On Luljeta Lleshanaku

Michael Hofmann

Luljeta Lleshanaku is an Albanian poet, born in Elbasan in 1968. Following the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985 and the end of dictatorship in Albania in 1990, she was belatedly allowed to attend university, and has worked – multitasking, in the manner of gifted people in small populations – as a teacher, magazine editor, journalist and screenwriter. Currently she is research director at the Institute of Studies of Communist Genocide in Albania, which one wishes for the author’s sake might be a sinecure, but almost certainly isn’t. Her eight books of poetry have been digested into three in the US, Fresco (2002), Child of Nature (2010) and the newly appeared Negative Space; meanwhile, Bloodaxe give us the same poems, introduction and afterword in just two volumes, the double-strength Haywire (2011) and the textidentisch Negative Space (Bloodaxe, £12). Earlier Lleshanaku poems were done by the pioneering Henry Israeli and perhaps a dozen other translators. The new book is translated by Ani Gjika, an Albanian-born American poet, who is ideally placed to traffic between the land of her birth and her adopted homeland, the way Charles Simic has done since the 1960s with Serbia (see his anthology of Serbian poetry, The Horse Has Six Legs, and his numerous single volumes of Lalic, Tadic, Ristovic, Salamun and many more). I wish her patience, talented originals, and many decades.

Lleshanaku is hardly new on the international scene (in 2011, in Finland, as one could read in the magazine Guernica, a Slovak poet settled in Mexico was hearing her praises sung by a poet from Iran – this is how things happen in poetry), but she is new to me. Her combination of plain-spokenness and intelligence would have been welcome at any time; at present, when poetry seems to have fought itself to a standstill, when there are no longer any groups or individuals, only on the one hand nonsensical, mutually supportive groupings of individuals and, on the other, individuals who can see no higher goal than to serve as mouthpieces for groups, it is indispensable. In ‘More Than a Retrospective’ Lleshanaku writes: ‘I was born of a dead hope/like a sprig of grass/between sidewalk slabs.’ These are poems of urgency and imagination, seemingly unaware of the reader and the critic, and certainly not playing up to them, uncluttered and for the most part unforced; they carry Lleshanaku into the proximity of the great 20th-century poets of Central and Eastern Europe: Akhmatova, Herbert, Holub, Szymborska, Zagajewski.

What is the more striking about this is that it seems to have been done largely without books, or without external knowledge. This fact emerges less from the poems themselves, which are cool, brittle and uncomplaining – it’s only the West that goes Wah! – than from the helpful introduction to Fresco by the panglossian Peter Constantine, who supplies some historical and cultural background. Lleshanaku’s poems have a flavour and a feeling and a world, but they’re not such that you would back yourself to make her life story out of them. So it is from Constantine that we learn of the utter political isolation of Hoxha’s Albania (compounding its poverty and its geographical and linguistic and cultural remoteness), cutting itself off from its last ally, Mao’s China, after 1972 (when Nixon travelled there); consequently, the ‘almost complete moratorium on the circulation of foreign books, and translations of foreign literature’; the ideological purity of what could be published, with a fantastic, alphabetical embargo on ‘abstract humanism, anarchism, bourgeois objectivism, bureaucratism, conservatism, decadentism, ethnologism, folklorism, formalism, imperialism, individualism, mysticism, nihilism, patriarchalism, revisionism, or sentimentalism, to name a few’; the appetite for verse in a population of less than three million, to hear of which always touches the Western reader (who isn’t peckish, and has other, more entertaining entertainments in mind), like being reminded of a dead nerve; and the subsequent poetry ‘that came out of the hope, fear, hunger and despair of Albania’s desperate post-Stalinist 1990s … wild and creative, reflecting the chaotic but hopeful situation in Albania’. ‘Albanian literary critics,’ Constantine writes, ‘eyed this development with a mix of fear and ecstasy.’

This is the context Lleshanaku was born into, into a family that was imprisoned and tortured and sentenced to forced labour and internal exile: ‘an era of forbidden books’, as she puts it in a short afterword to Haywire, ‘books that were victims of the cultural revolution, mostly translated Russian classics: Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and sometimes an American like Walt Whitman’. Constantine again: ‘Her poetry has little connection to poetic styles past or present in America, Europe, or the rest of the world.’ Apparently, it isn’t even particularly Albanian either. ‘We have in Lleshanaku a completely original poet.’ One who hymns the year of her birth like this: ‘1968. At the dock, ships arriving from the East/dumped punctured rice bags, mice/and the delirium of the Cultural Revolution.’ A neighbour like this: ‘She is the skeleton key, the collective curse/on a night that reeks of sardines and enzymes.’ And a betrayal like this: ‘Late at night, an aluminium lid/above a sprig of parsley –/limp nerve floating in a cold lemony broth’. But perhaps there is something in the Balkan water, or the Balkan genes, because, even though it may have got there by itself, a Lleshanaku poem will be a welcome and familiar thing to a reader of Herbert or Szymborska. It seems almost like an experimental object, a child’s poem, or a poem in a state of nature; life synthesised from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen; in the failed political experiment of the isolated Albanian state, the successful counter-experiment of the isolated Albanian poem.

Like the best of the ‘Eastern’ poets, or the poets of ‘the other Europe’ (Al Alvarez and Philip Roth) or ‘the poets of survival’ (Daniel Weissbort), Lleshanaku is material, then metaphorical, then material again:

The search for unknown words
is a complete failure.
They have all been discovered.
They are round and soft, without mystery
little planets festering with ants too tired
to mount a hobo’s shoe.

Poetry to her is chiefly a mode of inquiry. ‘What was it like? What happened? How did it feel?’ the poems ask themselves. The blandishments of the art hardly interest her; no pleasantness, no chitchat, no amenities; she doesn’t care to ingratiate herself with a coterie or a public. This is not one of your box-tickers. ‘When I read poems aloud,’ she says in her interview in Guernica,

people who don’t speak Albanian praise the sound of the language, but I never took that as a compliment. In my opinion, poetry is not a sound and shouldn’t be perceived as musicality. To me, poetry is a rational act. I never write a poem if I’m not sure what I am going to say or what I want to communicate.

Her poems function like the old-fashioned slide rule, a grid of fact pushed along another grid of fact, then you look up and across and find your answer under a hair-line. Physical fact and metaphor, metaphor and simile, are kept in alternation. ‘I always live in the moment/like a wet piece of paper/stuck to the bumper of a truck travelling down the road’ (‘The Man without Land’). Lleshanaku says it with dumped punctured rice bags and mice. ‘The winds make love/in rusted cans’ (‘The Moon in November’). A poem is a box of grim truths, or else the pursuit of a fizzing and unpredictable thought, mostly through darkness: ‘We turn out the lights, get ready for bed,/our heads glowing like lemons in the dark,/sour and dissatisfied’ (‘After the Evening Movie’). Just as Herbert writes of his alter ego, Mr Cogito, ‘He adored tautologies/explanations/idem per idem,’ so Lleshanaku tells herself: ‘Reveal certain facts and res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself.’

Over time and many books Lleshanaku has perhaps lost some of her abruptness and starkness, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to us, and it wasn’t to her; in 2010, she wrote: ‘Exposed to the wide range of world literature, Albanian writers are suddenly conscious that the water we’ve been swimming in is much deeper than we had thought.’ It is indeed a dismaying feeling, and beautifully caught. She talks about a residency once in New Hampshire, where she wrote several new poems, but ended up discarding almost all of them:

I felt as if I was following the wrong star, as if I had falsely adapted my literary sensibilities to an American aesthetic. It was too easy to embrace the philosophy of a culture immersed in a long tradition of individualism, metaphysical perspectives and continuity, where artists and writers simply add a stone in a wall that has been under construction for centuries. It is a philosophy completely alien to my culture.

This she then goes on to describe as follows: ‘In Albania everything happens in 24 hours. Each day you have to build a new house, a house that will probably be destroyed that same evening.’ Clearly, it is hard to keep faith with a reality, an atmosphere, an imperative that have been confused, that no longer always obtain.

Negative Space seems rather more conventional than the earlier books, from its epigraph from Oscar Wilde, to the 19-part persona poem about the Antarctic explorer Frank Wild, which just about anyone might have written, and isn’t a patch on W.S. Graham’s book Malcolm Mooney’s Land or Brodsky’s ‘A Polar Explorer’, to a standard-issue inter-poet wadding of references to Archimedes, Bismarck, the Bible, Elizabeth Bishop, classical mythology, Coltrane, Einstein, Freud, King Lear, Marie Antoinette, Picasso, Puccini, Ramesses, Van Gogh and so forth. (One of the pleasures of earlier Lleshanaku, you realise wistfully, is the absence of such things, in the way that Prague or Budapest used not to be lit up at night and their streets not stuffed with advertising posters and neon.)

Now there are poems about airports and hotels. There is a poem called ‘A Conversation with Charles Simic’ and another written in the voice of Menelaus (‘Menelaus’ Return’). In fact, they are both brilliant poems, two of the best in the book, and Menelaus’ drolly sad musing on Helen – ‘She’s mine now, but I have no idea what to do with her’ – can stand beside Brodsky’s ‘My dear Telemachus,/the Trojan War/is over now, I don’t recall who won it’; but the point stands. Also, the poems seem to have been stretched, as though by Herbert’s ‘Damastes (also known as Procrustes)’; apart from the three long sequences, there’s hardly one of them that doesn’t come in at around fifty lines. It reminds me of my old thought, ‘One line for each year of life.’ More seriously, perhaps, the poems have a way of running out of road or identifying their subject too late; it is easy to surmise at the plight of the manic 24-hour housebuilder setting New England stones, or the maker of dry-stone walls now wondering where to lay her head. Poems like ‘January 1, Dawn’ or ‘First Week of Retirement’ that remember and hook their beginnings are in the minority; more typical is one like ‘Night Fishing’, which is as much about tobacco as ‘Tobacco’ is, or ‘Almost Yesterday’, where a memory, unasked, surfaces to disturb a poem about strangers building a house next door.

But perhaps all this is intrusive, over-empathetic, panicky. The new poems are full of absolutely striking passages and lines: ‘His life is simple, made up of speed and knives’; ‘Every day the mirror wakes up in a bad mood./An endless field of frost glistens/on the cabbages beyond the window’; ‘You didn’t need much to feed them; just a few crusts of insomnia and the tents’ punctured holes’; ‘Days were never this long before./Their whiteness a lactose too difficult to break down’; ‘He falls asleep as fast as a book that drops from his hand’; ‘His melancholy intervenes at the right moment,/like wrapping a nude woman in a jacket’; ‘a mixture of doubt, hope and ammonia’, reminiscent of Miroslav Holub’s ‘fear on a methane base’. The loss of the hácek in the American pronunciation of Charles Simic’s name throws up this sensational beginning (‘A Conversation with Charles Simic’):

Las Vegas. In a bar. A hybrid light half-red, half-orange
highlights vague parentheses on people’s faces. Wrinkles.
I am sitting next to Charles Simic.
His last name is pronounced differently
in his new language than in his mother tongue;
the final consonants hardened along the way
like cardboard boxes drenched on the deck of a ship
only to dry again under another sun.

I don’t know that I have ever read a droller description of the price of survival than this ‘hybrid light’, these vague parentheses, this toughened cardboard, this lost hácek. After all, Brodsky (in his essay ‘Acorns Aweigh’) spoke of ‘the tragicomedy of exile’. Negative Space is as full of trademark-Lleshanaku violence, sickness and chemical elements as anything before. It shades from wisdom into folklore and back:

The moment you learn how to negotiate –
five desserts for a single cigarette,
five years of life for a failed romance,
five butterfly lives for five caterpillar days in a cocoon –
you understand
that bitterness is the key to existence.

(‘The End of Summer’)

It has Lleshanaku’s amazing invention of the metaphor that works, but only posthumously, as here:

Overnight, the dome was demolished, instantly revealing
a myriad of nameless stars that chased the crowd
like flies on a dead horse

(‘Negative Space’)

Or here, also from ‘Negative Space’:

                                            Some words
were actually never uttered, like pages stuck together
in a book fresh off the press
and long after it sits on a shelf.

Or here:

That’s when we saw each other clearly.
Or rather, what remained of us.
Damaged like lottery numbers
scratched away with a blade.

(‘Via Politica’)

It is her discovery in these pages that ‘nothing exists until its moment of absence.’