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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors



Visar ZHITI, 1992 (Photo: Robert Elsie).

Visar ZHITI, 1992
(Photo: Robert Elsie).

Webdesign J. Groß



At the bars of my cell

How sweetly the nightingale sang
Through the iron bars of my window,
Transforming the very iron
             into the verdant branches of a cherry tree.

The floor was covered in warbles

And I, on my knees,
Picked them up one by one
Like crumbs of bread,
             like crumbs of life.

(in a prison cell, 1980)

[Te hekurat e frengjisë sime, from the volume Kujtesa e ajrit, Tirana 1993, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


A rainy day

It rains
And rains
And rains.
But there is a sky above the rain,
Nothing can rot the sky.
Earth has turned to mud. What of it?
The heart of the planet is made of fire, of ardent sun.

It rains. Someone must suffer,
Perhaps the wings of the birds,
Their flights drenched,
But their chirping is golden nonetheless,
Just as in every aeroplane
             there is always one beautiful woman.
Perhaps the branches of the fruit trees suffer?
Listen to the murmuring of the burdens
             with words like "I love you" on their lips.

The bones of the prisoners are drenched
As are the television antennas.
I have a mountain before me.
There was a slogan on it, written in white stone,
If you do not accept it, they throw you in prison,
             make your life dismal, and

If you are already in prison, they sentence you again.
The rain has effaced the slogan, right in the open daylight,
With watery hands it has washed out the letters "A. P. L."
I stand in awe and amazement - not even humans,
             If they drenched it in blood, could do it.
Innocent droplets of rain
Make almost all events
             Quite natural.

[Një ditë shiu, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Hunger strike

Even within prison
There is a prison.
They throw you into it,
For example, if you do not work.

Lying on the floorboards
Of your coffin cell, you have not eaten today,
Nor yesterday, nor the day before yesterday, nor three days ago,
Nor since the Second World War,
Nor will you eat tomorrow, nor the day after tomorrow,
Nor when you are dead.

"Go ahead and die!" said the guard on the first day,
On the second he squeaked like a torn boot,
On the third he fell silent.
The stains on the wall trembled in his face.
On the fourth day, he said: "Eat!"
"What's wrong," he said on the fifth.
Then came the sixth day. In fact
Nothing happened. The seventh day hid
Behind the ninth. The first year of Christ
Before the November national holiday.
The death of the tyrant was delayed.
He was as stubborn as an ass.
The men from the command came
             to your cell,
All with their heads bowed, reflecting
In the dish of cold soup.
The dish was the eye of the cyclops.
The mice were eating the bread, scampering about,
Musical notes on the scores of... doctrine.
The walls
Dance back and forth,
A cry runs barefoot
Down the corridor.
The cockroaches take fright. Look how they scuttle
Skull-less, out of the seams of memory.
Patches of light from somewhere
Lay in the room
Like vomit from a sick day.

(Saturday, 4 February 1984)

[Grevë urie, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Little prison, big prison

Do you know the two brothers in prison?

There are also three brothers,
And a father and son.
There are also a grandfather and grandson in prison.
A father-in-law and a son-in-law,
A man and his wife,
(His love languishes in the women's ward
Over hair shorn,
             like a blackbird
With wings clipped that it not soar).

There is also a family in prison,
All together
They've been sentenced to over a century.

Be steadfast!
Our whole country is a prison,
Draped in barbed wire,
Sentenced to three thousand years. Before Christ.
Our little prison
In the belly of a big prison
Is like a baby in the pouch
Of a crazed kangaroo.
You may despair,
But be steadfast!

[from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Death impresses no one here

The tunnel caved in
And a prisoner was killed.
(but the chains he was wearing have not yet been killed)

And so, the chain gang returned to camp
With one man less,
With one corpse more,
Undelivered to its family for burial.

(You are neither among the living
Nor among the dead.
You have no life,
Not even a grave!)

The jacket worn by the dead prisoner
Is held in the hands of one of his friends.
Throw it at the feet
Of the officer at the gate,
In charge of the watchmen,
And say: "Count it, are we all here?"

Take the jacket
And shield Albania's trembling shoulders.

(9 March 1983)

[Vdekja këtu nuk trondit kërkënd, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


The prison shower room

We, the prisoners,
Slip out of the black mine
Like twilight shadows from the grave.

We put out our oil lamps,
Throw aside our boots,

And hustle off to the shower room.

Water - the only warmth we have,
Like rain blessed by the heavens,
Pours over our naked bodies.

You wash the exhaustion,
The insults,
The mire of death off your ribs,
Sublime pleasure,
Standing in the steam,
As if in the realm of sleep
You suddenly see yourself
In a dream...
You rub your shoulders,
Scrub your arms, belly and thighs,
Finding nothing foreign on you,
             neither claws,
             nor horns.
The shower weeps a torrent of tears
Over feeble, wounded,
You revel,
Are bewildered,
Could faint for joy,
Fall in love with the water
As it glides over and envelops your body
Like a woman.

And you feel
You have not been abandoned entirely,
Not by the snow which melts
And fills the mighty rivers.

Far from the sea
Are the prisons,
Full of dead waves of life.
Then come the clouds on high,
And then the rain,
Washing the naked nation - a prisoner's body.

The beloved water licks me with its tongue,
Soothing me all over.
The shadow of the barbed wire,
             like a tattoo on a slave,
Stretches sombre on my skin
And I wash and wash,
And fall into another reality,

Now I can fly
Far, far away...
Vaporized pain.

(Qafë-Bari prison camp, July 1983)

[Banjoja e të burgosurve, from the volume Hedh një kafkë, Tirana 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Bloody lips

The open wound
Of the gladiator
Gurgles out life’s end.

The cries of acclamation from the stands
Fill the sky with raging tigers.

Waving their arms about, to incite the masses,
The aging notables add an air of dignity to the arena.
Making their separate entries, they
                                                 l  over the still warm corpses
Of the young. Their withered lips they pose
Upon the fresh flowing wounds
And, to prolong their lives - so they believe,
Suck, ravenously suck out the blood, blood, blood.
Fresh blood from the sun,
Flowing into filthy veins
As if into sewage pipes,

And thus the Heart of the Nation is abandoned.

(Lushnjë, 1987)

[Buzët mbi gjak, from the volume Mbjellja e vetëtimave, Skopje 1994, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


In our cells

They keep us in our cells
For a long time...

And, if we get out,
We lug them with us on our shoulders,
Like a porter with a chest of goods.


[* * *, from the volume Dyert e gjalla, Tirana 1995, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Locked door

The prisoner is
Always behind some locked door.

It must be noon by now, sunlight outside.
My eyes are fixed upon the heavy wooden portal. It glitters all over
Like the phantasmal cover of a book
Never published.

The gnarls flushing so florid
Like the blood of fresh wounds.

Cutting off twigs
Is a sore point wherever you go.

(Qafë Bari prison camp, 1985)

[* * *, from the volume Dyert e gjalla, Tirana 1995, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


The tyrant’s one-time office, near which I work

Cautiously I opened the door of the tyrant’s great office,
How odd, I’m filled with fear again, a different kind of fear.
I thought the walls would be spattered
                         with the blood of the masses,
That the ashtrays on the long desk would surely be made
Of the skulls of ministers shot dead.
The floorboards did not crackle nervously,
There was no whirlpool of intrigues,
No abyss of convictions. No gun barrels
Emerging from the drawers
                         like the eyes of metal detectors.
I stood silent, pallid
As if just over a long illness.

... they were destroying the symbols of tyranny...
The noise of the hammers was like
                         the dismantling of a guillotine.
Neither occupation, nor earthquakes, nor cholera
Spread by mice in the Middle Ages, nor world wars
Brought this cataclysm upon Albania, but rather
                         this much-dreaded office, here!
Before my very eyes hung a crystal chandelier
Like a head chopped off,
                         hanging by the hair.

(Tirana, 22 March 1994)

[Zyra e dikurshme e diktatorit, pranë së cilës punoj, from the volume Dyert e gjalla, Tirana 1995, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


My father's poem

Yellowing pages
From the last World War,
Gnawed on, like desperation.

It is my father’s poem, his poor ‘Iliad,’
Published in many a newspaper at the time
And turned into a play... performed
At the Kosova cinema in Tirana... Two old people,
They told me, met at that play
And got married (and they’re not called Helen
Or Paris). Engaged under the occupation...
                         But the partisans
Ordered that the poem be burned,
Should it be found. A hostile leaflet. Against the teachings.
While the guards were unloading banned books
And old newspapers from a truck
At the paper factory,
To make new white paper,
                         as sterile as oblivion,
A friend of mine who worked there
Plunged his hands into the blades
                         of the cutting machine,
Into the mouth of the Minotaur, and surreptitiously
Extracted my father’s poem, once banned, the author
And his works. They had sent them to Hades.
Hidden behind walls of fear, we leafed through it:

"Forget not Çameria and hapless Kosova
They dreamt of freedom, became a dream themselves."

Lines worthy of the nation. Like flies gathering over
The dead body of winter. What are you saying? Save us!

My father
Who art in heaven and under earth...

My father died blind, like a begging Homer,
And my mother stopped sewing during the dictatorship
Me in handcuffs
             they dragged off
                         behind a black car
Within the walls of the New Illyria.

[Poema e babait, from the volume Si shkohet në Kosovë, Tirana 2000, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Far from our countries

Far from our countries, like two Tantaluses
We drank coffee: I and a publisher
                         from Belgrade,
We spoke about Kosova in a third language.
It used to be the cradle of Serbia, he said, so we have rights,
But it is full of Albanians, so you have rights.
So, you mean, we should have had more cradles,
                         I said. He fell silent.
But let us not turn the cradles into graves, I added sighing,
One’s country is an accident, said the publisher from Belgrade.
So let us not lose it accidentally, I added.
We can enrich one another. No one is

Shall we turn our cups over to read our fate,
My good Serb? Behind yonder mountains in the Balkans
Our future lies waiting. Like the nymphs it rises from the waters
Which flow through the forests and, naked, timidly
Approach the cities...

(Bucharest, s.d.)

[* * *, from the volume Si shkohet në Kosovë, Tirana 2000, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


Buried a second time over

Never to die
And to be buried twice over.

And to wander as a ghost
Through bloody amnesia.

To have them shovel the rich soil
Over your face
And not to cover up the crime.

The Plain of Kosova
Has been sown for centuries with the dead
And it grows but the grain of life.

I gather the heads of grain as a last wish and testament,
Make a bundle and whimper.

The dead do not die!

[Varrimet për së dyti, from the volume Si shkohet në Kosovë, Tirana 2000, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]