Essay

One Closed Eye

Luljeta Lleshanaku confronts the trauma of history.

The poet Luljeta Lleshanaku was born in Albania in 1968, just after that country’s long-reigning Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, instituted a cultural revolution to outdo the one Mao had launched in China two years earlier. Hoxha, a communist partisan turned dictator, abolished religion in Albania, persecuted writers suspected of having strayed from Communist Party orthodoxy, and further isolated his small European nation from the rest of the world. Like many others who were part of the anti-communist resistance, Lleshanaku’s family was marked as enemies of the regime and suffered imprisonment and marginalization as a result, including a period of forced labor. Lleshanaku herself was deemed to have a “bad biography” and wasn’t permitted to continue her education. She began writing poetry at age 18, but Albanian publishers were directed not to accept her work, and she was hired at a factory instead. Since the fall of the regime in 1990, however, she has published eight collections of poetry to much critical acclaim and has received major literary awards both at home and abroad—a rare achievement for an Albanian poet. 

Four of Lleshanaku’s collections have appeared in English: Fresco (2002), Child of Nature (2010), Haywire (2011), and Negative Space (2018). Although she lives in the Albanian capital of Tirana, where she works as an editor, a translator, a journalist, and the director of research at the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes and Consequence in Albania, she’s deeply familiar with American poetry. She studied in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and received fellowships from the University of Iowa and the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In the afterword to Haywire, she describes her life as having “partly shifted to America.” Yet she remains aware of the imperfect fit between an American aesthetic—“immersed in a long tradition of individualism, metaphysical perspectives, and continuity, where artists and writers simply add a stone to a wall that has been under construction for centuries”—and her own voice, rooted in Albania’s sense of impermanence. Hers is a country, she writes, where “each day you have to build a new house, a house that will probably be destroyed that same evening.”

The scarcity of translated literature from abroad and the suppression of important native works that predated Hoxha’s regime contributed to Albania’s stunted literary culture. Until about 1992, Albanians were raised on a diet of socialist realism, 19th-century classics, Russian futurism, and the occasional clandestine reading of banned titles. The country’s young poets keenly felt the absence of contemporary poetry not sanctioned by the state. Once the regime fell, Albanians were “exposed to any kind of cultural ‘attack,’ all at once,” Lleshanaku has said. “It was an urgent run towards the world which was refused us for about 47 years.” In the flood of books from abroad that followed, many writers embraced the project of finding a way forward for Albanian literature.

Lleshanaku stands as a singular voice in this national project. The translator Peter Constantine has described her work as having little connection to previous poetic models, in either Albania or the rest of the world, although the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai is a notable counterpart. Lleshanaku has cited Amichai’s ability to connect the personal to the collective “through metaphors, through creating parallel realities.” In an interview with the poet S. J. Fowler, she says of Amichai, “His observation exceeds the white circle of private life. And especially there is always a ‘why’ in his air, something which asks a response in history. ... I saw a lot of suffering around and the question ‘why’ became an instinct for me too.”

Poetry has played a significant historical role in Albania. Fearing Albanian nationalism, the Ottoman Empire suppressed the Albanian language (both written and oral) and banned Albanian-language schools. As a result, a standardized written form wasn’t established until the early 20th century, although a resilient oral tradition flourished. Albania’s national epic, Gjergj Fishta’s The Highland Lute (Lahuta e malcís), was mostly composed between 1902 and 1909 and consists of more than 15,000 lines largely shaped by the oral verse of northern Albania. Today, Albanian lahutars (players of the one-stringed lahuta) are the last remaining European native singers of oral epics.

Albania has also been a nation of readers, particularly during the communist era, when reading was one of the few pleasures the regime permitted. As Constantine writes, “The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, with a population of three million, was a nation of poetry bestsellers.” That’s still true to some extent, although writers have had to contend with the country’s sudden access to television and film. Lleshanaku has said that “far from being only amusement, [under communism] reading was the only way to survive morally and emotionally. But now we live in an open society, exposed to the propaganda of commercialism in consumer societies, where art and literature are just luxuries.”

Nearly a half century of oppression made Albanians aware of poetry’s subversive power. Censorship under Hoxha exceeded that of other Eastern Bloc nations, and the number of literary figures imprisoned or murdered during his more than 40-year rule is astonishing. The murder of playwright Ndre Zadeja in 1945 marked the beginning of the brutal cultural persecution, which went on to include the 18-year imprisonment of Musine Kokalari, Albania’s first successful female writer, who after her sentence spent the remaining two decades of her life as a street sweeper in internment. It’s not surprising then that Albania boasts an impressive body of “prison” literature (some of which hasn’t been translated to English), which includes Arshi Pipa’s The Prison Book (1959) and Visar Zhiti’s The Memory of the Air (1993) and I Cast a Skull at Your Feet (1994). The contemporary poet Gëzim Hajdari, himself an exile because of violence and corruption in the post-communist period, chronicles the atrocities against Albanian writers in Funeral Lament: The Genocide of Albanian Poetry (2010), adding his voice to the long tradition of bearing witness.

It’s a largely insular tradition, though, as few Albanian works have been translated into English. The notable exception is Ismail Kadare, the country’s most famous writer and winner of the Man Booker Prize, who is best known not for his poetry but for allegorical novels such as The General of the Dead Army (1963), The Palace of Dreams (1981), and The Pyramid (1992). A former member of the Parliament of Albania and the Writers’ Union and favored by Hoxha, Kadare sought asylum in France on the eve of the regime’s collapse. He remains a polarizing figure given his implication in the censorship of other Albanian writers and encapsulates the difficulty of untangling literature from politics in his homeland.

In the years after Hoxha’s death in 1985, any hope for change was dashed as Albanians witnessed the continuation of the totalitarian state under Ramiz Alia, Hoxha’s handpicked successor. In 1990, thousands stormed foreign embassies to seek asylum, provoking a crackdown on those unable to flee. The eventual end of the dictatorship and the cultural opening of the nation brought moments of turmoil: swings between democratic and socialist administrations, chaos and violence in the wake of a national investment scandal in the late 1990s, a failed attempt to restore the monarchy, and the return of figures associated with the country’s communist past. In short, many old wounds remain.

On the occasion of Negative Space, Ani Gjika’s excellent new translation of Lleshanaku’s most recent work, an understanding of these political and cultural realities deepens readers’ experience. Critics tend not to label Lleshanaku a political writer, but because her life, as well as the lives of other family members—one-time “enemies of the people”—is an artistic starting point, issues of justice, guilt, violence, and power inevitably recur in her poetry. As is often the case with writers who have lived through transitions to democracy in Eastern Bloc nations, her poems seem to speak to the experience of an entire generation. Indeed, poetry in translation leads some readers to expect rare access to a culture the poems ostensibly embody. This expectation is even more pronounced in literature from Albania, which until the 1990s was a nation so isolated as to be nearly unknowable from the outside. Even now, it remains too small a country (the population is less than three million) to command much attention in the English-speaking world. Lleshanaku doesn’t avoid addressing her country or her generation, but in her work, she strives to go beyond political and historical specificities to illuminate a shared humanity.

In Negative Space, Lleshanaku searches for answers to Amichai’s existential and historical “why.” One may read this collection as a poetry of witness, as Lleshanaku seeks to understand significant moments of recent Albanian history through the lens of her family’s experiences. However, the poet complicates the act of witnessing by refusing to denounce those responsible for atrocities. She instead focuses on poetry’s ability to help people come to terms with trauma. The book’s opening poem, “Almost Yesterday,” recalls the narrator as a 12-year-old girl watching her parents return from making love in the barn, “looking around in fear / like two thieves.” Familiarity with fear and deprivation mean that her empathetic, if deliberately inattentive, eye will retain these memories over the decades: “You cannot easily forget what you watch with one closed eye— / the death of the hero in the film, / or your first eclipse of the sun.”

Via Politica” captures the aftermath of nearly five decades of totalitarianism and the extraordinary, sometimes frightening, transformation of a nation:

But how similar we were in severe circumstances!
Alarmed like a flock of magpies
that the smallest stone sends into the sky
toward the mouth of the abyss.

Memories of an oppressive family life (“I grew up in a big house / where weakness and expressions of joy / deserved punishment”) give way to images of people bearing traces of those dark years into the present, “Damaged like lottery numbers / scratched away with a blade.” Though the paths they choose may differ, these people can’t excise the collective events, the “annoying history of wretched survival,” that they’ve internalized:

Some went on living via verbum,
telling of what they knew, what they witnessed,

[…]

The others crossed over the ocean.

And those in particular who went farthest away
never speak of their annoying history
of wretched survival, burying it
in the darkest crevices of their being.
Unfortunately, as with perfume, its scent
lingers there for much, much longer.

“The Deal” hinges on the dilemma of the poet-witness in a post-communist world: “Only my eyes haven’t aged, the eyes of witness, / useless now that peace has been dealt.” Returning to her home in the northern citadel town of Kruja, where she spent her childhood (and where she has said she prefers to write), Lleshanaku finds a place eroded by time yet still charged with familial memory:

The furniture’s gone. So are the letters from prison.
The double-pleated jacket was the last to be thrown out,
the one with dozens of buttons, reeking of naphthalene,
a relic of the ’40s.

Her uncle has returned to a kind of house arrest in which he merges with the objects around him: “His voice blends with the one from the TV, / like a heart that beats with the rhythm of a pacemaker / implanted on the other side of the chest.” Here we encounter another threat that a transformed world poses. Invisible presences—what Lleshanaku elsewhere describes as the “erased objects and the missing human beings,” whether victims of the regime or victims of time—are the negative spaces from which the collection takes its title. Like history itself, these phantoms test the limits of comprehension and engender unexpected stories. In Lleshanaku’s concise formulation, “[n]egative space is always fertile.”

Along with the title poem, Negative Space contains two other long poems: “Homo Antarcticus” and “Water and Carbon.” In these works, Lleshanaku’s stories find enough space to evolve into the parallel realities that she admires in Amichai, in which individual lives are the starting points for a meditation on historical traumas and the causes of suffering. The opening of “Negative Space” is overtly autobiographical but hints at other possible lives beyond those prepared for, and sanctioned by, the state: 

I was born on a Tuesday in April.
I didn't cry. Not because I was stunned. I wasn't even mad.
I was the lucky egg, trained for gratitude
inside the belly for nine months straight.

Two workers welded bunk beds at the end
of the delivery room. One on top of the other.
My universe might have been the white lime ceiling,
or the embodiment of Einstein’s bent space
in the aluminum springs of the bed above
that curved toward the center.

In the hospital, a worker reminiscent of the bureaucrats who direct souls through Dante’s hell clears the space into which these new lives, already devoid of possibility, are drawn:

With a piece of cloth wrapped on the end of a stick,
the janitor casually extends the negative space
of the black-and-white tiled floor
like a mouth of broken teeth, a baleen of darkness
sieving out new human destinies.

The narrator goes on to revisit some of the grimmest moments that followed the proclamation of the world’s first atheist state in 1967: the persecution of clerics and the destruction of churches and mosques, a devastated economy, and near famine conditions left by Albania’s break with the Soviet Union, despite aid shipments from China. Lleshanaku dramatizes the human inability to experience overwhelming historical events as anything other than personal:

1968. At the dock, ships arriving from the East
dumped punctured rice bags, mice
and the delirium of the Cultural Revolution.

 

A couple of men in uniform 
cleared out the church 
in the middle of the night. 
The locals saw the priest in the yard
wearing only his underwear, shivering from the cold.
Their eyes, disillusioned, questioned one another:
“Wasn't he the one who pardoned our sins?”

While these locals seem to look on with the eyes of children, the young Lleshanaku develops her capacity to read negative spaces and thus understand something of the “ending of things”: “I learned to read the empty spaces the dead left / behind—a pair of folded glasses / after the reading’s done and discourse commences.” As the young girl searches for an alternative to the language she encounters at school, she doesn’t look into the future—Lleshanaku says of her own childhood, “Everything foretold: “You have no future!”—but toward a past so distant as to be nonexistent:

After dusk, I looked for another language outside the window,
my eyes glued to a constellation
(they call these types “dreamers”)
my discovery possibly a journey into the past,
toward a galaxy already dead, nonexistent,
the kind of news that needs millions of years
to reach me.

She discovers the eloquence of eroded (and erosive) language and of words that absent loved ones never uttered. Censored letters from prison that seem to communicate only banalities—“‘I am well…’ and ‘If you can, / please send me a pair of woolen socks’”—train her to read for the “negative spaces, the unsaid, gestures, / insomnia that like a hat’s shadow / fails to shade your chin and ears.”

In the 412-line, free-verse “Homo Antarcticus,” Lleshanaku tells the story of Frank Wild, an adventurer who went on five expeditions to the Antarctic in the early 20th century. During one expedition, he and 21 men waited four months on Elephant Island for rescue and lived in a makeshift shelter constructed of two inverted boats while battling frostbite and hunger.

We already had nothing. We belonged to no one.
An entirely new species: HOMO ANTARCTICUS.
A scientific proof that “forgotten” and “free”
mean the same thing. …

For months in Antarctica,
we waited for our shadow to return
and consumed that question you ask yourself only once in your
lifetime,
the way one consumes chickenpox.

And the rest of the time,
we counted the scars left on our faces,
with a gesture you could call indifferent and epic,
or childlike.

The rescued Wild returns to England but, like Rip Van Winkle, finds a world that’s unrecognizable to him. In Lleshanaku’s remarkable poem, the narrator is condemned to a “post-”existence, looking back on a life of hardship and deprivation that offered at least relative clarity. Wild’s story resonates with the experience of the Albanian people (and its poets). Lleshanaku processes the events of the past obliquely; one story always seems to conceal another that’s closer to home. 

In “Acupuncture,” Lleshanaku suggests that something other than allegory may be behind the impulse to read for concealed narratives. Acupuncture’s efficacy depends on the unfathomable connections between distinct, and distant, sites of pain: “Long before knowing why, / ancient doctors knew that pain / must be fought with pain. … A little pain here, / and the effect is felt elsewhere.” The discovery of this mechanism coincides with the young poet’s self-realization:

I was a child when my first teacher
mispronounced my last name twice. That pricked me
                 like a needle.
A small needle in the earlobe. And suddenly,
my vision cleared—
I saw poetry,
the perfect disguise.

Lleshanaku develops her own poetics, in which figurative language brings together disparate sites of pain and the poem’s work on the familiar, the proximate, opens mysterious pathways to an “elsewhere” across the world and in unexpected cultures. A brief episode in “Acupuncture” presages the narrative of the poet-explorer in “Homo Antarcticus”: 

Once, a group of explorers set out to plant a flag on the South Pole,
a needle at the heel of the globe, in the middle of nowhere.
But before the mission was completed
a new world war had begun.
The impact of the needle was felt in the world’s brain,
in the lobe responsible for short-term memory.

Wild becomes a victim of his own suffering and is never able to comprehend the world to which he returns. Acknowledging that she also ran this risk, Lleshanaku writes in “Water and Carbon” of a former political prisoner: “Nothing and no one came between you and your suffering. / One dissolved into another like salt in water / (and now you can’t remember which one of you preceded the other).” Fortunately, she found in poetry a tool to discover “the beauty and meaning in the midst of misery” and to produce fresh images that simultaneously embody the abstractions of historical suffering and fate and of hope and truth. 

Reading Lleshanaku’s poetry is a bit like meeting one of Albania’s many ex-political prisoners and finding something other than bitterness toward the past—namely, understanding, compassion, and even humor. This isn’t rare in a nation in which persecution under the regime was too pervasive to be recalled as private suffering. As a self-described “survivor” of the traumas of dictatorship, Lleshanaku speaks for the generations she carries inside her. In an earlier poem from Child of Nature, she writes, “They only wish to gently touch the world again / through me, the way latex gloves / lovingly touch the evidence / of a crime scene.” Her gift is to represent national trauma as a deeply human experience outside politics and ideology. That she does so with remarkable tenderness and intelligence makes her more than an important Albanian poet; she’s a necessary voice in a world that’s fractured and all too familiar with violence.

 

Originally Published: May 28th, 2018

Viktor Berberi is a literary scholar and translator. He teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.