Post-Communist states through the lens of Marc Nair's camera and pen
By Laura Kho
'Spo-me-nik'. The three syllables rest weighty on the tongue, giving the otherwise foreign title (it means 'monument' in Croatian) a relatable heft that conveys its meaning without need for translation. We undergo a similar experience with the collection's opening photograph of an astounding Brutalist relic Marc Nair stumbles upon in a barren field. Despite its lack of context, we instinctively derive from its imposing man-made bulk and height that it is an expression of some sort of unnatural power or event. Even though they are utterly remote to the local reader's sensibilities, both word and artefact possess an uncanny ability to capture our attention and communicate. Nair's deliberate decision to foreground this idea from the onset succinctly encapsulates the collection's overarching narrative; that is, the traveller's search to find meaning in the inscrutable.
Spomenik comes as an extension of the poet's perpetual fascination with place and identity, as explored in his previous volumes, Chai: Travel Poems and Postal Code. This edition commences with a speaker coming to terms with the ruin and desolation of a land that has not been afforded the time nor means to heal itself completely from the ravages of World War II and a Communist regime. Portraits of life and human activity are juxtaposed with stills of abandoned pockets in the city and the hollow "maw of empty rooms" ('Skyline'). The pace of repair in some cities is agonisingly sluggish, to the point of seeming indefinitely stalled. Nair encapsulates the somnolent lull of the region in 'Vacancy', with his depiction of a Kosovar shop's dusty shelves and its frozen state of being "perpetually / on sale". Later in 'Benchwarmers', he portrays the lazy midday siesta of a man and a cat, both longing for 'the same hearth, softly soothed / by warm afternoon hands', suggesting that the city's lethargy has pervaded its inhabitants. As the cities await development and repopulation, the speaker observes a concerted effort towards establishing some sense of normality. In 'Vacancy', he notes that "the city continues to stock itself full". Pictorially, a man trades pens for a living, candles are lit in acts of faith and wedding dresses are stocked for ceremonies.
In other cities, the pace of progress veers on being too hurried. It is an issue Nair hopes might resonate with local readers; in the preface, he references the "constant destruction and instant rebirth" that has become the distressing norm in Singapore. In 'Transition', Nair underscores the flimsy artificiality of "new myths" constructed by the bureaucrats of the Macedonian city of Skopje. The "sparkling" museums and "fresh-hewn" boulevards eagerly built to remodel the land come at the heavy cost of familiarity and authenticity. The poem ends reflecting on this jarring disconnect between city and people: "Skopje has more cafes than it has people / capable of filling them with bustling joy."
Yet the trauma of destruction and division pervades the region, hijacking cities' attempts to reach a final equilibrium of peace. The curious, almost surrealistic poem '---' captures this underlying sense of unsettledness with the disturbing quality of its final stanza, where a man dies "suddenly, / like a signal that had been cut." It is an eeriness which has a precursor in the nightmarish 'For those who remain':
Nair's decision to frame the poem within the context of a dream is significant; "ghosts" from the previous era are shown to still linger harrowingly in the Balkans' subconscious. It is a picture of a land unable to escape its past. The area remains in the bleak shadow of battle; indeed, 'Doppelgänger' reminds us that to this day, men stand on either side of the Serbian border with "rifles loaded against the life of this river". The dilapidated building in 'The Bank of Glass' continues to serve as a living war memorial, its narrative "scraping your sole" in the present.
In trying to process the irreconcilability of the extremes he observes, the speaker continuously evokes confusion and helplessness. This fundamental idea of the traveller's inability to translate what he sees — "I cannot make out what they are saying" — culminates midway through the volume, where the poet highlights the failure of language. Nair strategically precedes what is arguably the climax of the collection, 'Past the gates of Socialism', with an enigmatic triptych of photographs depicting shattered glass and ribbons shot so close-up that it prevents any significant disclosure of meaning. The following page features a picture of the same spomenik of the opening, described here as a "silent Trojan with / no means of language / no face to venerate / no answer". It is the kind of breakdown that occurs when words are insufficient to describe adequately what one feels or sees. At this point, credit must be given to Nair's skilful splicing of photograph and text. His choice of visuals add dimension and nuance to the poetry, some of which might otherwise have not stood adequately by themselves due to their lack of aural finesse — surprising, given the poet's well-established talent in spoken word. His curious use of enjambment in 'Lovelorn' and 'Odd Time', for example, give rise to highly uneven, distracting rhythms.
Following the arc of the volume, however, the speaker is finally able to find comfort — even contentment — with the lack of finality he experiences. The sepia-bathed photos capturing towns at sunset evoke this sense of dénouement. Spomenik's last few pieces are Nair at his reflective best, though the choices for some of his phrases verge on cliché. In 'Saburina', for example, he attempts to extract philosophy from a well-trodden adage without any satisfying pay-off: "the expected light at the end of the tunnel / is perfect only if there is no more darkness ahead". The line comes off as clumsy and overly complex, despite its intentions to be slick. In contrast, the poetry is finest when the speaker simply observes, records and accepts without attempting to posit any grand universal truths: "Now the blazoned town / hums below, / from evening's great height" ('Paradise'); "Stay a while. / An afterglow splits the sky orange" ('Saburina'). Although travelling cannot satisfy one's need for comprehension, Nair poignantly asserts that there is nonetheless value enough in being wholly present in the moment, "with a curious heart, listening" ('Odd Time').QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016