February 21, 2013

essay "The Unshackling of Albanian Poetry," by John Taylor

The Unshackling of Albanian Poetry
by John Taylor

Lightning from the Depths: An Anthology of Albanian Poetry, translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press)

Blood of the Quill: Selected Poetry from Kosova, by Azem Shkreli, translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008)

TheCondemned Apple: Selected Poetry, by Visar Zhiti, translated by Robert Elsie (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005)

“A land within sight of Italy and less known than the interior of America….” This is how the British historian Edward Gibbon (1734-1794) described Albania in the eighteenth century, and Robert Elsie recalls the quip in his introduction to Lightning from the Depths, a pioneering anthology of Albanian poetry co-translated with Janice Mathie-Heck. “The spirit of this quotation has lost surprisingly little of its validity over the last two centuries,” adds Elsie. “Albania has until very recently been no better known to most other Europeans than Tibet or Timbuktu.”

     The same remark is even truer of Albanian poetry, and the reasons are essentially political. The mountainous Balkan country was ruled by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985) from the end of the Second World War to his death; and the terror continued for about five years thereafter. Hoxha’s and his successors’ hands were so brutal that serious writing was summarily suppressed for more than four decades. And because no politically independent foreign literati were allowed inside the country, little reliable information about what was secretly going on among Albanian writers seeped out until around 1990, when the democratization process painstakingly and chaotically began. Before this time, contemporary Albanian poets either compromised themselves with the regime, survived as best they could while remaining silent or, more frequently, were sent away to labor camps—about whose daily life some grim poems by Arshi Pipa (1920-1997) given indications. Elise and Mathie-Heck’s volume actually begins with northern Albanian epic verse from an ageless oral tradition and the gloomy, yet literarily path-breaking, poems of the Catholic priest Pjetër Budi (1566-1622), as well as gives samples from all the other historical periods, but the section devoted to modern and contemporary verse is more extensive. The personal suffering that is either expressed in the poems themselves or suggested by the biographical résumés of the poets is sobering.

     The excellent Mihal Hanxhari (1930-1999), for example, published nothing during his lifetime. His short poems show a refined sensibility that is about as far as one can get from the extreme militarization of the country during Hoxha’s reign, symbolized by countless armed bunkers and weapon-filled sea caves. Initially the director of the University of Tirana library, Hanxhari was fired from his job for political reasons in 1975, and ended up working at a local library branch. He expatriated to France in 1993, taught for two years, and died four years later. In his desk drawers were delicate paradoxes like this one:

I know, I know
It is not springtime
That will remember the leaves,
It is the leaves that will remember
The springtime

     Apropos of such poems, Elise and Mathie-Heck spot “poignant glimpses of nature not unlike those in Japanese haiku,” while the anthologists also rightfully hear echoes of the modern Green poet C. P. Cavafy in another kind of verse that Hanxhari produced. His melancholy love poems indeed employ soft erotic imagery and—little matter the ticking clock—conjure up timeless human sentiments:

When the window as like a sun
And in that shady room, summer came in from the garden,
And you lounging, your blouse undone,
With nipples, burn-clay-colored,

And the clock counted the passing of our lives,
Where is that afternoon
That has lingered in my memory, lounging
Like an Etruscan terracotta?

     Some of his wispy memories conceal sharper edges. Subtly inclusive is “Voiceless,” in which he compares the “mute pain we are to each other” to a tattoo, a “scare from coals on flesh,” the fractured fore-arm of a statue, and “the cold marble’s faults and cracks.” Personal suffering is transcribed as an indelible, ultimately voiceless memento—or momento mori—in this quiet poetry that provokes meditative moods in the reader instead of dazzling him with linguistic brilliance or formal originality.

     Few poets selected for Lightning from the Depths are audacious in poetic form; it is the emotional sincerity of the work that stands out, along with the refreshing lack of irony. “We will nail words / Into our age,” states Azem Shkreli (about whom more below). Poetry is no diversion for these poets who bring poetry to bear on the question “how to live.” Or, to turn over the coin by citing Shkreli once again: “Something must be said / Without rhyme without / Metre // Something must be thrust / Into the flesh of thought / Like a knife // Something must be said / Of how we die.”

     Albanian readers still favor poetry to prose, Elsie reports. Lightning from the Depths collects verse almost exclusively. Given this predominance, the finely crafted prose poems of Romeo Çollaku (b. 1973) are especially welcome. Drawing on childhood memories, folklore or natural phenomena, Çollaku arranges vivid images into fragmentary narratives of thought, emotion, and perception which, at the end, remain unresolved. The effects are haunting. Another prose text is provided by Parid Teferiçi (b. 1972), who humorously and poignantly captures the ambience of his homeland:

    In a country as small as this, so small that you could easily draw it on a one-to-one
scale on this packet of cigarettes, you don’t know where and how to sit or support
yourself: on the throat of your neighbor, or on the buttocks of the other fellow’s wife.
   Seated, huddled around the coffee table, how can you greet anyone without
Jabbing someone else with your elbow? How can you pay a compliment deafening
    We can see one another in our spoons, and we are warped.

     A key voice from the twentieth century is Martin Camaj (1925-1992). He escaped repression in his homeland simply because he spent most of his adult life teaching Albanian studies at the University of Munich. Exile takes on personal resonance in his poems, which sometimes juxtapose the ancestral traditions of Albania and the opulence of Western Europe. In “First Elegy,” for instance, he imagines his own death and then recalls his father’s death. Respecting customs at the time, his family “slaughtered two oxen / To feed the starving—and the ants of the threshing floor / With bread crumbs.” But the poet realizes that he will “die amidst people who are / Always full” and asks his wife to serve “only bitter coffee” at his wake. Other Albanian poets in contemporary settings likewise evoke rural folklore and mountain-life traditions that have persisted longer in their country than anywhere else in Europe. Expressing the synchronicity of contemporary civilizations now seems impossible to imagine in other European literatures, and will probably come to an end in Albanian writing as well.

     Camaj writes tersely, tensely, and was influenced by the Italian Hermetic poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. The affiliation can certainly be sensed in his stark humanism deeply rooted in the values of another age. “To the Modern Poet” sums up well the conflict that can be felt by an Albanian sensibility that is also, nevertheless, world-wise:

Your road is good:
The Parcae area the ugliest faces
Of classical myths. You did not write of them,
But of stone slabs and of human brows
Covered in wrinkles, and of love.

Your verses are to be read in silence
And not before the microphone
Like those of other poets,

The heart
Though under seven layers of skin
Is ice,

Though under seven layers of skin.

     Also noteworthy is Zef Zorba (1920-1993). Like Hanxhari, once is hand been imprisoned in “reeducation” camps between 1946 and 1951, he kept a low profile. “Somber this path,” he observes in a memorable piece from his only published book, Lips Frozen in Joy (1994):

…I cannot
Find my way without your
Light (What is this twinge?)

At the edge of the chasm
What lure and temptation,
Can’t you see how I teeter?

       Lindita Arapi (b. 1972) pits an individual against his own death in a different way. At first, the significance of the symbolic obstacle of a wall is left open in her short poem. “And if a wall, long and thick,” she initially asks, “should rise in front of you… / What would you do?” Two twists await the reader. The first comes in the form of a comforting reply: “I would close my eyes. I would crouch / An rest my cheek against it, / I would find peace in its cool serenity.” But the second perceives a graver possibility: “And if this wall were death…” Here the poem ends, speechless, but not necessarily despairing. A poem by Abullah Konuschevci (b. 1958) also moves from concrete detail to a wordless state. It is addressed to a woman who is “foolish enough / To bestow [her] love on [him].” He lists he defects (“gnawed liver,” “lashed lungs,” “insomnia”), then ends with this unexpectedly tender distich: “Heavy burden, / your fragile body.”

      Green Integer has issued two excellent selections of Albanian poetry respectively written by the aforementioned Azem Shkreli (1938-1997) and VisarZhiti (b. 1952), both of whom are also present in Lightning from the Depths. Shkreli was an Albanian speaker from Kosova—and the distinction is important in regard to the context in which he lived and wrote. During the rule of Tito (1944-1980) and thereafter, until the outbreak of the war in Yugoslavia, the Kosovar Albanian poets enjoyed more freedom of speech than did their Albanian counterparts because they were citizens of a region belonging to a relatively liberal Communist state. However, the living and educational conditions of Kosovar Albanians in Kosova, which is surrounded by Serbia—then a republic of Yugoslavia—were harsh, and the Kosovar Albanians were and continue to be the most frequent victims of the longtime, murderous conflict with the Serbs over this region. (Kosova declared its independence in 2008.) In his introduction to Lightning from the Depths, Else explicates the political turmoil necessarily informing the poetry that Shkreli and other Kosovar Albanian poets have written. “Anathema” sets the tone:

Because I had ancient sand, archaic dew
In my eyebrows, wine in the throat of my bird and because
One and one are two, like two guns, two women,
Two white stones above the head of very wise man,
Because there was no wound on this side of the river,
There were bridges, healing herbs and peace, and because
I kissed the luscious earth with my thick Neolithic lips,
Because I got my reed pipe out of hell and played it
To my light, scaring the clouds and crows away, because
I early sowed my shadow in the sun and because
I had fire on my spear, rye in my hair and strands of grey
On churches, on ages, on graves,
Because I had blood, and my leaf flute had language, they damned me.

     Shkreli often draws on archaic imagery associated with nature and specifically with the Rugova highlands (near Peja, in western Kosova) where he was born and spent his childhood. Rejecting superficial Western European values (“Europe drowses and droops over ponderous affairs, / (…) I never aspired / to your tastes, your whims which were not mine”), he forges symbols from the rural and mountain landscapes of his youth. A cliff inspires these reactions: “I envied your / Shadow and patience, // I kissed your / Thought one day and left. // I don’t know what you taught me / The pain of drip on stone.”

     His oeuvre returns time and again to the dichotomy of birth and death. One of these deaths is that of “poetry” in the decorative or rhetorical sense. Shkreli seeks to get back to fundamentals such, to quote Elise, “green pastures, suckling lambs, towering oak trees, pine-clad hills, stone cottages, one-stringed lahutas, stark grave markers, grazing horses, flintlock rifles, the white felt caps of traditional Albanian clothing, funeral biers, bridal dresses, and the staple foods of bread and salt. Yet he pursues this quest in no nostalgic manner, as is evinced in the salutary anti-poetic élan of “Unnoted”:

…This is not a poet, it is lines of verse
Not enough to endow thought to
Fowl or flower,
Which are secretly treading
On the mute murmur of things.
May this night bring us
Peace and innocent darkness.
This is not a poem, it is lines of verse,
The parchment of our fourth
Skin, as if to say
An age has withered, another day wasted away.

     Zhiti’s collection, The CondemnedApple, includes both prison poems from the years 1979-1987, and later verse written once he was able to flee to Italy for a while in 1991, and then stay abroad (including the United States, for the year 1994), until the political chaos in Albania had settle down. His fate at the hands of Koxha was so severe that it is a miracle that he survived. The poet’s troubles began when he prepared his collection Rapsodia e jetës së trëndafilave (Rhapsody of the Life of Roses) for publication in 1973. His departure from Marxist-Leninist sun symbolism tipped off the censors; he had mentioned a “second sun” that would “be born ‘ or our blood.” Denounced for anti-Communist agitation and propaganda, his manuscript was examined by two fellow writers. The Green Integer edition comprises a translation of their “expert opinion.” It is as enlightening as it is nauseating to peruse it.

      Ultimately arrested in 1979, Zhiti spent the next eight years in prison camps, including the infamous copper-mine prison at Spaç and the mountain prison of Qafë-Bari. “To keep his sanity,” specifies Elsie, Zhiti “composed and memorized over a hundred poems.” Beyond their importance as testimony, these prison poems bring to the fore complex feelings and original imagery. “Gratitude” depicts a young woman who passes by the prisoners daily, beyond the barbed wire. “[We] follow you / But with our eyes only,” admits the poet, “which shatter like glass…. / Barefoot we tread on the glass of our eyes / And never can reach you, never can reach you, / as if in a nightmare.” Another poem pays homage to a prisoner who has perished in a tunnel that has caved in. One of his friends takes the prisoner’s jacket. Zhiti then gives this exhortation:

Throw it at the feet
Of the officer at the gate,
In charge of the watchmen,
And say: “count it, are we all here?”
Take the jacket
And shield Albania’s trembling shoulders.

     The selection also includes a significant poet that declares, at the onset: “Life is less than hope.” Slowly but surely, however, and while making some candid asides (“And, still, I write poems / Though no one reads them,” followed by “And still, I write poems, which have destroyed my life”), Zhiti argues himself into an optimistic viewpoint. The concluding lines sum up what the discovery of his, and more generally Albanian, poetry can be like: “And when you consider / that even inscriptions on gravestones / have readers, // You come to realize that poetry is greater than hope.”

Copyright ©2010 by John Taylor. Reprinted from Antioch Review, Vol. 68, no. 4 (Fall 2010).

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