Genta Nishku

If every country needs a poet, then Kosovo’s was Ali Podrimja. The whole country mourned when, on a midsummer’s day two years ago, the lifeless body of the poet was found in a forest miles away from the small French town of Lodève. His death was attributed to dehydration. There were no signs of violence and nothing to indicate it was a suicide. Podrimja, who was in town for a festival of Mediterranean poetry, had disappeared days before, losing all contact with colleagues and family. Reports during the days following the discovery of his body could not help but mention the cruel irony of the poet’s death in France, a topic of many of his poems. France served as a symbol of hope and Western progress, as well as a symbol of imperial powers at play, apathetic to sufferings away from home.

Ali Podrimja was born in 1942 in Gjakova, Kosovo, in what was then Italian-occupied Albania. There Podrimja would witness the subjugation of his people and the war and conflicts that would help shape his distinctly patriotic voice. His own life was marked by tragedy early in his childhood, when the death of his parents left him an orphan. These circumstances of his life are translated into verse. His poems are urgent calls to action and revolt, and subtle reflections on the daily agonies of being under siege―by a foreign power, by time, and by death itself. His work reveals a soul capable of seeing deep within humanity’s core.

Podrimja started publishing while still a teenager and quickly established himself as a truly modern poet, whose unconventional meters, metaphors, and symbolism were among the most original of the time. His style is laconic, characterized by short, assertive lines, and abrupt line breaks that mirror the jagged cliffs of his native landscape. Though modern, Podrimja’s poems revolve around symbols rooted within ancient Albanian tradition—local legends, folklore, the mountain, and river are ever-present.

Present too are the author’s attempts to make sense of the heartache sewn into his motherland’s roots. The question of national identity permeates Podrimja’s work above all, a question that he explores even in his most personal and intimate poems. This drive is what compels him to keep writing during the most difficult moments of his life.  In what is perhaps one of his most striking poetry collections, Lum Lumi (River of Lumi), he writes during his son’s battle with leukemia. The volume is both a conversation with his son Lumi (meaning “river”) and an existential exploration of the meaning of life, death, and human suffering. It is also a celebration of the Kosovar people’s endurance through the ages, serving to connect Lumi with the legacy of his homeland. His poetry is one of remembrance―of local myths and Albanian patriotism―while still maintaining its universality. In "Paris, homeland," one of his most well-known poems, Podrimja imagined what life in Paris would be like for him and his son. Away from the heavy Balkan air, the two are no longer burdened by its history, are free to abandon themselves to a city of endless opportunities. Yet, they carry a flute with them and in its melodies lies the memory of home. Podrimja ends the poem by asking Lumi to vow not to forget their motherland.

late in the streets of paris in the head-spinning metro
we will smell the quince of the homeland
we will speak with fingers about dark times
we will not step on any insect
we will not frighten any bird
we will not spill fire bile
on anyone’s head
we won’t bow down to languid Europe
nor to deranged gods
give me your word Lumi
    that we will not forget our homeland

Through his poetry, Podrimja seeks to understand the role of the individual who is part of extraordinary events. He knows that as an artist he must speak up, even if the weight of centuries of silence is on his back. Podrimja recognizes the absolute need to free himself of this silence, and in doing so, frees Kosovo as well. His personal struggle to find his purpose as a poet becomes one with Kosovo’s struggle to establish a national identity in the face of outside adversity. The poet and his beloved land become almost indistinguishable. When he beseeches Kosovo to wake up to the accumulating graves, we see the same urgency in the invocations he addresses to himself. It is in the questions and in his searching that he finds the answer: what a poet must do is speak. We may never find out what caused Ali Podrimja to wander away from Lodève that summer, or how he found himself near the small river where he would take his final breath. Perhaps in that forest he was seeking Lumi, to see if he had kept his promise, no matter where he was.

From Lum Lumi
By Ali Podrimja, translated by Genta Nishku
Toena, 4th edition, 2003

To be born again

You can’t follow us even in song
You close your eye upon the woken world
And you were
He who stole the fire from Zeus
He who stabbed Polyphemus’ eye
He who showed the way to Ulysses Skanderbeg1
To Ithaca
To Kruja2

Your run was terrific and
No medals of honor
   You remained my same old darling but

I dare you to say you didn’t love in secret
The people of Germisë Çabati have seen you
At the well of Panxhallë3 they have seen you

At night washing your love’s face
While welcoming the morning before the roosters

I carried you up to the Opera
I escaped the machines of death
Daut Berisha4 takes you to Walt Disney
It happens that the legendary bird falls in your palm
  It happens but

Poetry of terror is written darling
          when the soul is conquered

On the ninth floor there in the metro
    Villejuif – Paris
Uncle Sabri searches for the light as soon as the lamp
                                                                     is turned off

Treacherous night
In the dark you can’t sing about iLlyria5

Something of your birthplace whisper something of yours
In Place de la Concorde start an ancient song
You know it darling
I sing it when and how I want
But how and when the market wants
That is not a song

I close my eyes: Mother
I begin a letter: To Fitore Podrimja
Even in Paris you are a rock

Europe trips under her feet
Has temperature has weight
They say the capital is guilty
Drank our blood long enough
At Bastille: broken windows crucified citizens
The Seine wander the streets parks boulevards

Climb up the pont Mirabeau pass along the Arc
                                            de Triomphe
The Seine carries dirt carries blood what doesn’t the Seine bear
                                            I lose my mind

Under the light of the match
dreams crawl like the hands of a clock
Eyes wide open upon the unExpected I

Flies a raven and it flies
Breaks its wings
For light’s invisible wall

In the alleyways of loneliness wanders a sun
and it ends in Lumi’s dream
Somewhere in Kosovo a roof grieves

Nothing was easy my god
Listen to Arta Rozafa Doruntina6

Abandon the marathon round the planet

You can’t even follow us in song
you great conqueror of the highest peak of a teardrop

  To be born again darling

[1] The most important Albanian national hero, who led a long military campaign against the Ottoman Empire.
[2] City in central Albania. Kruja was the Albanian capital at the time of Skanderbeg, who recaptured it from the Ottoman forces.
[3] Germisë Çabati and Panxhalle are cities in Kosovo.
[4] Kosovar painter from Peja, contemporary of Ali Podrimja.
[5] In antiquity, Illyria was an area in the western Balkans inhabited by various Illyrian groups. Illyrian culture and language were distinct from those of Ancient Greece and Rome. Many modern Albanians consider themselves descendants of the Illyrians.
[6] Three characters from Albanian folktales. Arta and Rozafa were women who sacrificed themselves to make the erection of the Arta Bridge and Rozafa Castle possible, respectively. In the legends, the two structures were mysteriously demolished during the night. The men building the bridge and castle were asked to sacrifice one of their wives. Arta and Rozafa are chosen as they were the most pious and were buried alive within the construction. The legend of Doruntina revolves around the Albanian concept of "besa"—the absolute importance of keeping one's word. Doruntina gets married to a foreign prince. Her brother Constantine dies in battle before fulfilling a promise he made to his mother, swearing to bring Doruntina to her whenever she was needed. When his mother curses him for not keeping his word, Constantine rises up from the grave and travels to Doruntina, bringing her all the way back home. In the end, the two women die of shock when they realize what had happened. Albanian author Ismail Kadare adapted the legend into a modern setting in his novel Doruntine.

Genta Nishku is an Editorial Assistant at Warscapes magazine. She works at Make the Road New York, a community-based organization working to advance social justice in New York City. She grew up in Tirana, Albania and holds a BA in Classical Studies and English literature from Hunter College.

Image via LajmeShqip.