Ndrek Gjini’s second collection of poems published by Galway Academic Press under the title of ‘The Invention of Shoes’ is a wonderful exposé of the life and poetic craft of an Albanian who became a Galwegian. It has revealed him to be a philosopher with a deep respect for the wisdom of the ages. He gives expression to his deepest feelings with ripples of humour and razor-sharp wit. There’s a story thread, lightly cloaked by his subtle poetic craft, running right through the book which holds the reader spellbound by his train of thought. His poem playfully called ‘Game’ illustrates this to some extent. He speaks of the coming and going of the tide under the influence of the moon and then he says:
‘In this come-and-go game
life revolves around itself perpetually’.
His final stanza makes you hold your breath:
‘The first to tire out
is going to be me
and one day
I am going to take
an endless break.’
What a neat way of summarising life and death – with a hint of eternity! So simply put.
But he doesn’t leave it there. In ‘Time and the order of death’ he gives us a classic version of his thinking on this great question that confronts us all. Through a process of personification, he takes us through the various steps that will lead to his demise. ‘Oak’ represents his coffin. Other characters in this tragedy are Mountain, Wolf, Bird, Dream, and of course ‘l’ and Death.
‘Afterwards Oak and I
start to hear the steps of Death
and jealously we gape at Mountain’s head
which is wrapped in a white scarf of snow.
It’s our turn’.
In case the reader might think that one can get obsessed with our final end Gjini gives us other insights into his past life which highlight another kind of death, the death of freedom of expression under a communist regime back home in Albania in his earlier years. In his ‘Graveyard’ ‘dead metaphors’ have been ‘laid to rest’.
‘Some of them committed suicide because of fear
and some other ones lay there with cut off oesophagi
from some bloody scissors
in the hands of several heartless-communist editors’.
When he speaks with love and respect of his father and mother the boy in the man really comes to life. On hindsight in ‘Steps’, he writes about how the wheel of life ironically reverses the scenario as regards youth and age.
‘My son I forgave you
for not remembering the moments
when you walked your first steps,
clinging to my hand’.
Then in the last stanza, he says:
‘I forgave you my son,
…because you will forgive me too
for not remembering
making my last steps,
clinging to your hand,
smiling and crying at the same time’.
Enough said. Filíocht den scoth – poetry at its best.
In his poem on his mother ‘The Most Beautiful Lady’ he tells us of an old custom they had in Albania of the preservation of her wedding clothes in a safe cupboard by the woman of the house until finally she would be dressed in them again on her death bed. He remembered his mother:
‘opening that small cupboard every week
cleaning those clothes,
putting quinces on them for a good smell,
talking with them as if they were her friends’.
Dressed in them when she died he says of her:
‘Without a doubt she looked
like the most beautiful lady in the world’
In ‘A Ruthless Rebel is my Yearning’ his mother features again and we get a poem of great poignancy from him which has echoes of both Kavanagh and Heaney in its intensity:
‘I close my eyes to welcome sleep,
the pale face of the moon
and that of my mother’s
in the agony of her death,
walk the alleys of my memory’.
When it comes to planet earth Ndrek Gjini gets really serious. There is an urgency here to reverse the destructive forces that menace our environment. His ‘Geography Teacher’ spells it out emphatically. We are destroying the world. In front of his pupils, he held an apple. Pointing out some holes in the apple he cut the apple open and pointed his finger at some little worms inside:
“We are these little worms
crunching the planet
every day with our cruelty”
he said tearfully
and the apple fell from his hand’
But it is when he begins to write about his grandmother we get another great classic from him. It’s entitled ‘Calendar’. There’s rapport there between the two of them and both history and folklore emerge from her telling of the circumstances surrounding his birth at that time:
‘You were born four moons
after the heavy flooding
which killed half of the town,
twelve moons before
the communists dynamited the church’.
In ‘Memories from the War in Winter’ (Kosovo 99) it’s all-out war and we are spared what it must have been like for him the nightmare of it all. His words are blurted out like bullets from a gun:
The power is cut off.
There is no moonlight tonight.
Inside and out – dark’.
He says his memory was:
‘like an abandoned pensioner
sitting on the bench of this night
talking to itself’
Among all of this, the darker side of life, his nature poems are not to be ignored. His ‘Winter Eve’ is intimate and incisive and full of striking and memorable imagery:
‘Cherry branches in my yard
swept by the sea breeze,
swaying in the wind
like a drunkard’s arms.
Leaves attempt to fly like birds,
realise their error and they fall’.
There are many more dimensions to this book which I will not attempt to cover here but to finish I want to again mention two more poems in this varied yet concise collection by this son of Albania.
The first one ‘Learning Difficulties’ illustrates brilliantly how brevity is the soul of wit:
‘There were two years,
only two years,
that I needed to learn
how to speak.
now another fifty-two years later
and I am not able to learn
how to keep my mouth shut’.
That poem epitomises the wit that makes this book of poems a great read. You are never weighed down too long by weightier matters within these covers. Humour prevails. It reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
Throughout there emerges a man of peace. In ‘A Shadow of a Frightened Man’ he is scathing on those who wage war on others:
‘They rule brutally.
They shout and scream and kill
because they are afraid’.
In the same poem he quotes a proverb from his home town in Albania:
‘To kill is not bravery. He who forgives is twice blessed’.
The title poem ‘The Invention of Shoes’ is in the domain of the unusual and the strange but when you really think about it you have to full-heartedly agree with his theory that shoes are a barrier between us and mother earth. Having gone barefoot to school by meadows, river banks, and bogs I can see the truth of his take on shoes and their effect on our consciousness through our senses:
‘This damning invention –
with its tenderness,
seduced human feet so much
as to make us not to feel the craving
for fervent kisses of the earth:’The title could not be better illustrated on the front cover than by the emphatic barefoot footprint in the sands of time and that is just what Ndrek Gjini has left us.
*Available at all Ireland’s bookshops or online through the Galway Review. He was invited to read in ‘Voices from Albania: Beyond Dictatorship’ on 9th of April, 2019 at the Cúirt International Festival in Nun’s Island Theatre.