Bitter Grass is Gëzim Hajdari’s second bilingual, English-Italian collection of poetry, this time in Ian Seed’s translation, following Stigmata, translated by Cristina Viti and published several years ago by Shearsman Books. This particular collection was in fact Hajdari’s first, written in 1976, originally in Albanian, and translated by Hajdari himself into Italian when he settled there in the 1990s. It was written before he left his homeland and before his writing became dominated by the theme of exile and loneliness. But loneliness seems to reverberate very strongly in this early set too, echoing off the fierce Albanian mountains. Loneliness, nature (there is a lot of mud, rain and cold winters) and rebellion against the political system in which he lived seem to be the strongest motifs in Bitter Grass. They are the source of the bitterness. But there is also hope.
I look around. All is silent.
The mud is one with eternity.
In vain do I search for someone on the horizon
I would trust with my destiny.
In these poems Hajdari seems to be looking for an escape from the oppressive communist regime, only to find out that nature is no less harsh, although, of course, in a different way.
Where do my green years hide?
From hill to hill, the skin
of a lost childhood
trembles and echoes in the wind.
The poet grew up surrounded by the Albanian folk oral tradition, which draws from the religions dominant in the region: Islam, especially the Bektashi Sufi dervish order, and Christianity. As Ian Seeds writes in his introduction, Hajdari’s ‘father knew more than ten thousand epic verses by heart’. This has clearly influenced and informed Hajdari’s poetry.
Two things I will take with me
into the promised paradise:
the cries of the hunted in the spring
and the songs of gypsies.
Nowadays Hajdari writes in both Albanian and Italian. Apart from poetry, his books include essays and travel writing, and he has also produced several translations from Albanian into Italian. While working on this set for the Italian publication (Fara, 2001), Hajdari added new poems, not present in the original, Albanian-language set.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
Written by Gëzim Hajdari
Translated from the Italian by Ian Seed
Published by Shearsman Books (2020)
Anna Blasiak is an art historian, poet and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books. annablasiak.com.
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