In Their Own Words

Luljeta Lleshanaku and Ani Gjika on “Negative Space”

Negative Space


I was born on a Tuesday in April.
I didn't cry. Not because I was stunned. I wasn't even mad.
I was the lucky egg, trained for gratitude
inside the belly for nine months straight.

Two workers welded bunk beds at the end
of the delivery room. One on top of the other.
My universe might have been the white lime ceiling,
or the embodiment of Einstein's bent space
in the aluminum springs of the bed above
that curved toward the center.

Neither cold, nor warm.
"It was a clear day," my mother told me.

It's hard to believe
there were a few romantic evenings
when I was conceived, a buzz in the retina
and red-laced magma
decadently peeling off
a silver candlestick.

Infants' cries and milk fever
turned to salt from the stench of bleach—
abrasive, unequivocal.

With a piece of cloth wrapped on the end of a stick,
the janitor casually extends the negative space
of the black-and-white tiled floor
like a mouth of broken teeth, a baleen of darkness
sieving out new human destinies.


1968. At the dock, ships arriving from the East
dumped punctured rice bags, mice
and the delirium of the Cultural Revolution.

A couple of men in uniform
cleared out the church
in the middle of the night.
The locals saw the priest in the yard
wearing only his underwear, shivering from the cold.
Their eyes, disillusioned, questioned one another:
"Wasn't he the one who pardoned our sins?"

Icons burned in front of their eyes,
icons and the holy scriptures.
Witnesses stepped farther back,
as if looking at love letters
nobody dared to claim.

Crosses were plucked from graves. And from each mouth
spilled irreversible promises:
mounds of dirt the rains would smooth down
sooner or later.

Children dragged church bells by the tongue.
(Why didn't they think of this before?)
Overnight, the dome was demolished, instantly revealing
a myriad of nameless stars that chased the crowd
like flies on a dead horse.

And what could replace Sunday mass now?
Women brought cauldrons into the yard.
Men filled up their pipes; smoke rose
into the air, against gravity's pull.
Nails in worn out shoes exposed stigmata
that bled in the wrong places—
a new code of sanctification,
of man, by man.


"Read!"—I was told. Who said that?
Angel Gabriel, or my first grade teacher
who had dark roots underneath her bleached curls?

Language arrived fragmentary
split in syllables, spasmodic
like code in times of war.

"Continue where your classmate left off!"
A long sentence tied us to one another
without connotation as if inside an idiom.
Someone would get to read the noun, another the verb,
a third one a pronoun…
I always got the exclamation mark at the end—
a mere grimace, a small curse.

A tall cast-iron stove below the portrait of the dictator,
puffing smoke from its temples, enough heat for everyone.
On the blackboard,
leftover diphthongs from yesterday or the day before
rubbed against one another like kittens.

After dusk, I looked for another language outside the window,
my eyes glued to a constellation
(they call these types "dreamers")
my discovery possibly a journey into the past,
toward a galaxy already dead, nonexistent,
the kind of news that needs millions of years
to reach me.

"Read!"—the angel shook me for a third time
her finger pointing to an arbitrary word
a million light years apart from its object. (It didn't matter who was first).
Negative space sketched my onomatopoeic profile
of body and shadow in an accidental encounter.


Language is erosive.
It makes us recluses,
a wind through the canyons
carving our paleontological eras
for everyone to read.

Under the revised testament of my skin
bellows a gold-cast bull, an alluring object,
a need for attention.
Then comes the unleavened bread and a last supper,
which, remarkably, is repeated several times
between ice ages.
Lower yet, Sodom.
I recognize it from the stench of sulphur.
I hold my nose. Freud would have done the same.
And then Cain,
a crow taught him how to bury his own brother…
And at the bottom,
Adam's gentlemanlike sin
under which scientists
discover earlier epochs of famine.

Between unidentified layers,
wanderings in the sand, the search for a new prophet…

I try to understand my people.
Their language is plain. Some words,
were actually never uttered, like pages stuck together
in a book fresh off the press
and long after it sits on a shelf.

This, too, lives inside me
within insidious bubbles of air, negative
spaces where I can find little historical rest,
but also where utter ruin may originate.


Little left of the snow three days ago.
Its blanket ripped away, exposing
dog shit and the bruises of routine.

Negative space gives form to the woods
and to the mad woman—a silhouette
of the goddess Athena
wearing a pair of flip flops,
an owl on her shoulder.

It's minus zero. The factory's gate gnashes its teeth
behind the back of the last worker. Blowing noses, shivering, mucus…
A virus circulates through the workplace,
secretly, intimately touching one person after another,
a current of sensuality.
It softens the tone.

But nothing unites them more than their frailty,
the one-size-fits-all shoes you must grow accustomed to
by filling the extra space with cotton,
or curling your ill-fitting toes.


In Halil's yard
rules were sacrilege.
His eight children entertained themselves
by carrying famine on their shoulders,
recalling St. Bartholomew's flayed skin.
Starving, filthy, hazel-eyed—
three qualities that unexpectedly coalesce
in the bright light, strung together like sneezes.

One's famine was another's consolation.
"Look at them! It's a sin for us to complain.
They're worse off than us!"
But even Halil found his own consolation
in the old woman Zyra, "barren and paralyzed,"
the root origin of despair.

This was our highlands landscape,
hierarchical, where each family
would make out a different expiration date
on the roof below their own.

Schadenfreude was the only river
that could turn mills.

But if this hierarchy shifted,
and our roof gave signs of ruin,
my mother would plant tulips in the garden,
white tulips, our false image,
a scarecrow to keep predators away.


Nearly nothing was mentioned in the letters he sent from prison,
just two lines, on top of the page:
"I am well…" and "If you can,
please send me a pair of woolen socks."

From them, I learned to read between the lines:
negative spaces, the unsaid, gestures,
insomnia that like a hat's shadow
fails to shade your chin and ears.

And in the photographs' white background,
acrophobia adds to the color of their eyes: blue,
green, gray, and ultimately, chestnut brown,
as, earthward, we lower our gaze.

I learned to read the empty spaces the dead left
behind—a pair of folded glasses
after the reading's done and discourse commences.

Or the musical chairs game called "love,"
where there are less empty seats than people.
If you don't want to be the last one standing
you must predict when the music will stop.
(Who, though, has really succeeded?)

Perhaps a little practice can be useful in this case.
I don't mean squatting, jumping, stretching,
but listening to the same music every day from the start,
the same miserable vinyl record
so that you'll recognize its cracks
before it recognizes yours.


Midnight. Snoring,
meaningless sounds that stain the side of the wall
that belongs to no one.
So where are we? What dimension?
Who foots the bill at a time like this
without lambs or sinners,
when even angels record nothing?

The street's clearly visible
under the neon 24-hour-service sign
above the funeral home.
There was a music shop next to it
that closed down a few months ago;
the shop shared a wall with the funeral home,
shared the same water pipes and the same gate to heaven.
But the coffins won,
the wide-shouldered coffins that narrow down
in the shape of a mummy, not a human.
Wood of the highest quality, swears the owner,
and pure silk inside, pleated like a stomach
that can digest even a bulldozer.

When asleep we're simply five limbs. Starfish.
If you cut one limb, it will grow back.
Even a single limb could recreate us from the beginning,
a single hope.
Negative space is always fertile.


No one knows if it was simply a matter of mixed genes
or some other reason why I used to see
what I wasn't supposed to see—
the ending of things.
It wasn't a mystical gift, but like a blood clot
in the darkness of a vein, I held on to reason,
as it circulated from the bottom up
and not the other way around as we were told.
I used to start from the edges
and with my left hand or a croupier's stick
gather the balls and dice from the corners
and then watch the bettors
as neither a winner nor a loser.
There's nothing sillier
than watching a film in reverse
where after the climax, the protagonists
are replaced by circumstances,
and circumstances replaced by minor characters,
their tongues plastered behind a single, fatal smirk.
Life and my short lunar calendar slipped away
like carbon paper sending off as much light as necessary,
skipping the details, the contrast and sharp colors.
Lunar time is short. Until the actual end,
there are years enough, the negative spaces.
What to do with them when the verb
has already been uttered, a conclusive sentence
with Latin syntax, or more than that:

Translated by Ani Gjika

Negative Space (New Directions, 2018). All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the translator.

Luljeta Lleshanaku on the poem "Negative Space" 

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.

So it is this déjà vu where the poem emerged from, but it was not exactly the wet floor itself that impresses me; it was the warning "don't," more than familiar to me. I was regularly warned by my parents: "Don't speak to others, don't listen to others, don't touch, don't comment, don't mix with others!" I am talking about the communist Albania of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, when everyone was surveyed and politically judged, and when abstaining or inaction were the only ways to survive.

On the other hand, the aesthetic poverty surrounding us, the lack of the most indispensable means of living, and the lack of plans, lack of promises, lack of perspective were all forms of material and emotional sterility. So denial, silence, inactivity, and absence occupied most of our space. Emptiness dominated. It is precisely what in the visual arts language is known as 'negative space', and in other words, it was exactly this negative space which defined, shaped that reality.

"Negative Space" started as a short poem, but developed into a long one. One of the unpredictable things was the transformation from a biographical poem to the biography of a whole generation, of my generation. And not by accident. Through the narrative, I realized that there was a point, where my personal history merged into collective history; what was supposed to be mine, had nothing exclusive. Without noticing, I was projecting my epoch. It turned out to be a political poem, about a collective fate—something typical of totalitarian regimes, or as I say in one of my previous poems titled "They Hasten to Die": "…the children of an era/ are like dogs tied to a sled/ in their search for gold:/ they either run together/ or fall together."

Ani Gjika on translating Luljeta Lleshanaku's "Negative Space"

I first discovered Luljeta Lleshanaku's work through Robert Elsie, a scholar and translator of Albanian literature. It was 2009 and I first read her in English, not in Albanian, my mother tongue. I fell in love with her use of imagery and similes in poems I found online translated by Henry Israeli, Shpresa Qatipi and others. Robert gave me her e-mail contact, so I asked her if she would give me permission to translate a few of her poems for my final project in a translation seminar I was taking with Rosanna Warren in my MFA program at Boston University at the time. I was pleasantly surprised that she agreed and was happy to hear from me. We stayed in touch and shortly after her book Almost Yesterday was published in Albania I began translating from it.

"Negative Space" is one of the first poems I started working on and it's one of my personal favorites. I was awestruck by the cinematic quality of the narrative, the image of a church dome, demolished overnight, "instantly revealing/a myriad of nameless stars that chased the crowd/like flies on a dead horse." So much of Lleshanaku's poetry is cinematic and much has been said about her previous collections having a highly imagistic nature, but in this poem, as in the entire double-volume collection, Negative Space, she goes beyond imagistic acrobatics and builds a world which visually and emotionally communicates the fate of an entire generation free from specific geographic coordinates.

I remember listening to Arthur Sze once when he came to speak at Boston University about translating Chinese poetry. He said that often, when he begins to translate, he tries to "demarcate a kind of field of energy" in the original text, meaning locate a passage where the writing is most alive, vivid, original. Once he pinpoints such a passage, he works to first understand its meaning in the original language before he even tries to think of how to translate it into English. I was most aware of this aspect of the translation process when working with Lleshanaku's poems that are full of intense and complex moments of descriptions, images that I have never read quite described her way in any other text. Here's one such moment:

It's hard to believe
there were a few romantic evenings
when I was conceived, a buzz in the retina
and red-laced magma
decadently peeling off
a silver candlestick.

In the original, even a native speaker of Albanian might miss the fact that this passage is describing the moment the speaker is being conceived, the speaker's parents climaxing. The literal translation reads:

It's hard to believe
that in the genesis there were some romantic evenings
with wasps in the retina
and the red magma of candles
spilling decadently like underwear
over silver candlestics.

So what is my job as the translator? Do I literally translate this passage and risk completely loosing the readers? Do I simplify the language and completely betray Lleshanaku's signature mercurial image-making? It helped so much to think of what Sze had said, because I had to first understand the passage before I could rewrite it in English and find a middle-ground.

Other moments in this poem where I first felt for this "field of energy" had to do with recognizing and preserving Lleshanaku's confrontational, quiet voice, when she speaks in short, direct, declarative sentences like "Language is erosive" or "Language arrived fragmentary" as well as her simple use of "but," "so," "and," the absences of which would completely change the nuances of her unique, argumentative tone.

Another challenge I encountered when translating this poem had to do with the fact that Albanian is not a laconic language the way that English is. Albanian sentences can run on with multiple clauses and in Lleshanaku's case, where one of the characteristics of her poetry is the way she builds an argument through several clauses or parallel structures, translation became even more challenging. I felt quite often a traitor and felt the "violence" Lawrence Venuti describes in The Translator's Invisibility as an inevitable part of the process of translation. I knew I didn't want to domesticate these poems into English no matter how kaleidoscopic and foreign some of these images were. I tried to avoid both domesticating and foreignizing the Albanian text, and stick somewhere in the middle. I tried, by revising as though I was writing my own poems, to create the illusion of a reader and author who, when they meet, are, hopefully, both erased, and what is left is the text. I tried my best to transcend the act of translating and from there, the act of writing, and allow myself to open to the possibilities of meaning when you're in that black hole space between two different languages which is not so different from a similar suspense or "vertigo" feeling (to use one of Rosanna Warren's terms) you experience when you are most tuned in to the act of language making. I feel I was most successful at this at the end of the first part of this poem.

In the original text, the last couple of lines literally translate as:

the black and white tiles of the floor
like a mouth of broken teeth
and new human fates combed by darkness.

However, after thinking of this image for a while, the idea of a mouth of darkness, and a plurality of fates, I arrived at something that is not in the original but which gets exactly at the heart of what she's talking about, making the image in English more concrete:

the black and white tiles of the floor
like a mouth of broken teeth, a baleen of darkness
sieving out new human destinies.

This is where I pushed myself in the translation to invent more in a line rather than simply imitate the original structure and metaphor of that line. This is also where I felt most inspired through translation and after hearing positive words from Luljeta about it, I felt even more encouraged and confident that I could take on the task of translating a whole book by a poet I deeply admire.

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