Saturday, April 4, 2020

negative space

Negative Space begins with the building of a house. Near its end, it progresses into the building of stairs, houses under dusk and finally, the intimacy of a bedroom. The first poem here, "Almost Yesterday" ("They started with the barn. / This is how a new life begins--with an axiom"), begins a journey of relationships with space, objects, people. Luljeta Lleshanaku's poems are translated from Albania into English by Ani Gjirka. The translation is rich, meaning, that there is a preservation of and engagement with eclectic diction. The book is split in two between two different collections--which meld well together. "Gloves," in what now feels a paean to cleaning workers, nurses, feels especially pertinent right now: "As you leave the plane, the yellow gloves enter from another door. / Sterilization grows even more powerful here: / seats disinfected after long intercontinental nights... / and headphones after movies watched over the ocean." And later: "Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene. / How quickly the world hurries to clean up every trace!" Lleshanaku shows how the synthetic and the natural, including time itself, washes things away.

From the Poetry Society of America site, Lleshanaku describes a memory here: "One of the most resistant images from my childhood, which comes to me from time to time, is the damp school corridor and the cleaning ladies who warn in a threatening tone: "Don't step here!" I don't know why that hallway was always recently-washed, or washed at the wrong time, but it sounded as a punishment to me, as if those two nice ladies, exhausted by their hard work and difficult life, gained a kind of satisfaction when imposing their small power over us, the little ones. And the fact is that I'm still unable to free myself completely from that black-and-white wet tile nightmare and the acid smell of chlorine."

Since the collection emerges out of Lleshanaku's experiences under dictatorship, it makes sense that there is so  much expansiveness in thought in describing the limitations of language (the hard-to-hear conversation with Charles Simic in a Las Vegas bar--a truly great poem). When looking through a used copy of Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III, marked with notes from a previous owner, the speaker says, "And now it's my turn to add my own geography. / There's hardly any space left, not even for the shadows. / The black ring of a coffee cup and the careless ash of a cigarette / are my only traces. My fear of clarity." So let me not try to make the mysterious un-mysterious and simply praise the poems for engaging similes, observations, and introspective sketches.

-Jeffery Berg

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