- Albania -
Luljeta Lleshanaku (born 1968, Elbasan, Albania) is an Albanian poet who is the recipient of the 2009 Vilenice Kristal prize for world poetry (past recipients have included Milan Kundera, Adam Zagajewski, Peter Handke, and Zbigniew Herbert.) She was educated in literature at the University of Tirana and was editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Zëri i rinisë (The Voice of Youth). She then worked for the literary newspaper Drita. In 1996, she received the best book of the year award from the Eurorilindja Publishing House. In 1999, she took part in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. She is the author of four poetry collections, one volume of which has been translated into English: Fresco, available from New Directions. The writer, critic and editor Peter Constantine, in his introduction to Fresco, sums up her style in this way:
Luljeta Lleshanaku is a pioneer of Albanian poetry. She speaks with a completely original voice, her imagery and language always unexpected and innovative. Her poetry has little connection to poetic styles past or present in America, Europe, or the rest of the world. And, interestingly enough, it is not connected to anything in Albanian poetry either. We have in Lleshanaku a completely original poet."
Born in 1968, Luljeta Lleshanaku came of age in post-communist Albania, free to write as she chose but with her imagination shaped by what had gone before under the regime of Enver Hoxha.
After Hoxha's death in 1985 the dictatorship lasted until 1990. Lleshanaku's family had been opponents of the state, and she was forbidden to enter higher education or to publish her early work. Had she done so she would certainly have fallen foul of a system of censorship where even the most innocuous and conventional utterance was viewed with distrust.
The work Lleshanaku has gone on to publish is wholly unyielding in its fidelity to her own concerns. Hers are certainly poems about history, politics and power, but they are often cast in terms of local and domestic conditions in the old regime's climate of extreme provincialism. We hear of family graves with "four inches of space between them / lined up / like cars at a railway crossing", the war their occupants fought in long gone. We witness a trip to the cinema, study the second wife of a violent husband, overhear a family supper or the throwing of stones at a madwoman's roof.
The world Lleshanaku often describes is like a room with no door, where everything that will ever be is already present: "The same war story told a hundred times / the same brand of cigarettes distributed by friendly hands / and those same eyes hovering, dark and lazy. / Only that."
In an essay reprinted here, Lleshanaku records that following a stay in the US she discarded most of the poems she had written while there, because "I felt as if I was following the wrong star … It was too easy to embrace the philosophy of a culture immersed in a long tradition of individualism … It is a philosophy completely alien to my culture."
Perhaps, though, life outside the literary enclave is not so wholly different once you take away the numbers and the noise. The powerful "Marked" depicts a series of immutable fates: "the redheaded woman waiting for her drunk husband to return / will go on waiting for one hundred years. / It isn't the alcohol; she is marked by 'waiting'. / And he only as guilty as an onlooker / pushed indoors by rain."
This would certainly have made sense to a poet such as James Wright. But Lleshanaku is also original. When she turns her attention to love, the sense of human fate is unsparing. In "Particularly in the Morning" the familiar claim that love outbids history is turned on its head, to richly ambiguous effect: "although he is still sleeping / with the face of a stranger, the face of sleep, / a face without memory, / it is he and only he who knows my body's code / that flows like a river by a colony of gypsies / unaware of its source or estuary." In these conditions sentimentality seems inconceivable. The tyrant's insistence that there is no private realm has the unintended effect of making it necessary to write powerful and durable poems which suffer all the constraints imposed by confinement and yet have something ungovernable in reserve, namely their accuracy.
by Sean O' Brien
The mystery of prayers / Misteri i lutjeve
In my family
prayers were said secretly,
softly, murmured through sore noses
a sigh before and a sigh after
thin and sterile as a bandage.
Outside the house
there was only a ladder to climb
a wooden one, leaning against a wall all year long,
ready to use to repair the tiles, in August before the rains.
No angels climbed up
and no angels climbed down—
only men suffering from sciatica.
They prayed to catch a glimpse of Him
hoping to renegotiate their contracts
or to postpone their deadlines.
"Lord, give me strength," they said
for they were descendants of Esau
and had to make do with the only blessing
left over from Jacob,
the blessing of the sword.
In my house praying was considered a weakness
like making love.
And like making love
it was followed by the long
cold night of the body.© translated by Henry Israeli
Old news / Lajme te vonuara
In the village nestled between two mountains
the news always arrives one month late,
cleansed in transit, glorified, mentioning only the dead who made
it to paradise,
and a coup d‘état referred to as 'God‘s will'.
Spring kills solitude with solitude, imagination
the sap that shields you from your body. Chestnut trees
awaken, drunken men
lean their cold shoulders against a wall.
The girls here always marry outsiders and move away
leaving untouched statues of their fifteen-year-old
But the boys bring in wives
from distant villages,
wives who go into labor on heaps of grass and straw in a barn
and bear prophets.
Forgive me, I‘d meant to say 'only one will be a prophet'.
The others will spend their lives throwing stones
(that is part of the prophecy, too).
At noon on an autumn day like today
they will bolt out of school like a murder of crows stirred by the
smell of blood
and chase the postman‘s skeleton of a car
as it disappears around a corner, leaving only dust.
Then they will steal wild pears from the 'bitch‘s yard'
and nobody will stop them. After all, she deserves it. She‘s sleeping
with two men.
Between the pears in one boy‘s schoolbag
lies a copy of Anna Karenina.
It will be skimmed over, impatiently, starting on the last page
cleansed and glorified, like old news.© translated by Henry Israeli
Vertical realities / Realitete vertikale
Waking is an obligation:
three generations open their eyes every morning
The first is an old child – my father;
he always chooses his luck and clothes one size too small for him.
Next comes grandfather…In his day, the word 'diagnosis' did not exist.
He simply died of misery six months after his wife.
No time was wasted. Above their corpses
rose a factory to make uniforms for dockworkers.
And great-grandfather, if he ever existed,
I don‘t even know his name. Here my memory goes on hiatus,
my peasant origins cut like the thick and yellow nails
Three shadows loom like a forest over me
telling me what to do
and what not to do.
You listened to me say 'good morning'
but it was either an elephant pounding on a piano
or the seams coming apart in my father‘s little jacket.
Indeed, my father, his father, and his father before that
are not trying to change anything
nor do they refuse to change anything; the soap of ephemerality
leaves them feeling fresh and clean.
They only wish to gently touch the world again
through me, the way latex gloves
lovingly touch the evidence
of a crime scene.© translated by Henry Israeli
Marked / Me fatin e shkruar në fytyrë
My deskmate in elementary school
had blue nails, blue lips, and a big irreparable hole in his heart.
He was marked by death. He was invisible.
He used to sit on a stone
guarding our coats
as we played in the playground, that alchemy of sweat and dust.
The one marked to be king
is cold, ready for a free fall
born prematurely from a sad womb.
And the redheaded woman waiting for her drunk husband to return
will go on waiting for one hundred years.
It isn‘t the alcohol; she is marked by 'waiting.'
And he only as guilty as an onlooker
pushed indoors by rain.
What‘s more, it isn‘t the war
that took the life of the young boy
with melancholy eyes. He was marked as well, born to be on the recruiter‘s list.
Melancholy is the standard arsenal of war.
And then there is one marked for survival
who will continue to eat his offspring like a polar bear
that never notices the warming climate.
All of them are as closed as theorems, their sky
a rental home
where hammering even a single nail of change is forbidden.
They are waiting for their next command, which they will ignore anyway
like the Argonauts who filled their ears with wax
and rowed on through the sirens‘ path.© translated by Henry Israeli
Men / Meshkuj
Human existence is like a dead language
of which only an expression, a quotation, or a single word remains.
But a man without sons is a mutation.
His name will move from one ear to another by a clean female whisper
voiced like a dream without conflict
difficult to remember after night‘s end.
Six daughters, each birth a failure
like the gold prospector
who brings home only silk and medicinal herbs.
Without a son in the family,
there is no river to carry the toxic remains
of his black and white anger,
no one to foresee war in the bones of the ram
sacrificed for dinner;
no wars, no births or deaths
when life gets lazy in peacetime.
His cell is a cave
sketched with naive carbon drawings:
the hunter against the beast, the hunter against nature,
until the moment a woman appears around the fire.
Then strength moves from his muscles
to his eyes.
and the angle of the arrow‘s aim shifts.
This is the end of the ice age
the end of clarity.
There is a secret that extinguishes men from the inside
like Dwarf Stars
changing from yellow to white
and then… to black, a smudge across the cosmos.
There is no son to inherit the father‘s secret.…
not the secret itself
but the art of solitude.© translated by Henry Israeli
It's not time for... / Nuk eshte koha per...
It‘s not time for a change.
For as long as I can remember
it‘s never been time for a change.
The house dampens. Perhaps everything is a forgery:
the wild pears, wedding rings, the milk van,
the children faltering like a tailor‘s pins
in an unfinished jacket
awaiting another try.
Passed from generation to generation, like haemophilia,
change is carried by the male chromosome.
You can recognize these men by their profiles –
like Caesar‘s face, a laurel on his head,
staring into the failure,
stamped forever on Roman coins.
Women, on the other hand,
never forget to turn on the veranda light late in the evening,
the bulb covered in mosquitoes,
believing that in spite of what they do,
what is written, will happen.© translated by Henry Israeli
Monday in seven days / E hëna në shtatë ditë
Monday feels like an odd shoe
its other chewed by the dog tied at the gate.
The sun always rises through the open backdoor
and pours into the house like birdfeed along the street.
Men returning from the pebble beach
walking with their hands held behind them
on their way to nowhere
look like crosshairs on a gun
their spit still bitter with coffee
dandruff scattered along their collars;
to draw them you would have to hold your breath.
For weeks now there hasn‘t been a single drop of rain. The thin
stream dwindles, sickly, syphilitic.
A child skipping school
sneaks away from his mother.
He is nine and still adds and subtracts on fingers
blackened by fresh walnuts
counting the years to his conscription.
He draws a large dusty circle in the dirt
that looks like a piece of blighted flesh
where a tumour had just been removed.
Like salmon, ready to mate,
swimming upstream from the sea
to the river‘s estuary
the wedding guests step backward in time
and beg the landlady to return their flesh:
'Mine is bright white…'
'Mine is soft, with a burn from a hot iron on my forearm…'
'Mine smells of sage, like a canvas bag…'
'Mine is magical, you can wear it inside out…'
'Give me anything – it doesn‘t matter!'
Here comes Mustafa, the drunkard,
with his head stuck to his body‘s right side.
He is Monday‘s Saint, guilty of everything,
absorbing everyone‘s sins
like a swab of alcohol-dabbed cotton
pressed to a wound.
Before sleep the world returns whole beneath eyelids
like an army full of pride, gathered under the Arc de Triomphe,
the loot of war behind them.
The nightly rite of fucking
that shredded music
sufficient to hide
the motive for which we woke up this morning
and, even more so, the motive to wake up tomorrow.
The lamp turns off for the last time
and blood continues on its small circular route.
When my grandma came here as a bride
with nothing more than her good name
the house was empty but for the hanging weapons.
There was so little here she had to build a whole town
just to find a pair of shoulders for a head.
She began by planting an apricot tree in front of the house
and later another, so that the two were
like hands cupped to a face
to warm it.
Then children dripped from her
as rain from a tin awning.
Those who fell on soft ground were forgotten.
Those on cement
managed to survive.
To this day
they still stand petrified in a black and white photograph
in woollen suits with oily unevenly cut hair
looking as if their lives were borrowed from elsewhere.
Broken toys were my playthings:
zebras, wind-up Chinese dolls, ice-cream carts
given to me as New Year‘s presents by my father.
But none was worth keeping whole.
They looked like cakes whose icing had been
licked off by a naughty child
until I broke them, cracked and probed their insides, the tiny
gears, the batteries,
not aware then that I was rehearsing
my understanding of freedom.
When I first looked at a real painting
I took a few steps backward instinctively
on my heels
finding the precise place
where I could explore its depth.
It was different with people:
I built them up,
loved them, but stopped short of loving them fully.
None were as tall as the blue ceiling.
As in an unfinished house, there seemed to be a plastic sheet
above them instead of a roof
at the beginning of the rainy autumn of my understanding.
Here is the honest man, the just man,
his face a picnic blanket
shaken of crumbs.
His kind never remains unemployed.
He asks, 'Does anyone have a nail to drive into
the hole in my chest?'
My great-grandfather was like that,
and so was my grandfather and my father.
Maybe if I were a son I would have been the same,
staring up at a worthless father
(What a shame! I‘d say).
'How far should I go?' the son would ask only once.
'Until you lose sight of yourself.'
It might have been a dream,
because his family tree was struck down by
a bolt of lightning
before the succulent scent of burnt sugar emanating from the Katsura
spread over the village.
The smell of roots in the air, and the rain falling
like bees returning to their hive, all at once.
It‘s a tradition in my family to distinguish happy rain from
conceived above hilltops during summer.
I listen with one ear, waiting as if for the moment one recognises
that a stranger‘s voice
is indeed one‘s own voice.
My uncle asks for a 'fazzoletto' to wipe his glasses.
He has used that word since the time he went to Florence
to have his pneumonia cured – a time he remembers
as fondly as a honeymoon.
With my report card in his hand
veins throb at his temples – a matter of life or death.
He is the one to determine
whether I will be a brick for a wall
or a stone for a barn.
The hand that he hits with
is an instruction manual read only once
although the furrows on his palm – the limits of his destiny –
never leave scars on me.
'To hell with it! Bring me un fazzoletto!'
'If you have dark skin
your smile is exquisite,
neither incomplete nor flashing rotten teeth.'
F. knows this. She mourns for her son.
Early in the morning she opens the window
lights the kerosene stove
with a piece of crumpled telegram still in her hand
sweeps the yard, feeds the chickens, cooks for ten,
fixes the chair with the sphinx‘s arms
opposite the door.
And each day
with the claws of a hawk she fights against
begging for form and discipline
like the square plots of a field of wheat
guiding the part of herself that flies mercilessly
in a straight line
She accepts greetings with her eyes
and pathways open before her
like the Sabbath among other days,
dedicated to gratitude and prayer.
Medio tutissmus ibis, the middle is the safest ground.
The embroidered tablecloth in the middle of the table.
The table in the middle of the carpet.
The carpet in the middle of the room.
The room in the middle of the house.
The house in the middle of the block.
The block in the middle of the town.
The town in the middle of the map.
The map in the middle of the blackboard.
The blackboard in the middle of nowhere.
Lola is an angel. Her forehead hasn‘t grown since she was eight,
her centre of gravity unchanged. And she likes edges, corners,
although she always finds herself
in the middle of the bus
where people rush toward the doors at either end.
My neighbours never went to school
nor have they heard of aesthetics
and hardly ever have they read anything
about the Earth‘s axes, symmetry, or absolute truth.
But instinctively they let themselves drift toward the middle
like a man laying his head on a woman‘s lap,
a woman who, with a pair of scissors
will make him more vulnerable than ever
before the day is done.
Preparing for winter
isn‘t tradition, but instinct. We hurl our spare anxieties
like precious cargo from a shipwreck.
Taedium vitae is a time zone
that no longer exists.
The smell of boiled beans separates us
from our neighbours, a dream above the stove
separates us from our ancestors.
There isn‘t a middleman
between me and my talents.
The wind preaches with the nasal voice of a false prophet.
Years somersault over frozen slopes
and we instinctively hide our heads between our knees.
Limits wither away. My body
more abstract than ever, is a country without an anthem,
a country, delirious and once near death, which I touch
like a mother touching her lips to the forehead of her child
with a high fever.© translated by Henry Israeli
Waiting for a wittness / Një tjetër dëshmitar
Nonsense! Why would you wait for something created out of
Despite the washed and pressed sheets
the sterilised scalpel, iodine, the basket of biological vowels
and the nightshift doctor napping on a chair
like a landlady waiting for her husband
to come back empty-handed from hunting,
my autogenetically born child still wails.
My body, as if aimed by catapult at a disinfectant-sprayed wall
finds it difficult to be indoors
to awaken the distaste of three generations
and its only motive is continuity, hostage-taking, and a political cause
tricky as the screech of a night owl that awakens an avalanche.
A window slams shut; tobacco gardens bend
in awe toward the soul that first shaped despair.
Now comes more crying.
Behold which grandmother or great-grandmother of mine fell into
which one chose my daughter‘s body
as a witness: what she saw, heard, or touched
and more importantly, what she thought – but a witness isn‘t
allowed to think
after swearing herself in on the battered book of truth
with an illiterate hand.© translated by Henry Israeli
Prisoners / Të burgosurit
guilty or not
always look the same when they are released –
This one just passed through the gate
head bowed despite not being tall
his gestures like a Bedouin‘s
entering the tent
he carried on his back all day long.
Cotton curtains, stone walls, the smell of burnt lime
take him back to the moment
the cold war ended.
The other day his sheet was hung up in the courtyard
as if to flaunt the blood stain
after a wedding night.
Faces tarnished by sun
surround him, all eyes and ears:
'What did you dream of last night?'
A prisoner‘s dreams
made sacred by its missing passages.
His sister is still discovering his odd habits:
the bits of bread hidden in pockets and under his bed
the relentless chopping of wood for winter.
Why this fear?
What can be worse than life in prison?
but being unable to choose.© translated by Henry Israeli
They hasten to die / Ata nxitojnë të vdesin
They are dying one after the other;
shovelling earth on them has become as common
as sprinkling salt on food.
They all are of the same generation, my family,
or more accurately, of one era,
and the children of an era are like dogs tied to a sled:
in their search for gold
they either run together or fall together.
It is not mathematics,
but more like combs, combs which tame any hair‘s rebellion
after a mad flirtation before a mirror.© translated by Henry Israeli
The other side of mountains / Në anën tjetër të malit
The peak, covered in snow
all year long,
reflects the sky, but like a dogma
never touches it.
The electrocardiogram of sweat dried in the body
spreads from shirt to shirt
contagious as a flame, infecting everyone with its slow rhythm
to the youngest in the family, a little boy
lingering like a postscript
to everything that‘s already been said.
But it‘s not hard work that sweetens the cabbage,
harvests the corn, or repairs the beehives.
It‘s that warm sigh, while staring at the mountain
on the other side of which
'life is, of course, better'.
The sigh is like a woman who sleeps with everybody.
Do whatever you want to her
but never ask her name
even as you leave.
Everyone here resembles each one another,
not because of incest, but because they all fuck
the same woman
who emits pheromones of the Unknown.
The Centaur constellation
highlights a narrow goat‘s path,
the only way out of the village.
'Goodbye,' is often heard, but never 'Welcome!'
The doors, decorated with mignonettes,
are a euphemism for the fear
that one day someone will return
to tell of what happens on the other side of the mountain.© translated by Henry Israeli
Flashback 1 / Flashback 1
In the sweltering August of 1972
the napes of the movers‘ necks look green
as they load furniture onto a truck.
'Watch out! Don‘t step on the flowers!' my mother warns.
The flowers would whither three days later.…
The house empties out as if by x-ray
and the neighbours‘ compassion
melts away, an ice compress
held against a wound.
We move somewhere else,
where gratitude instills itself like balconies on faces
and adventure is fixed on a stick
like a rooster-shaped lollipop.
I am only three. I do not know what promises are
and no one tells me
that a childhood without promises is bread
without yeast, still sweet yet tough and dry.
My father cannot be seen anywhere
for my father has not yet been born.
He will be born in another chapter
when I begin to feel the need to be someone‘s protector
a little shadow growing slowly between my legs
like a microphone stand.© translated by Ani Gjika
The man without land / Njeriu pa tokë
I am a man without land.
Everything I have is written diagonally across my face,
the word 'fragile' on a gift sent
during the holidays.
My grandfather grappled with his land
like a wolf in a trap
all alone in the world.
It was a fight without surprises, with intermittent ceasefires
and without flesh wounds: it was all-consuming.
His steps were enormous, his gaze like the mouth of a flesh-eating
empty and free of assumptions.
When he lost the fight
he turned around and saw
all that had happened behind him:
the manna tree grew tall, overshadowing the neighbour‘s yard,
his wife dead with one foot bare
and his sons aged into old bachelors.
My grandfather never built a tower. Instead, he spoke a horizontal
and talked to God through it: he bought land, a lot of land. He
and he swore at his creator who once told him
that he would never be able to think about tomorrow.
I am different; I am a man without land
and nothing ever happens behind my back.
I always live in the moment
like a wet piece of paper
stuck to the bumper of a truck travelling down the road.© translated by Henry Israeli
Meditation while shaving / Meditim me shkumë në fytyrë
Shaving after work? What for?
It reminds me of my father
a long time ago
standing before a mirror, cracked as
corn grits cooked without fat.
He went on shaving at that hour
a razor sliding up and down
clearing a path from temple to chin
like the words of an apostle
and as his tongue twisted like a snail
emptying one cheek and filling the other
his words rebounded from the glass:
'The power of a man, my son,
is measured by the things he doesn‘t do.
Passion should be kept hidden, like a turnip!'
It was as if breaking a rule, almost blasphemy
when I, years later,
early in the morning, before doing any housework
started shaving my own 'thorn bush‘
using my father‘s razor.
When my hand trembled, I called out to God.
It wasn‘t difficult. It was like searching for a barber
in a familiar neighbourhood.
God is not used to saying, 'What can I do for you, young man?'
The cross is older than man.
Here I am, without a single cut
my neck lit up as if by an internal lamp.
'A clean shave,' my dad always said,
my dad whose eyes at death –
his face unshaven for days
looking like a swarm of ants
trying to lift a grain of wheat –
caved in like the crumpled napkin of a child
made to leave the table
still hungry.© translated by Henry Israeli
Flashback 2 / Flashback 2
Heart of November. Wind blows
like a shuffling of eras.
Snow and my mother‘s face
wait in the background
to test their philosophy
Lights, like a line of ants, lead
to the dining-room. I am the bride.
It‘s the end of the ceremony. And as I prepare to sleep
others carefully remove twenty-one pins from my head,
as many as the years I‘ve lived.
I know almost nothing of life;
know only that in sharp turns
experience matters less than two burning
lights in the chest.
I try to hide my happiness under white fuzz
like an orange, carefully peeled.
I have emerged cunningly from my genetic prophecy,
holding on tight to the belly of the ram
out of the Cyclops‘ cave.
If I struggle to part the curtains a little
with two well-manicured fingers,
I will see two shadows moving in harmony on the asphalt
the musician and the cello after the concert:
man and the anti-prophecy.© translated by Ani Gjika