NAMES AND NOUNS
at night grandma prays lying on the floor. i hear grandma sleep. mouth open. breathing like she has flies in her throat. i accidentally break off the head of my doll and tell mami that ergon did it. ergon can’t speak yet so he can’t say he didn’t. auntie comes to visit. the smell of auntie’s coat. like an old closet. mami says it’s from moth balls. what is moth? eats and eats. makes holes. babi brings us ice-cream every sunday. we eat it in the balcony. every sunday there’s sun. then i go looking for snails. i take them out in the sunlight. they stick out their heads. they’re sleepy like uncle ladi. eno comes and lies down on the sofa. mami, where’s eno? eno fell from the stair railing. eno smiles in the photo. auntie comes again. i wave goodbye from the balcony when she has to leave. later i go out with my friends and build a star with bricks near lana river. grandma breathes deeply. she has a little suitcase under her bed. she follows behind me with a glass of milk. all the way out in the yard. miri plays with me. mami says miri speaks bad words. on the first floor lives liza the whore. she washes her black hair every sunday and dries it in the sun. what is gypsy? liza smiles at me. men come to liza’s window at night. they broke liza’s window. president hoxha died. my teacher cries. my class cries. i struggle a little. finally i too cry. then at home i write:
april, oh april,
you filled our eyes with tears
and now we can no longer find
our precious president
auntie died. eno died. the president died. liza the whore doesn’t come out in the sun anymore. i’m in bed with mami. old albanian legends. mami, read it again. mami reads again.
IN THE SUMMER
Mami and Babi walk around the house
in their underwear. I am five years old.
Someone rings the doorbell. I have to drag them
by the hand into their bedroom then open the door
myself, or else they’ll answer it like that,
because, as they say, this is summer,
whoever it is, they’ll understand.
It’s a hundred degrees. The bus
packed with people, no air conditioning,
more people standing shoulder to shoulder
than people sitting. A gypsy
pulls out her brown breast to feed the baby
on her lap, her nipple so dark
and wide, it’s like watching a foreign movie.
I swear, whoever sees her now feels
none of the weather’s heat or the crush.
We’re all kids of the same age.
Every year we end school at the same time
and hang out together like an army, every night.
Lana river wanders through our town.
We often play on its banks or cross it back and forth,
like tonight as we play hide and seek
all afternoon and after dusk has fallen
I hear my mother’s voice call me from our balcony.
I have to go, Miri, I say to the boy who’s hiding
with me in a bunker. We touch hands. That’s all we do.
I can’t even see him.
June, July, August.
All the people have left
their cars, their jobs, their houses
and have come out together
walking on the boulevard, up and down,
telling stories, chasing after their children,
chasing their dogs, holding hands,
kissing, waving hello.
June, July, August. In Albania,
late in the afternoon, boulevards fill
with the voices and laughter of the young
and old walking in pairs, groups,
holding hands. June, July, August.
On the stairs to a long gone monument
a wasp dips in and out of its nest.
Orinda, a fair blonde with thin hair,
goes to the market on a hot noon to buy tomatoes.
In the evening, her face looks like she’d been
slapped a dozen times. Two days later,
her forehead starts peeling to her scalp. Mondi,
the bully from our building, chases her yelling:
leper, leper, I’ll tell them all I saw your pepper
if you don’t let me kiss your salmon forehead.
A tiny fly lies frozen inside an ice cube
I picked to put in my glass of water,
trapped the way an entire city is trapped
inside glass in a Christmas ornament.
I wonder, for a minute, if I should use
this ice cube or if it’s sacred,
a sort of tomb for this insignificance,
then stick it deep into the white beard
growing from the freezer
and grab another for my water.
Tonight she sits beside him speaking to his ear
as if it were a giant seashell. She tells him,
oooh, heazaplaboo and blu, and blu.
He puts his hand against her lips,
says, shhh, abundabea or something
sounding like sweet abandon.
It echoes through the room
and makes the rooms inside them tremble.
Outside, a single yellow eye blinks –
On her way home from the movie theater
Linda, her boyfriend and friends run through heavy August rain.
The rain falls cold through her short sleeveless dress.
They all shiver. Oh what the heck, she thinks, no one will notice
with this heavy rain, so she lets it go. Under the cold August rain
she feels wet warmth spread out from between her thighs.
The night-cloaked streets laugh with her silently. No one
has a clue, not even her boyfriend who, running behind her,
grabs her wet ass, spins her around and kisses her tight.
Today I thought of wild rose seeds, how they itch
and burn when they touch your skin
so I plucked a rose and opened the flower in my hands
like the time when you and I plucked wild roses
in Jani’s garden and you pulled out petals to show me
the seeds as you told me stories only you would know
so, when eyes closed, I got lost in new memories,
you would bring your hand behind my neck,
carefully, stick all the seeds
inside my little shirt, igniting my body
in hundreds of bursts.
I stand small in a spicy green kitchen in Korça
to say goodbye to grandma and first thing
she does is take a pinch of salt
and dab me with her long, cold fingers
on my forehead, on my chest
and both shoulders, first right, then left.
She does this deliberately
then throws the salt in the fire.
Na marrshin t’ligat, she whispers
staring straight into the flame.
In Muak Lek, my students leave me notes
on my desk: Beauty is a deep skin.
One meets me at the door
to say, I think I not forget you
and I hope you too, tying
red strings around my wrist.
In Kalahandi, in my husband’s home,
I meet his oldest aunt for the first time.
She stands in front of me, plump
and tall with a fistful of salt
weaving the air into three large circles
with her right arm then throws the salt
in the fire. It cracks. She kisses me.
You’d think I was immune for life.
But I feel marked. And every person I meet
becomes another city I leave behind.
Note: Poems previously appeared in Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013)
Ani Gjika is an Albanian-born poet, writer, literary translator, and the author of Bread on Running Waters. Her honors include awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, English PEN, the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, and Framingham State University’s Miriam Levine Reader Award. Gjika’s translation of Negative Space by Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is forthcoming from Bloodaxe Books in the U.K. and New Directions in the US by April 2018.
Photo: Gabrielle Ludlow