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Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

When in 1970 Isaiah Berlin delivered his Romanes Lecture on the subject of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev he emphasised the writer’s refusal to be drawn into the world of politics:

‘Nature, personal relationships, quality of feeling – these are what he understood best, these, and their expression in art…The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself, ideological, didactic, or utilitarian, and especially as a deliberate weapon in the class war, as demanded by the radicals of the sixties, was detestable to him.’

Six years after Berlin had delivered his talk the young Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari was in his last year at high school and completing his volume of poems Bitter Grass. It was not permitted to be published by the government publication house in Tirana on account of it being a text that failed to deal with the theme of the socialist village and the censor wrote that

‘…the hero of the poems is a solitary person who flees from his contemporaries, from the Youth Association, from reality; moreover, the transformations that socialism has brought to the countryside under the guidance of the Party are entirely absent…’

One might be tempted to here to catch an undertone, an echo, of Bakunin or of Bazarov, the fiercely dogmatic anarchist of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The language is very different from what Ian Seed recognises as a main characteristic of these early poems in which he discovers ‘a compressed lyricism, a blurring of the boundaries between a geographical landscape and a visionary dreamscape, the merging of the physical with the spiritual’. Recalling what John Ashbery wrote about Ian Seed’s own poetry it seems entirely appropriate that the Albanian refugee who fled to Italy in 1992 should have found a translator of such distinction. Ashbery had recognised Seed’s ability to re-create the ‘mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street’ and ‘trains travelling through a landscape of snow’ which become ‘magical’. The metamorphic lyrical power to be found in Seed’s translation of one of Hajdari’s poems concerning the fleeting nature of reality is a case in point:

‘Perhaps tomorrow I won’t be
in these whitened fields.
Like an early morning cloud
my face will disappear.

My voice will be lost
with everyday memories,
hopes and dreams
orphaned in the woods.

Still hanging by the river
names and shadows will remain,
the one who obsessed me
dust and ash.

A hawthorn will grow
above the corpse,
my secret kept
under tender grass.

The days of May will come
with gorse and sunshine.
The nightingale and cuckoo
will be the first to sing.’

The movement of time is caught hauntingly here as the word ‘whitened’, associated perhaps with the newness of a morning, is placed against the constant shift of clouds which becomes associated in the poet’s mind with his own transience. The sense of the lost child, whose ‘hopes and dreams’ dissolve in the rejection he feels as an orphan in the woods, links the poem to what Ian Seed recognises as reminiscent of the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno where the poet finds himself lost in ‘una selva oscura’. In Hajdari’s world beyond the ‘dust and ash’ of death there are echoes which still hang in the air, a musical quality that lingers, and the lyric itself seems to take on its concrete form in the print on the page in a manner not dissimilar to the growth of the hawthorn. The physical presence of the poem suggests a shadow of awareness of a future reader and in another spring there will be a return of both the harbingers of distance and of love, the cuckoo and the nightingale.
In Ian Seed’s own ‘Composition 2’ from Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books, 2011) ‘Your face dissolves when you drop / a coin into the fountain’ and ‘The scene / may sparkle but you feel // the pull of its undertow’. In these translations from the Italian of the Balkan poet Gëzim Hajdari Ian Seed offers us a convincing sense of that pull of poetry’s undertow: a convincing refutation of Turgenev’s anarchist Bazarov who in 1862 had rejected everything that could not be established by the rational methods of natural science. One can only wonder what Turgenev would have made of the censor from Tirana!

Ian Brinton 29th June 2020

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