Ani Gjika/United States of America
Ani Gjika is an Albanian-born poet, literary translator, and author of Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013), a finalist for the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire Book Prize. She moved to the US when she was 18, earning an MA in English at Simmons College and an MFA in poetry at Boston University. Her translation from the Albanian of Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku is due in 2018 from Bloodaxe in the UK and New Directions in the US. Her honours include awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, the Banff Centre International Literary Translators Residency, and the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize. Gjika's own poetry appears in Seneca Review, Salamander, Plume, From the Fishouse and elsewhere. Her translations from the Albanian appear in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, AGNI Online, Catamaran Literary Reader, Two Lines Online, From the Fishouse and elsewhere. She teaches English and literary translation and is currently at work on a memoir.
Çimi ate ants every day:
he picked them up with two fingers,
looked at them first, then staring into space,
thoughtlessly put them into his mouth.
He always chose the black, slow-moving ones,
maybe because they were quiet and slow
like him. Last week, his runaway mother
returned and took Çimi out to dinner.
They were sitting silently at the table,
and when she finally said, I’ve missed you!
a black sea of ants crawled out of Çimi’s mouth,
drowning the space between them.
On rainy days, we'd go to Xhilda's place:
me, Elona, Jonida, Fiori. Xhilda had a balcony.
We'd go out there and talk to the boys.
Xhilda lived on the first floor.
So we could touch hands with the boys.
Except the balcony had iron bars because
you must protect yourselves from thieves.
So we could touch hands with the boys
with bars touching ours.
He must have been nine years old
when he dipped a cat in gasoline, set it on fire
and watched it run around in circles.
The mad cat dance, he called it,
come watch the mad cat dance, he told us,
but we ran away leaving him there alone
to watch the cat spin and hear it cry
from its stomach. He buried it afterwards
sobbing all through the digging.
We played forgotten games, chalked genitals
on the street, nobody learned a thing in school,
nobody ever moved away till Miss Luli moved in
to teach history in red heels, ponytail and glasses,
hands like orchids, and we raced to buy notebooks
at Pandi’s, down Avenue of the Owls. We loved
her little mouth when she spoke of cathedrals
and one Jack the Ripper, and when it rained,
we used to watch her pay attention to each drop
till she’d forget to talk. Everyone stopped going out
to play, everyone started to get 10s, except for Çimi
who skipped class one morning, shirt tucked
under his perfect whale of a belly, bucket in hand,
knife packed in his shoes. He went straight
into Miss Luli's garden and slit her roses’ throats
then threw sardines all over them and left a note:
“So that you remember, Miss,
so that we’re history. Together! Love, Çimi.”
It’s snowing in a way that reminds me
of people who rarely complain.
I imagine the oldest woman eating bread: silent,
half asleep, softly chewing mngna, mngna, mngna.
I am thankful for snow
and the black stillness of evergreens
the way they line up on the street
here in my New England.
I have made it mine, the way
a young girl finds someone’s lipstick
and makes it hers.
It doesn’t matter that it’s half used
it matters that it’s lipstick and she wears it
down to her chin.
engines shutting off in a tunnel
lights gone out at a party
my father’s hand sliding off mine
go home now, he says, you know the way
red poppies reaped off with the grass
shutting down the casket, burying it away
I am afraid of your silence,
the moment after the glass has broken,
the second before I realize that car will crash
I am afraid of starting something –
my hands are like two continents
swimming farther and farther off the map.
I have no memory of it.
I believe a river caught up with us
when we curved the foot of the mountain.
Men and women got off the bus to drink.
My father cupped his hands
and I gulped mouthfuls.
Snow patches led the way to the cool
black smoke of the woods. Over our heads
eagles played tag with the white sun.
The way we changed the valley
entering it like winter shadows.
I never dream of it
but I remember being watched
as I stood at the edge of water
stirring images with my foot.
Inside a Buddhist temple, inside a cave, among
tall golden statues, I feel nothing. I think of nothing.
I look around, wonder if taking photographs
is allowed. On their knees, eyes shut,
natives and tourists rock back and forth
as though straining together to give birth.
I imagine a single firefly stumbling into the cave,
its pulsing light rearranging space inside the mountain.
On my way out, I find a scrap of blue paper
on the stairs, fragments in Thai script
that I can't read. I slip it in the pocket of my jeans,
wondering if a monk wrote a list of things he needs.
I hope it's a monk's attempt at poetry. Then
I'd understand the tearing it in pieces.
They have survived one another.
The earth holds them the way it holds
children: gladly and curiously affected.
His silver head piles its years on her lap.
His body seems borrowed, already an absence.
Her right hand maps his temples, his forehead.
What does the grass ask for, and the Japanese
knotweed behind them? His hand inside his pocket,
what is it holding, or her eyes under those glasses?
Here, he will sleep forever
and the shadows of trees will never
stretch long enough to enter their bodies.
Here, everything is an instant of tension –
shapes continuously touching, perching
so that one's weight never cancels the other’s.
Before writing, before toys, I used to draw stars.
Mami sat knitting me a sweater, advising
from time to time how to make an angle.
Politics on TV scratched at the screen.
Babi listened carefully, his body stiff, upright.
But I kept drawing, trying to perfect the stars.
I saw a gold star over a black two-headed eagle
on a red flag. Big men and women rose up
clapping: Long Live the Labor Party!
Mami, thoughts under her glasses, kept knitting.
Babi listened pale on the edge of his seat.
And erasing stars, I drew them all over again.
That year winter threatened our small house.
I heard winds howl, but I had drawn enough stars
to burn in the stove to keep us warm.
We sat around our small table,
the balcony French doors wide open
to the breeze, the flies.
I could hear the neighbors above
and my friend Miri, chasing a tire down the street.
Each family eavesdropped on the next like clockwork.
My mother ladled soup in four bowls.
I remember her white ankles
in and out of the kitchen
and my father
never moving to help her.
He liked to watch her
like I did.
We sat together like this only on Sundays.
Grandmother translated for us from Greek:
“throw your bread on running waters
and you'll see that it comes back to you”.
She'd hide the book under her pillow,
then finally sit down to eat.
Nobody I loved was taken into the woods and shot.
In the summer, I met my half-brother
for the first time, his head shaved like a soldier's.
He came back to us when I didn't know
how to know him. At supper, my father
didn't know how to help either:
he made jokes about girls
then asked about his grades.
When my parents visit us,
I prepare a meal, pass the bread, wait for a toast
and sit quietly, like my father, listening
to everyone's insignificant confessions.
We hardly ever talk of his son
who lives permanently away.
Somehow all absence of speech
replaces his absence,
or everyone's regrets,
or everything that's been thrown away.
At the landing, they turn to wave goodbye
looking up at us.
My father's silver head looks smaller
every time I see him.
The parenthesis around my mother's mouth
more prominent now
My husband shuts the door.
It's windy out. I part the curtains
and watch them get in the car, watch
whatever is rushing against them.