BANTAM – “Poetry is a bird. It ignores all frontiers.”
Bantam is one of the latest Albanian anthologies of poetry edited by Elizabeth Wade (Melburne, Australia) published by Austin Macauley Publishing in London almost a month ago. An anthology that does not pretend to be an official anthology that sums up the most talked Albanian poets of all times, as there are many authors whom have not been included in this anthology such as Kadare, Arapi, etc., and this for various reasons. Fatos Arapi, for example, did not want to partake in any anthology while he was alive. Yes, there is indeed a myriad other great Albanian poets out there but every foreign publisher has the right to unite poets linked by similar sentiments, styles or themes. And of course, other Albanian poets will certainly be featured in other anthologies, as the Albanian poetic world is a“rich poetic mine” consisting in many prominent and yet to be discovered talent.
Bantam is rather a non-pretentious poetry volume selected mostly by the translator Miranda Shehu-Xhilaga and editor Wade, the title of which, “Bantam”, positions poetry as being essential for the develpment of human senses. It was driven by the desire to offer to the reader some of the wonderful Albanian poetry written during decades of censorship and then during the post-comunist regime, during the enthusiastic era of democratic change and the great trauma of disappointment that came with the gain of freedom, a time when progress was threatened by authoritarianism, “pseudo-democracy”, violence and corruption. It was an era of great difficulty of creating a new pro-European culture. It is an opened door, an introduction of some of the most beautiful Albanian verse to the English reader. Here’s what Elizabeth Wade wrote in her afterword, desribing her experience and praising Albanian poets featured in this book:
“Those who dip into this volume will see the result of multiple labours of creativity. The poet is the birth mother, the translator, the midwife and me, perhaps the one who swaddles the offering. The translators had the almost impossible task of transporting the gift of often complex and multi-layered poems into a very different language, yet as speakers of Albanian, they knew the meanings and cultural depth they must bring to bear.
I am a word lover, and poetry makes great demands on the word. Words carry a heavy burden of knowledge, sense, assonance and intent, but they may not be obvious about it. The poet loads up words with history, feeling, possibilities and secrets, both communal and deeply personal. We all drink at the well but taste different flavours, because in poetry, words are capable of essential expressiveness, yet also dissimulation. That’s why we can carry a favourite poem with us all our lives and during all seasons, and find it continues to resonate and inspire insight; I have some that I know by heart, and they bring comfort in pain, pleasure on an ordinary day.”
The anthology includes 17 authors whom write in various styles and themes, like Dritëro Agolli, Frederik Rreshpja, Ndoc Gjetja, or Koçi Petriti, whom,through their metaphores, have written a lot about a different future but here you will find also extraordinary epitaphs like those of Ndoc Gjetja e Frederic Rreshpja. Each poet has contributed four poems, through which the reader is able to appreciate the individuality of each author. Much of this poetry collected by Miranda Shehu-Xhilaga, a passionate reader and also a poetess in her own right, is able to convey to us the intended message of the original verse, though it is difficult to find an identical idiom in another language that reflects one hundred percent the original expression or metaphore. This happens all the time with translated poetry from one language to another as is evident in antologies in all languages. Interestingly, individuals who undertake such projects do so simply for passionate reasons and almost without any reward. Some of the poets featured in this anthology are are brought in English by other well-known and also young translators such as Ani Gjika, Henri Israeli, Robert Eslie, Sidorela Risto and Uk Buçpapaj.
Miranda Shehu-Xhilaga begins the foreword of this antology with a quote of Russian poet Yevtushenko: “Poetry is a bird. It ignores all frontiers.”
A very significant saying when you think of these newly translated Albanian poems that cross the Balkans borders and fly away toother continents.
“Imagine a place, she writes, where people read to survive. Imagine a place where people go to extreme lengths to get their hands on banned books just to catch a glimpse of the outside world. This is a place where talent is censured and condemned in such a way that a gifted writer is forced to memorise his work; yes, Albanian poet Visar Zhiti, featured in this anthology, recorded more than 100 poems in his head while incarcerated.
Despite it all, one of the most brutal dictatorships in Eastern Europe would give birth to generations of dreamers, poets who sing to their country, freedom, love and a better life. In a country isolated from the rest of the world, poetry made life bearable. “The high mountains around the valley where I was born were my Symplegades…where one could not find The Golden Fleece, and shores of Kolkida disappeared in front of us like dream shores…” Anton Papleka in his poem My Symplegades would write.
The reader of this small anthology can expect to find imagery that draws a fascinating map of Albania, its people, its beauty and battles. Dritero Agolli is ‘a traveller in the place of broken hope’, where Faslli Haliti’s tongue ‘wore black’ and his pen seeks answers from a ‘hypothetical, rhetorical and virtual God’ who has forgotten this land and where God himself is forgotten in return. This is Ilir Zhupa’s dear country that, despite its beauty, makes him ‘shove his tired eyes in his pocket…on this eve on the run…to a forsaken island, where lights, colours and voices, play naturally’, and Petrit Ruka’s land ‘where we give war a rest with a war’ and where ‘women are always pregnant, making the raw material of vengeance’. Similarly, the Albania of today is Luan Rama’s ‘river of tears’ and ‘orgy of purulent politicians’, yet it remains a ‘sunny reverie’, an ‘unfinished poem’ and ‘enthralling fairy tale, binding me’.
Albanian poets of the 20th century featured here have lived through two worlds: one of complete isolation and the so-called democracy that then followed. It is not unusual to feel the poet’s despair, as quite a few of them write early epitaphs, question what it is to be a poet under these circumstances and admit to wilfully exiting the living world. Ndoc Gjetja’s admission that ‘he lowered the eye lids and decided to leave’ in Self-Written Epitaph and the story of his life are moving. In his social justice-seeking poem Ah!, he wishes that ‘all males were men and all people were humans’. Xhevahir Spahiu, in the same manner, calls the place “hell-heaven”, declaring that he feels free only when in a drunken state. Frederik Rreshpja’s lyrics are heartbreaking! But poets ultimately survive (unless they fly too close to the sun!). Visar Zhiti, whose poetry is translated by the late Robert Elsie, is, in that sense, exceptional and has the force to change our vision of the world.
These voices sing equally, even under such circumstances, to love and joy, to what it means to be a poet, to hanging on, because one day, the human spirit will prevail. From the wonderful rhymes and masterful technique of Dritero Agolli, to the sweet lyrics of Koçi Petriti, to the multidimensional verse of Petraq Risto and modern takes of Visar Zhiti and Luan Rama, followed by the women poets’ perspective, the love poems printed here leave you asking for more. Widely translated Arian Leka completes the circle with his contemporary offerings on love and life in his small maritime city.
In the aftermath of the political changes of the ’90s, Albanian poetry experienced a surge: a number of the most prominent Albanian poets to emerge were women. Albanian women poets featured here shock and delight with their agile and modern writing. Referred to as the “grande dame of verse”, Natasha Lako, one of the first woman writers of her generation, shows what happens when the female consciousness awakens. She won’t just stand by and watch what happens to ‘love banned, love mistreated’, ‘love misconstrued’. Her to the point, socially conscientious poetry will call on anyone that ‘tries to turn to flesh everything that has a soul’ and all those that ‘dead animals wear for shoes’. A world-renowned imagist, Luljeta Lleshanaku offers landscapes of immense beauty and hardship: human existence of more than half a century in the palm of one’s hand. Candid and provocative, Rita Petro presents her reader with a world of her own, where she ruminates about the origin of love and sex. An independent thinker and social observer, Mimoza Ahmeti offers confronting perceptions and discusses the need for much reflection, if change were to happen.
Albanian poetry of the ’90s and beyond is mostly contemporary. Written in free verse and delivered in a short form and concise manner, it speaks to the reader about his/her everyday life, including social change, aligning itself with European and world poetry.
As Don Marquis once said, “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” Here’s hoping that these poems with resonate with you, the reader.”
Albanian poetesses Natasha Lako, Luljeta Leshanaku, Mimoza Ahmeti and Rita Petro are the crown jewels of thIs antology. Certainly, there will be works of other women writers appearing in future anthologies, like in a multicolored fresco. The increase in the number of female authors in the last decade, is a special phenomenon of Albanian literature. It is pleasing to see that this is not only an increase in number. Their voices have given Albanian poetry a much more humane spirit. Their poetry does not evolve solely around love, but they are rather strong voices calling for major social change in the centre of which is the woman herself, the woman in all her dimensions, I from her genesis, through motherhood, with her femininity, intelligence, strength and desire for renewal, is the woman who wants and can change today’s reality, to give today’s society a new humanity in the service of human progress.
Nga: Luan Rama