Nikola Madzirov at Southbank Centre

Visas can be tricky things. At the start of last night’s reading, it was announced that Nikola Madzirov might not be able to attend. There had been trouble getting the British Consulate to return his non-EU visa to him during his tour of South America, and his plane had only touched down minutes before the programme began. It all lay in the hands of immigration, customs and–worst of all–London traffic as to whether he would show up in time to read at all.

The programme was designed to intersperse British poets with continental European voices, in hopes of overcoming some of the “ossification” of British perceptions of European poetry. Indeed, it was the Europeans I found most vital and captivating, and upon them I will focus for now.

Swiss poet Daniele Pantano read from his “undergraduate” work in honour of his own undergraduate students making the trip out to see him. He spoke of his time in suburban America as an “exile”, which he defined as “a city reared by eternal artifice.” His most striking work revolved around his mother’s suicide and the haunt of Nazism in Europe. In a chilling poem, his grandfather teaches him how to slaughter guinea pigs, admonishing to do it with a smile so that when “your turn” comes around, “they” will be likewise kind. Later he discovers a box of memorabilia including an iron cross and an old photo of his grandfather, whom he was always told was a chimney sweep, in an S.S. officer’s uniform. His poems were by turns spare and shocking, generous and closely controlled.

Tadeusz Dąbrowski read in Polish alongside his translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones. He read deadpan, gently chewing his lip, whereas his translator brought the English versions to life with the expressivity of a BBC Radio performer. The contrast itself seemed slightly ironic, but like many of his contemporaries, Tadeusz seemed to relish irony. In discussing an argument with a friend about “the existence of God,” he pronounced the phrase while his face fought against itself to simultaneously smile and frown, making a sideways “S”. Yet his poems were not merely deconstructive for their own sake, and admitted a well-earned compassion that seemed like a kind of faith. One particularly hilarious poem following on Barthes and mocking Magritte he described as his “private war against postmodernism.” Indeed it seems that he, and the other Europeans reading last night, have worked hard to transcend a poetics of dissolution and pure effect. Poetry for them was not a game, or, if it was, the stakes were mortal.

At the intermission, Nikola arrived to sighs of relief. He rushed onstage without removing his scarf, and read in his native Macedonian while Peggy Reid followed on with her English translations. He spoke only a few words of deep gratitude to the Southbank Centre organisers for seeing him through to arriving tonight. After that, he did not introduce his poems, but read one after another, alternating with Peggy. Having heard him in Los Angeles, where he read his own work in English, it was wonderful to hear the music of his poems in their first tongue. Peggy also dramatised the English version of his work somewhat, with a careful elocution that I took for respect. “Nothing is ever new, the bus seat is always warm” he said, and yet here I felt I was witnessing something entirely new–as new as fresh joy or sorrow. With the quiet elegance of a city just covered in snow, he read poem after poem with a purity at heart that can only come from great experience and deep introspection. Here, too, is a poet writing as though life depends on it.

I crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, over the glittering Thames, with a renewed sense of purpose and hope–that there are poets working hard to transcend the emotional self-indulgence of confessionalism, and intellectual self-indulgence of experimental postmodernism, into something earned and true we can believe in, encompassing irony, humor, pathos and wonder–all of which filled me to overflowing last night, and stayed with me all the way home.