This poetry collection veers between subjects ranging from war in the Balkans to misanthropy at a bar.
Gjoka (Shadows Speak in Riddles, 2011) collects 80 poems, presenting them in their original Albanian and a facing English translation. With such a large pool of verse, it’s no surprise that the content varies. In one moment, Gjoka invokes Homeric myth to tie the violence in Kosovo to a cosmic struggle; soon afterward, he writes of texting an ex. But in these transitions, it’s not the subjects so much as the inconstancy of voice that can be jarring. Gjoka is at his stylistic best when elevating the speaker’s struggles to monumental excess: “My heart hurts tonight for you, dear Albania. / Gods have blessed and cursed you. They’re mean and kind. / Sons you bred forgot your longing, pretty daughters / Who cry for Harmonia / And Cadmus they cry.” By comparison, his vulgar, Bukowski-like voice feels not only less appealing, but less profound: “ ‘I wish, I wish I stole your keys. / You never, never could drive drunk. / But drink if you can drink the seas / If you have close a dear one, / A shoulder you can lean at ease / If you are drunk.’ ” Though these two examples are translations, the latter’s issues are only peppered throughout the book, evidence that the collection could have benefited from some trimming. Nonetheless, rare, powerful creations still shine through, such as the stark image of an empty ballroom in “Back in Time after Death.” Gjoka’s autobiographical ties to Kosovo provide perhaps the strongest of these moments, and in general, the elegiac works here are most effective. A more conscious flow and more careful curation may have boosted this collection to greater heights.
Inconsistent but valuable for its mythologizing of the Kosovar struggle to exist.