glut and loathing
In a nineteen-fifties
Of iron stoves and kin groups still in place,
Congregations blackening the length
And bread of summer roads.
And now the refugees
Come loaded on tractor mudguards and farm carts,
On trailers, ruck-shifters, box-barrows, prams,
On sticks, on crutches, on each-other’s shoulders,
I see that tarnished, bletted coil again,
An old gold world-chain the world keeps falling from
Into the cloud-boil of a camera lens.
Were we not made for summer, shade and coolness
And gazing trough an open door at sunlight?
For paradise lost? Is that what I was taught?
That old sense of a tragedy going on
Uncomprehended, at the very edge
Of the usual, it never left me once
A pity I didn’t know then (for Caj’s sake)
Ilygon Somberg’s allegory of Finland,
The one where the wounded angel’s being carried
By two farm youngsters across a open field:
Marshland, estuary light, a farther shore
With factory chimneys. Is it the socialist thirties
Or the shale and slag and sloblands of a hurt?
A first communion angel with big white wings,
White bandage round her brow, white flowers in hand,
Holds herself in place on a makeshift stretcher
Between manchild number one in round soft hat
An manchild number two in a bumfreezer
And what could be his father’s wellingtons.
Allegory, I say, but who’s to know
How to read sorrow rightly, or at all?
The open door, the jambs, the worn saddle
And actual granite of the doorstep slab.
Enter another angel, fit as ever,
Past each house with a doorstep daubed “Serb house”.
How does the real get into the made up?
Ask me an easier one,
But this much I do know:
The taximan, for all his speed, was late
For the poetry reading we were meant to give
At a cement factory in the mountains.
So a liquid lunch with comrade managers
Ended in siesta and woozy wake-ups
Just befor sunset. Then, the notebook says,
“People on the move, dield full of folk.
Packhorses with panniers, uphill push
Of familie, unending pilgrim stream.
To-day is worker’s day in memory
Of General Strike. Also Greek othodox
We followed a dry water course,
Rattling stones, subdued by the murmuring crowd
As darkness fell. We passed a water-blesser
On his rock apart, Giotto-gaunt and cinctured
(“Magician” said Vladimir), waving his cross
Above the tins and jampotfuls held up.
The on the mountain top, outside a church,
Icons being carried, candles lit, flowers
And sweet basil in abundance, some kind of mass
Being celebrated behind the iconostasis,
A censer swung and carried through the crowd.
I had been there before, it seemed, but still
Was haunted by it as by and unread dream.
The sale of holy objects. The little groups
Who’d walked all day now gathering in rings,
Allowing themselves a taste of their bread and olives.
As the Boing’s innards trembled and we climbed
Into the pure serene qand protocos
Of Air Traffic Control, courtesy of Lufthansa,
I kept my seat belt fastened as instructed,
Smoked the minute the No Smoking went off
And took it as my due when wine was poured
By a slight de haut en bas of my headphoned head.
Nema problema. Ja. All systems go.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 1. Juni 1999