By Fred Johnston*
Ndrek Gjini is an Albanian-born journalist living in the city of Galway since 2002, where he studied print journalism and received, among others, a BA Honours in Heritage Studies, moving on to do an MA in writing at NUIGalway. He is best known, perhaps, for his establishment of The Galway Review and the poetry and prose page of The Galway Advertiser.
It is no small task to translate oneself from a native language into a foreign one and to accomplish literary skill in the adopted tongue. Joseph Conrad, to name a particularly notable writer, managed it, of course, though his style had its critics. As a composer myself of poetry in French, I am acutely aware of the agonies as well as the ecstasies of attempting it. But when one moves into another language one’s poetic psyche, if you like, moves house too; nothing is viewed in quite the same way. It can be a liberating experience, providing new ways of saying as well as of seeing. The poems here are testament to a sense of that liberation.
Albanian poetry, in the contemporary era, has been dominated, as have other forms of writing, by a conforming socialist realism and even poets such as the renowned Ismail Kadare has been unable fully to escape this diktat, basing so much of his work in folklore and tradition; Gjini’s poem, ‘Calendar,’ possesses something of this folkloric appeal. One might compare, for balance, the work of Kadare and that of Kasëm Trebeshina, who spent seventeen years in jail and the bulk of whose work was published after the fall of Communism.
The apparent simplicity of some of these poems belies their philosophical weight; ‘Walking the Streets’ is underpinned by a notion of solitude-as-gift, whereas there is something of the storyteller (cf Kadare) in the illusively magical, ‘The refrain of the pensioner.’
‘Every day he repeats this journey
without betraying the day, air or wind
and the twilight runs away from him . . . .’
We who have thrown off the complex, elegant chantry of Gaelic metre and adopted the more concretised Anglo-Saxon in which to write, will not – and do not – recognise the poetic richness and verbal magicking likely to decorate some of the sentences and phrases here: we simply don’t think in the colourful metaphorics of a language such as Albanian, whose prime roots are in Greek and most evidently Latin, this last being a language we most immediately, and incorrectly, tend to associate with the sharp and direct functions of militarism and commerce and social ordering. For an Albanian poet writing in English, it must be impossible not to allow to intrude the more supra-imaginative linguistic of Albanian. Thus it is possible, reading these poems, to have an inkling as to how the Albanian language thinks.
These are fine and profoundly lyrical poems and, whereas they are a window upon one poet’s non-Irish view of the world, they provide also universalities as posed, however unconsciously, through the prism of a language more in tune with the variables of poetic thought than, arguably, that provided by English.
*Fred Johnston, Irish poet, novelist, and literary critic. Director of the Western Writers’ Centre in Galway, Ireland