A Journal of Contemporary Arts 










“Introduction: The Pilot of Hyperbole,” by Frederick Turner, in

Teach Me How to Whisper: Horses and Other Poems, by Gjek Marinaj,
translated by Gjek Marinaj and Frederick Turner
pp. ix-xxvii

Copyright 2023 by Syracuse University Press
. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.




At the end of Gjek Marinaj's visionary mini-epic Sounding India the poet-pilgrim is given a golden egg containing a book of divine-natural wisdom. But he must return it to its guardians, for if it is revealed as explicit knowledge humanity will not be ready for it. What he has learned can only be imparted in the "hermetic metaphors" of poetry.

What does he mean by "hermetic metaphors"? In his poem "Homer," which could be taken as a definition, he begins with a little joke:

Homer decoded
the abstractions
of the old philosophers--

Marinaj is aware of the Greek and German tradition that holds that all philosophy is a decoding of the great poets (usually Homer and Goethe). Here he paradoxically reverses the idea, making Homer the poet into the great decoder as he interprets the findings of more ancient philosophers who burrowed into the pyramids to discover the "pre-Morse" alphabet, the mind of the Sphinx:

Those trails they blazed
in the Sphinx’s pyramids
down to the center of their thought,

the pre-Morse alphabet
into the songs of Solomon.

A pre-Morse alphabet would presumably be one which is even more primal than the binary Morse code of dots and dashes (or the zeros and ones of the transistor output in a Turing computer). In the poem that alphabet is found inscribed into the intoxicated love-songs of King Solomon.

Pure he kept it,
far from the antique misconception
that everything true must be in ink and paper.

But Homer keeps that alphabet pure: these songs are not ink and paper. They are oral codes, that together resemble a bale of wool brought by a shearer to the old spinning-ladies in Marinaj's childhood mountain village home--or like the body of remembered tales the local guslers told that would be spun orally into a coffee-house performance.

He redefined the oral codes,
spun their great bale of wool onto two spindles
between the letter “I” and the number “0”.

The "I" and the "O" are of course the Iliad and the Odyssey. But they are also the true and false of Aristotelian logic and the one and zero of the computer; and the I of the ego and the "Oh" of nothingness that confronts it in death. (Marinaj is not above multilingual puns.) Like Clotho, the spinner of the Fates, Marinaj's Homer reduces the cloud of fiber to a narrative line or thread that can form a cloth or fabric. But he knows that those two spindles--the warp and the woof of the weaver--contain the same indeterminate organic substance.

Puzzling out the extended hermetic metaphors is a process that coheres in a larger and stranger insight. "Hermetic" means what belongs to Hermes the god of travelers, the psychopomp between the lands of life and death, identified with the Greek god Thoth; he is the master of interpretation whose avatar is Trismegistus the mythical inventor of writing. Marinaj suggests that Solomon, the first lyric love-poet and the patron of the composition of the Talmud, is another version of the same figure. And he thus implies that it is a love-song, the Song of Solomon, that is at the root of all literacy and all philosophy.

To tease out a few of the poem's rich meanings by paraphrase, as I have done here, is the necessary work of the translator. Even in English Marinaj is so very unlike most poets of today that perhaps a docent would be useful, a "how to read him" guide that can be dismissed at the reader's pleasure; and this is my excuse for not letting the poems immediately speak for themselves. Further, connections that are obvious in Albanian, despite the translator's best efforts to hint at them, may sometimes be lost, and some explanations may help. What is central is Marinaj's large philosophical and moral claims for poetry and his insistence that its means and content are irreplaceable for the world today.

Marinaj's metaphors need to be read as we read Dante's sensory allegories, in which physical details, visualized by the reader, add up to an ikon, sometimes grotesque, sometimes strangely beautiful, whose meaning is as clear as a piece of logic, but much, much richer. Or as we read Donne's more elaborate conceits that, silly on the surface, deepen and deepen as they are decoded.

For poets don’t start until the twenty-fifth hour of the day
When they set out upon the wings of hope
To thread the rosy tunnel of the afterlife—
That halfway world where only poets venture:

A world waiting for the grey stars to awaken,
For it’s a place that’s lit up only by the poets’ sun,
Where is heard only the chanting bells of the cities of the underworld
Clanging moist with tears as if reading your poems back to you,

As if they were finishing the farewell speech you never wrote,
Witnessing the way the last beat of your mitral valve
Turned to an eye whose lids are the horizons of the world
That open and close to light the place of your coming and your going.

      from "Epitaph for a Poet"

"The twenty-fifth hour of the day" nicely characterizes the relationship of poetic time to ordinary time--no problem for the reader. "The wings of hope" is deceptively easy and indeed a clich. But having lured us in with an easy entrance, he now proceeds with a display of utterly original imaginative pyrotechnics. The poet flies through a sort of rosy birth-canal, which constitutes the halfway house of the bardo that is now being constructed. In that place the grey stars have not yet wakened, the only light is from the poet's own sun, and in it he can hear the bells of the underworld whose ringing seems like the sound of the poet's own poetry, being read aloud by a tearful eulogist quoting an unwritten speech by him--a speech whose subject is the blink of the mitral valve as it sends the last rush of blood around the dying body. But that valve is also an eyelid, the eyelid of the world's horizon, whose blinking lights up the place of dying and being born.

Now surely this is quite over the top. It's a royally mixed metaphor that the New Yorker would instantly condemn. But as the reader follows the poet through the maze, trusting--as he or she must--the clue or thread of its logic, the mental and emotional twists and turns of it engender precisely that mixture of ghastly terror, vertiginous freedom, solemn awe and weird joy that a true grasp of death can produce.

Much contemporary poetry is ruthlessly tasteful and restrained, all being done by delicate little shades of meaning and ethical reflections (or is just brutally direct). Marinaj by comparison is the master of outrageous hyperbole, of spectacular verbal pyrotechnics. His vocabulary, ranging across centuries of dictions and a gamut of scientific disciplines, his tones ranging within the same stanza from grand tragedy to hilarious irreverent wit, his shameless philosophical speculations, his subjects embarrassingly intimate and unembarrassedly sublime, break into the poetry workshop world like Cossack cavalry into a garden party. He takes the liberties offered by the more adventurous forms of current literature--Latin magic realism, Eastern European surrealism, and science fiction--and raises the ante. But it is not a mere succession of associations, as in "language poetry". There is a thread, a logic; but it is hyperbolic in its shape.

Hyperbole: hyper-bolein. Throwing-beyond. A Marinaj poem is like a rocket, ballistic at its perigree and maneuverable in all directions once it is in free fall. Expect this from Marinaj. The reader must give away his or her bashfulness. And then sometimes the poetry will suddenly become shockingly and movingly simple, the simplicity and vision of the world earned by the wild ride of the takeoff.

Perhaps Marinaj's life prepared him for his peculiarly adventuresome practice of writing. Or was it the other way round? Marinaj grew up in a remote mountain town in northern Albania, a world of farmers and shepherds not much different from that of Homer--indeed, the oral epic tradition still survived, and Gjek's own farmer father was an oral poet. Even in the oppressive era of Enver Hoxha and his successors Gjek's literary talents were recognized, but the real break happened when, in an act of supreme youthful courage, he published a poem, "Horses", in the national literary journal. Everyone in Albania--except at first the government censors--recognized it as a satire on the oppressive regime. Somebody tipped off the censors. Marinaj escaped on foot over the mountains into Yugoslavia pursued by government goons with dogs and guns. But the damage had been done, and when the regime was overthrown a few years later the crowds of protestors in the squares were chanting his lines. Marinaj was and is also a hero for Kosovo and several other Balkan countries in their struggle for independence.

The geste of his life, then, was to cross the boundary of his world and thus to help transform his world itself. This is the epic work of hero and poet--to reveal the world we live in as a game by playing the game for life-and death stakes and speaking of that which one must, as Wittgenstein put it, remain silent. But it is only one who knows the true value of the game itself who can constructively add to it. He is not a merely revolutionary poet. There is nothing cheaply oedipal about his journey. Marinaj is as pious as Aeneas, even when he recognizes that his poetic vocation must set him apart from the dear family who gave him the life and soul of a poet, as in his crucial poem "A Book Gift from my Parents". Many of his finest poems are precisely about home, about his parents, his village and his neighbors, and they are full of that Homeric yearning for Nostos, for the smells and kindness of home. Of his neighbors in his home village of Brrut he writes:

When I was a child
I flew to their arms like a snowbird;
always I found welcoming birdsong
in the endless white fields of their hearts,

and the sweet smell of fritters
in the fresh air of the morning. ...

...As one of the dead
often when I die
I find myself, arms crossed, enhumed behind their eyelids;

And my neighbors open their eyes
and I rise again.

    from "My Neighbors in Brrut"

Marinaj has been an exile, a refugee. He is one of many Albanians who have lost and yearned for a home to which they cannot return--even when the political and practical barriers are down, for the true exile is not in space but time. Some of his poems deal movingly with this condition. But they also contain a larger implication, that the poet speaks for all humans, who are always crossing the border of the present from the realm of their past home into the strangerhood of the future. The poem itself is the tent that the wanderer puts up against the rain, or like the newspaper or the map of the immigrant in this wonderful little poem:

The Secret of the Immigrants

Their lives are tucked seriously under their arms
like yesterday’s yellowed newspaper.

Bravely they fly with the wind like fog.

They scribble maps forever
till comets become their human antennas;

they are the tick-tock of human brotherly love,
their gift is to go on silently ticking.

The other side of exile is the wide world that it opens. Marinaj is a great traveler, and his poems and his presence have shown to many nations their own faces truly seen. He has been honored in over a dozen countries as a great poet and ambassador of peace; this collection is the first in English, but he has been translated into many languages, including Romanian, Serbian, German, Italian, Russian, Vietnamese, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Korean, French, Lao, Bengali and Spanish. His poems on Mount Fuji, the Blue Nile, Vietnam, the romantic cities of the Balkans, Mexico, and America turn them into dwelling-places and homes. Most compelling of all his celebrations of the planet is his mini-epic of India, which I will revisit at the end of this introduction.

Marinaj's hyperbolic/hermetic technique is involved in all his many innovations of subject and vision and his even more startling rehabilitations of themes fashionably regarded as obsolete. One of the latter is the apparently exhausted genre of the love poem, and the poem of erotic male passion in particular. Marinaj's poetic courage allows his frank heart to speak. He is not ashamed to sound like a fifties crooner or a sixties balladeer:

       Loving You

Your beauty isn’t all, it’s true,
I love in you:
it’s how you do that thing you do:
to make me feel so handsome out with you.

And how you somehow can
with your sweet smile, since we began,
make me a finer man.

The pathetic humility of the singer is irresistible. The truth of this silly little song outweighs, and would be impossible without, its sappiness. The hyperbole is more obvious in this one:

This Is the Girl

This is the girl who once upon a time I loved:
Velecik would shiver when her footsteps went by.
She was the one who left Kastrat blear and sleepless;
drunk with her white face the sun staggered in the sky.

This is the girl who once upon a time loved me,
who set my feelings at war in their fiery birth,
she the divine one, who with her very first kiss
burned up the thread that bound me to the earth.

This is the girl I loved once, the girl who loved me,
who made my blood race as if fleeing a crime,
she who with her lips’ transubstantiating heat
halted and stayed that first breathing moment of time.

He is a man. And he is stricken to the heart by the beauty of women, that is, the beauty of human being. He blithely revitalizes all the sentimentality, the absurdity, the clownishness of the male lover. He is aware of the folly, certainly, and does not care, and can laugh at it. Sometimes he sounds like Catullus:

No Jury Would Convict

On her chest
she keeps two church bells upside down,
but she is not a holy church.

Oddly enough
when I pass her I sign myself discreetly with the cross,
but it is not faith that commands my hand.

Helen and Circe are melted together in her,
she is not Greek.

Aware as I am
that each of her glances sinks me deeper in the sin,
from now on I ask God for no other paradise.

The self-mockery partly redeems it, though a jury today might convict anyway. In another poem recalling his younger days as a heartthrob of northern Albania he falls into a passion of jealousy at the liberties the sea is taking with his beloved as she swims:

Because one day I saw you with the sea.

His powerful muscles
sucked you into his chest.
He kissed your eyes
as if they were the first eyes
he’d ever seen.
For a few seconds, even,
you forgot to breathe.
and I too forgot
to fill my chest with air, as you did.

You floated off into his bluish chest
like a white angel.

Yes, yes, I watched you with the sea
while he stretched out his water-fingers
(just to make me mad),
softly touched your hair and face;
like a sly snake he reached around
and under your swimsuit—

And you knew very well, didn’t you,
that those were the things I should have been doing with you.
Yes, yes! What you did with the sea
you should have done only with me.

          from "Because One day I Saw You with the Sea"

Here he is frankly laughing at himself, and we laugh with him at ourselves too. But together with these poems that both celebrate and make fun of Grabuta, the Albanian love-goddess, Marinaj's oevre also contains one of the most powerful extended records of the love of a husband for his wife in the history of poetry. Dusita is an expert ICU Nurse, and during the Covid climax they had to contemplate the possibility of infection:

Another One on COVID 19

If COVID 19 strokes you, I demand
that I may share its prickly spikes with you,
not just through your angelic healing hand,
but your diviner soul and body too.

As you breathe life into the almost dead,
love is your best and surest PPE;
if life were but for one, not to be shared,
then life here was not made for you and me.

We’ll use each other’s lungs for ventilators,
compassion’s breath will circulate between;
the gods will smile on us, their emulators,
at one of heaven’s two gates we’ll enter in:

either up there among the rainy skies,
or down here in this world of tears and sighs.

Some of Marinaj's most important poems deal with death, or rather with the traditional idea of the underworld and the ritual bardo that humans require to navigate it. The poems included in the "Acheron" section are the ones that most directly address the theme. Marinaj comes out of a Catholic Christian background (that is alluded to in his poems on Skanderbeg, one of the heroes of Christian resistance against Ottoman oppression and enslavement) but his theology is entirely his own. He is, I would suggest, a spiritual naturalist--that is, he does not require a supernatural realm of ghosts and disembodied spirits, but finds in nature--its extraordinary evolutionary history, and its emergent human dream--miracles and divinities enough. The dead are with us not as abstractions but as stubborn features of the concrete world. He is deeply attracted to the polytheism of India, as evidenced in his mini-epic, and the existence of saints like Mother Teresa is for him ample evidence for divine purpose in the planet's exploratory journey. Though he reverences Plato, it is as a worthy opponent rather than a prop or master.

Human evil itself is to him proof of the existence of Hell. The underworld he suggests in "On the Ferryboat of Acheron" is already here, in our political and personal crimes:

Into this fetid dungeon
--Of course—
Blow the suffocating ashes of Hell’s dead,
Declaring the latest fashion
Of the madness of the ancients.

There the instinctive hammer of the obscurantist
Hammers to an edge the grudge
Against the human trafficking
In the migration of the dead.

Demons project the future
Of the civilization above the ground:

A book must be found
Older than the Bible
That maps the geography of a new civilization
As a great oven covered by a gray silken canopy of ash.

There Hell is,
Forever part of the existing geography,
Maintaining the ghetto walls
That channel the flowing river
Of the spirits of the dead.

His vision of the city of the underworld derives from Virgil's and Dante's. In "My Conversation with Death" he anticipates his own death journey, and offers his soul as fuel to light the streets of the necropolis.

One day you’ll take me by the hand,
Simply, without asking.
Two black globes heavily will drop
To replace my eyes.
Two night-sharp telescopes you will hang
Upon my cold neck.
Two lives further you will push my body
Away from myself.

You will call all these
A personal experience.
You will convince me that I left
Just to create a theory…
You will label my complaints
As expressions of a subjective point of view.

As for my soul—
In the cressets of the ancient city
You will burn it up
Where it will flare like neon.

People will promenade
Through the labyrinths of all the old motivations
Turning my emotions
Into trottoirs where footfalls make no sound.
I will pay for my sins--
For all those unwritten poems
And for the girls that in the name of morality
Left their love for me to die.

For Marinaj death is related to morality as a sort of retroactive ennobling--death casts backward in time a grandeur of meaning that we can sense, in our highest moments, and that in turn can help us make our dying into a poem.

Marinaj's poetry refuses to run crying to authority or faith in supernatural power to justify right action and condemn human crime. The poet's task here is not to weaponize the evil of others for moral or political or ethnic or sectarian advantage, but to see and name and make us see it as it is. He puts irony to its best use, revealing without comment the self-justifications of the oppressor. In the section I have called "Admonitions" he takes up the traditional role of poet in calling out and rightly naming the cruelty and ugliness of power, whether embodied in persons or in political machines, tribes and governments. But in his voice there is no political correctness, no partisan mendacity--as if he is able to take off (or rather never put on) the spectacles of media labeling and see events fresh and without prejudgment.

To understand Marinaj's sense of both personal and political morality, it is essential to grasp his vision of the work of the poet. He does not, as many poets do, regard poetry as the servant of morality, but as the source of it. He regards true poets as prophets, upstream from the philosophical and theological codifiers of ethics, and even further upstream from political ideology and factional and personal self-interest. His elegy for Neruda is explicit:

As an open champagne bottle boils
the waves spit white foam from their mouths
and mermaids dance about the lyrics of the poet

an old waltz borrowed from the Corybantes
to the music Mozart composed in secret
as an anthem for the true artists of Paradise,
this time for Ricardo Elicer Neftali Reyes Basoalto,
whom even the Atlantic has accepted as deeper than itself.

    from "With Neruda on the Atlantic Shore"

Not that the poet is detached from reality. Rather, the poet speaks from what T. S. Eliot called a unified sensibility, a view that takes in all the levels of voluntary being: the animal, the sensory, the emotional, the rational, and the spiritual, and embodies them in the natural symbology of the world. Morality is for him a crude diagram of that deeply empathic understanding. Marinaj does not demonize evil people, but mourns that they have demonized themselves, and understands them from the inside suffering their own hell. In "The Kronoses of the Twentieth Century" he experiences the anguish of the genocide workers who find they can never bury all the accumulated dead:

“Millions we sent through Hades’ gates;
we had become their Cerberus:
they come back tens that went in eights,
like phoenixes from Erebus.

“Do such reactions do much good,
dear chemists, physicists, and fiends?
replace with poison children’s blood:
why keep them living by such means?

“Why let them reach the age of Hell?
They’re gunpowder, they’ll never cease,
just like their parents—might as well
dispatch them now to live in peace. ..."

One of the signs of Marinaj's unified sensibility is his embrace of scientific concepts and vocabulary. Not for him the usual poetic disdain for science that ranges from amused curiosity to outright blame for all the ills of our "materialistic" age. Marinaj has had a scientific education as well as a humanistic one and is at home in the ways we humans have penetrated and been penetrated by the mysteries of nature. Like Goethe and Coleridge his curiosity sets itself no limits.

The long poem that concludes this volume exemplifies the comprehensiveness of his vision. Sounding India--I italicize its title because it is a book in itself--is a remarkable achievement, five epic quests rolled into one: a wildly metaphorical account of a poetic pilgrimage through India, an ethical search for a cure for our deeply troubled world in the footsteps of the Albanian saint we know as Mother Teresa, a phantasmagorical journey under the ocean that goes to the root of our current ecological crisis, a poetic reconciliation of western and eastern moral theologies, and a description of his own spiritual initiation as a poet.

It is a unique work, certainly in the epic tradition but using epic freedoms and affordances to explore ideas and experiences that are beyond the bounds of what had been sayable. Perhaps the closest analogues might be Dante's Divine Comedy, Rimbaud's Le Bateau Ivre, and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.

As his translator I am honored to introduce Marinaj to the Anglophone world. The reader, I believe, will find in his work flavors and perspectives that are radically new, but that are strangely reminiscent--perhaps of some of those earliest synaesthetic experiences we had as children, before ordinary language dissected them into abstract categories; experiences as delightful as they are sometimes disturbing.



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