A while back, in my favorite new/used bookstore (lately defunct, I hate to say—more on that in a future post), I stumbled on Fresco: Selected Poetry of Luljeta Lleshanaku. Lleshanaku is Albanian, and what do I know about Albania? Absolutely nothing! So this discovery has been a double one: a country known as Illyricum in ancient times but dominated in the 20th century by brutal Stalinist regimes, and a young woman born to write poetry in an age of repression and transition. (Peter Constantine‘s Introduction beautifully puts Lleshanaku and her country into context.) Lleshanaku’s poems are fresh, fierce and surprising. Here are a couple of examples:
There is no prophecy, only memory.
What happens tomorrow
has happened a thousand years ago
the same way, to the same end—
and does my ancient memory
say that your false memory
is the history of the featherhearted bird
transformed into a crow atop a marble mountain?
The same woman will be there
on the path to reincarnation
her cage of black hair
her generous and bitter heart
like an amphora full of serpents.
There is no prophecy, things happen
as they have before—
death finds you in the same bed
lonely and without sorrow, shadowless
as trees wet with night.
There is no destiny, only laws of biology;
fish splash in water
pine trees breathe on mountains.
OUT OF BOREDOM
Out of boredom
roebucks lie down with toads
night swallows the moon
like a sleeping pill
and sky become lace
on the veil of a dreamer.
A white strand of smoke rises
like a cypress
from a burning cigarette.
The clock tower warbles a soldier’s old tune
the one he whistles as he polishes his steel crutches.
An old woman’s fingers, anxious as a child’s
held out for a nickel, tap a tarot card.
Out of boredom
footsteps consume the streets
with the hunger of Chaplin in a silent film.
Out of boredom the soul, like an amoeba,
expands and divides
so that it will no longer be alone.
The book’s bibliography lists individual poems by the book they appeared and lists them again sorted by translator—although the translation process seems a bit mysterious. The bibliography states that all but three of the poems were “cotranslated by Henry Israeli,” presumably to avoid the shifts in tonality that can occur in collections translated by several hands.
More mysterious is the ordering of poems. As the editor Henry Israeli notes, the poems “are not arranged chronologically or even thematically. Rather, the order is constructed intuitively….” I’d feel better about this if the arrangement reflected Lleshanaku’s own intuition.
But these mysteries are minor issues and can’t dim the brilliance of this poetry, even as it comes to us through the filter of multiple translators and the English language, which seems as different from Shqip (the Albanian language) as it is from Chinese or Urdu. How powerful Lleshanaku’s poems must be in their original tongue!