As soon as I started leafing through and reading Stigmata, the poetry collection by Gëzim Hajdari, who has been living in exile in Italy since 1992, I was intrigued. What is it about the theme of exile that holds great fascination? Is it because, as Edward Said notes in his Reflections on Exile (2002), the modern era is one where, “immense aggregates of humanity loiter as refugees and displaced persons?” Wole Soyinka, for instance, has written in the Guardian that no sooner had he left Nigeria on a “political sabbatical” than literary critics, festival directors, literary editors and journalists were bombarding him with questions and invitations on his newfound status as “writer-in-exile”.
Certainly, Homo sapiens is on the move again, with national borders the new frontiers where socio-political and socio-economical paradigms are being reshaped and redefined. What adds at least to my own fascination with poetry written in exile is that it encapsulates the paradox of our species: the isolation of the individual in society on the one hand, with its sister attributes of alienation and estrangement; and on the other the demonstration and the hope that communication – connection – cannot be controlled by borders, physical or otherwise. And what is hope but a thinly disguised expectation?
These then, broadly speaking, are the themes of Stigmata: the isolation and alienation that stems from rootlessness; the homesickness for and the memory of Albania, Hajdari’s homeland; and the urgency to connect with others through language and poetry. Furthermore, Hajdari’s aesthetic and ethical resolve – for his poetry to be a bridge between tradition and the new – sings from every page:
“I made landfall at the port of Trieste some time one April, nine pm.
Like today it was raining over the city and its castle,
The northerly gale blowing dreams and birds away.
I carried sorrow with me: a nameless land
and manuscripts hastily wrapped in white cloth.”
Born in 1957, Gëzim Hajdari was among the founders of the opposition Democratic and Republican parties of Lushnje and co-founder of the opposition weekly Ora e Fjalës, while also contributing to the national daily, Republika. Hajdari often spoke against the crimes and abuses perpetrated by the old Hoxha nomenklatura and by the post-communist government. He was forced to leave Albania in 1992 and writes both in Albanian and Italian. In her “Translator’s Note”, Cristina Viti informs us that Hajdari comes from a family that had strong connections with the bektashi Sufis. The deadpan humour associated with that tradition comes through only in a handful of the poems, but I’ll quote this one in its entirety, also because it handily sums up his working life:
“I heard you’ve been adding up
my years in work for my old age pension:
1 year a labourer in a marshland drainage company,
2 years a soldier with former convicts,
3 years an accountant in the farming industry,
3 years a labourer and field guard
on a tomato farm,
9 months as a book warehouse man,
2 years a lang & lit teacher in a high school,
7 years as a hand labourer in the Ciociarìa,
2 years on the black market,
3 years with stamps
and the rest on the black market.
The misfortune of exile, especially the fear of an estrangement from the self as a direct result of enforced exclusion from a geographical, social and political context, is addressed with pressing immediacy, as if the poems are fragments taken from the poet’s correspondence to a friend living back in the homeland. Like other poets writing in and about exile, such as, for instance, the Bangladeshi author and poet Taslima Nasrin, Hajdari’s voice is raw and melancholic, full of homesickness and political disappointment whilst continually searching for mechanisms and new daily rituals to help him endure a state of perpetual delay (the return to the homeland). Throughout, Hajdari speaks with a tender clarity and a deftness of touch:
“It’s autumn, the season when leaves fall,
passers-by change their clothes
and with their clothes their loves.
I ask myself: what shall I change?
I’m wearing the same nostalgia, the same fear.
Sitting at meals I stare at the blank wall…”
“In which season do I look for you,
from which stone do I call out to you,
on which snow do you walk…”
I have to admit that a certain type of fatigue crept in halfway through reading the aptly titled Stigmata. My initial fascination with the landscape of the dispossessed was wearing thin and I was becoming somewhat inured to the melancholy, anguish and the unashamed use of abstract nouns, “there is no solace for me, there is no solace”. And what is it with exiles and stones (Paul Celan springs to mind)? – the poems are littered with them. Yet for all my cynicism, the clarity and uprightness of his poetic voice won me over with their spirit of resilience in the face of vulnerability and so much solitude:
“My poems are metropolitan survivors,
the neighbours upstairs never ask me
what I do all alone on the ground floor…”
What fascinates me about the theme of exile is that – and this certainly can be said of Hajdari’s poems – they can be read as investigations of, and powerful incantations to ward off, the slow erosion of identity that threatens not just this poet but the immense aggregates of humanity loitering as refugees and displaced persons in the modern era. As such, the poems in Stigmata are about reclaiming dignity and beauty from misfortune.
Cristina Viti has done a superb job in retaining that clarity and uprightness in her translations from the English and I’m grateful to her for making Hajdari’s work accessible for the first time to an English readership.
By Astrid Alben
Astrid Alben is a poet and translator. Her most recent collection Ai! Ai! Pianissimo was published by Arc Publications (2011). To hear Alben’s poems visit www.astridalben.com.
By Gëzim Hajdari
Translated by Cristina Viti.
Published by Shearsman (2016)