Today The Bogman’s Cannon celebrates the 114th birthday of Albanian rebel poet Migjeni with the publication of his Poem of Poverty, translated by Robert Elsie. The poem first appeared in his collection Vargjet e Lira (“Free Verse”) , which was swiftly banned by the Albanian government. His is a poetry which refuses to turn its face away from the desperate situation of the poor, among whom he lived as a teacher and friend. He died at the age of 26 from Tuberculosis, with no books in print, but left behind a body of poetry and short prose, kept secretly alive and passed along like a holy flame by lovers of poetry and freedom throughout the dark time of dictatorship. Neither death nor censorship – religious, royalist, stalinist – has been able to erase the work of this beautiful man, a sample of which we are proud to present.
Poem of Poverty
Poverty, brothers, is a mouthful that’s hard to swallow,
A bite that sticks in your throat and leaves you in sorrow,
When you watch the pale faces and rheumy eyes
Observing you like ghosts and holding out thin hands;
Behind you they lie, stretched out
Their whole lives through, until the moment of death.
Above them in the air, as if in disdain,
Crosses and stony minarets pierce the sky,
Prophets and saints in many colours radiate splendour.
And poverty feels betrayed.
Poverty carries its own vile imprint,
It is hideous, repulsive, disgusting.
The brow that bears it, the eyes that express it,
The lips that try in vain to hide it
Are the offspring of ignorance, the victims of disdain,
The filthy scraps flung from the table
At which for centuries
Some pitiless, insatiable dog has fed.
Poverty has no good fortune, only rags,
The tattered banners of a hope
Shattered by broken promises.
Poverty wallows in debauchery.
In dark corners, together with dogs, rats, cats,
On mouldy, stinking, filthy mattresses,
Naked breasts exposed, sallow dirty bodies,
With feelings overwhelmed by bestial desire,
They bite, devour, suck, kiss the sullied lips,
And in unbridled lust the thirst is quenched,
The craving stilled, and self-consciousness lost.
Here is the source of the imbeciles, the servants and the beggars
Who will tomorrow be born to fill the streets.
Poverty shines in the eyes of the newborn,
Flickers like the pale flame of a candle
Under a ceiling blackened with smoke and spider webs,
Where human shadows tremble on damp stained walls,
Where the ailing infant wails like a banshee
To suck the dry breasts of its wretched mother
Who, pregnant again, curses god and the devil,
Curses the heavy burden of her unborn child.
Her baby does not laugh, it only wastes away,
Unwanted by its mother, who curses it, too.
How sorrowful is the cradle of the poor
Where a child is rocked with tears and sighs.
Poverty’s child is raised in the shadows
Of great mansions, too high for imploring voices to reach
To disturb the peace and quiet of the lords
Sleeping in blissful beds beside their ladies.
Poverty matures a child before its time,
Teaches it to dodge the threatening fist,
The hand which clutches its throat in dreams,
When the delirium of starvation begins
And when death casts its shadow on childish faces,
Instead of a smile a hideous grimace.
While the fate of a fruit is to ripen and fall,
The child is interred not maturing at all.
Poverty labours and toils by day and night,
Chest and forehead drenched in sweat,
Up to the knees in mud and slime,
And still the empty guts writhe in hunger.
Starvation wages! For such a daily ordeal,
A mere three or four leks and an ‘On your way.’
Poverty sometimes paints its face,
Swollen lips scarlet, hollow cheeks rouged,
And body a chattel in a filthy trade.
For service in bed for which it is paid
With a few lousy francs,
Stained sheets, stained face and stained conscience.
Poverty leaves a heritage as well,
Not cash in the bank or property you can sell,
But distorted bones and pains in the chest,
Perhaps leaves the memory of a bygone day
When the roof of the house, weakened by decay,
By age and the weather collapsed and fell,
And above all the din rose a terrible cry
Cursing and imploring, as from the depths of hell,
The voice of a man crushed by a beam.
Under the heel, says the priest, of a god irate
Ends thus the life of a dissolute ingrate.
And so the memory of such misfortunes
Fills the cup of bitterness passed to generations.
Poverty in drink seeks consolation,
In filthy taverns, with dirty, littered tables,
The thirsting soul pours glass after glass
Down the throat to forget its many worries,
The dulling glass, the glass satanic,
Caressing with a venomous bite.
And when, like grain under the scythe, the man falls
To the floor, he giggles and sobs, a tragicomic clown,
And all his sorrow in drink he drowns
When one by one, a hundred glasses downs.
Poverty sets desires ablaze like stars in the night
And turns them to ashes, like trees struck by lightning.
Poverty knows no joy, but only pain,
Pain reducing you to such despair
That you seize the rope and hang yourself,
Or become a poor victim of ‘paragraphs.’
Poverty wants no pity, only justice!
Pity? Bastard daughter of cunning fathers,
Who like the Pharisees, beating the drum
Ostentatiously for their own sly ends,
Drop a penny in the beggar’s hands.
Poverty is an indelible stain
On the brow of humanity through the ages.
And never can this stain be effaced
By doctrines decaying in temples.
[Poema e mjerimit, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal’ Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 34-43]