Urgent Connections: Negative Space and Too Afraid to Cry

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Luljeta Lleshanaku is a fifty-year-old Albanian poet and the author of seven poetry collections. She lived under house arrest during the Stalinist years of Enver Hoxha and is now the research director at the Institute of Studies of Communist Genocide in Albania. Negative Space (New Directions, April 2018) is a selection of works from her earlier books, ably translated by Ani Gjika, whose Bread on Running Waters was a finalist for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize in 2011.

The title poem is a long, winding exploration of what language and dislocation can do. Here is an excerpt from the fourth page:

I try to understand my people.
Their language is plain. Some words,
were actually never uttered, like pages stuck together
in a book fresh off the press
and long after it sits on a shelf.

One can’t read this, or anything else she has composed, without consciousness of Lleshanaku’s history living under a regime that was physically cruel and strictly censored. The words that “were actually never uttered” become like coal that after generations of heat and pressure becomes diamonds that illuminate. Lleshanaku’s treasures are painful to behold, ingest, and respond to, but no less essential at our international, national, and local political moment. In letters received by a Hoxha-era prisoner, just “two lines, on top of the page” in the same poem announce that the correspondent is well, and politely request a pair of socks:

From them, I learned to read between the lines:
negative spaces, the unsaid, gestures,
insomnia that like a hat’s shadow
fails to shade your chin and ears.

Censorship is very old news, but these declarations and spaces speak across continents, oceans, and cultural divides. Sometimes when I reread this poem and others by Lleshanaku, I imagine Arabic and Chinese calligraphy and think how tragically wide her reach is. I think, also, how clever it is to use a hat, an inanimate object that covers the head and keeps the thinking organ protected, but, in this case, all too vulnerable. And I think of Gjon Sinishta, the sacristan at my church until shortly before he died of cancer—a devout Albanian Catholic, he too was persecuted during the Hoxha years. His accurate English sometimes abandoned him to a kind of “negative space,” replaced by rhythms and words of his native tongue. These were hints of his own suffering and that of countless survivors of Balkan depravities.

Although politics and history are deeply woven into Negative Space, mundane observations have a valued place because they describe what is lost and touch on inevitable occurrences:

God knows why the cat chooses to cry in his yard
filled with empty bottles and cassette-tape ribbons.
And only God knows why a sales agent
knocks on his door day after day
trying to sell him a Japanese knife set.

The lines above are in “First Week of Retirement,” and at the end, the question of all questions is asked:

Everything under control, functional
like an electric shaver. A bonus.
But… where is life itself?
Where are the knives?

In “A Conversation with Charles Simic,” Lleshanaku’s truth speaks, in the words of Yeats, a “terrible beauty”:

We are both from the Balkans. Our countries are separated
 by mountains,
which seem from above look peaceful like dozing elephants.
They take short naps. Because of their weight,
their bodies never find rest
and they turn from one side to the other
making it impossible for them
to all dream at the same time.

This brilliantly contrasts with what comes later in the poem when she and Simic are face to face, in Las Vegas. The encounter presumably took place at a conference where it was “terribly noisy” and communication was incomplete, in a city more complex than its gaudy surfaces suggest, in a country where Simic went from lonely, penniless immigrant to honored writer and professor.

Toward the end of the poem, Lleshanaku compares Simic’s voice to “drops of water falling from cave ceilings to the ground, / from earth to earth.” Communion has occurred across an only-in-America “negative space,” where gambling machines, neon lights, and flashy kinetic colors bombard the senses, often at the expense of genuine connection.

“Water and Carbon” is a twelve-part piece that’s wonderfully imaginative. “Revelation” is the first word in the poem, which begins with a description of a chemistry teacher who does not fit Lleshanaku’s expectation of appearance with his face “Clean-shaved, hair trimmed and licked flat.” Her experiences have led her to expect someone who looked “a little more miserable.” She continues in the second section: “Water and carbon. Measurable, / They measure your weight when you’re born, height, heartbeat, / they encase and stamp you…” In the third section, a prisoner in a labor camp sees

…the former Sorbonne professor,
secretly digging through trash for a piece of watermelon rind,
which he wiped on his pants then swallowed whole without chewing
I witnessed five thousand years of civilization
gone extinct in a minute.

This is masterful and almost unbearable because we know how relentless Lleshanaku is in naming particulars that defeat her statement that “Water has a short memory.” That’s how she opens the next-to-last section of the poem. She clearly wants her own memory and that of her audience to be very long, and her work will help achieve that.

If Negative Space—and all volumes of witness—are read as they should be, becoming part of our own water and carbon, the world would be much repaired. Lleshanaku knows this is impossible to completely accomplish, making her well-rendered lines all the more necessary.


Ali Cobby Eckermann is an Australian poet of Indigenous Australian ancestry whose parents, like thousands in the Outback, were forced to give her up to white parents. Like far more women than we can ever know, she was molested as a child as enablers were complicit, or, in one case, too frightened to intervene. Eckermann flinches from nothing, including the spoken guilt of a physically strong sibling who did not protect her.

Too Afraid to Cry (Liveright, March 2018) is a memoir that combines short prose chapters with short poems. Though Eckermann is an award-winning poet, the prose here is more forceful than the poetry, and every word is saturated with the wisdom that comes from suffering without forsaking love.

The beach holidays went too quickly. We returned to school and sports and church and helping Mum and Dad with the chores around the farm. But it all felt different. My family did not know my secret about my uncle, but I did!

It’s no secret that poets obsess over grammar and punctuation, and the exclamation point in this prose becomes a valid inner wail. Later, in a poem called “Panic Attack,” Eckermann notes that:

a lavender bush has died
in her eyes
the bitterness of lime
flavours her tears
It burns to blink

These are tears that are never far from her surface, and repressed in ways that lead to alcohol, drugs, and abusive relationships when daydreaming was not enough to help her escape. Some of what she could not escape was raw hate, after girls she knew from sports and church grabbed her, held her down and used a felt marker to make her face a darker brown. She writes, “I hated living a life where so many people hurt me, and in that moment I began to hate them back.” If she had never hated, and never admitted to that hatred, the book would be less of a triumph.

Eckermann spends time in a squat with an abusive partner, and the poem “A Promise” says it all:

She gives him a cloud of parrots
He expects her to peel the carrots
She gives him a safari cruise
He expects her to hide the bruise
She gives him a blue magic rabbit
He expects her to feed his habit.

He gives her a kicking horse
She expects his true remorse
He gives her a rotting plum
She expects a little freedom
He gives her his silver spoon
She expects she’ll kill him soon.

She doesn’t. Instead she gives birth to the boyfriend’s baby and repeats the similarly destructive pattern of generational abandonment. Speaking to her brother about it, she is mystified by his tears. “I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t him giving up his child.” So damaged by abandonment at that point, empathy abandons her.

Her words help save Eckermann, as does recognition of her roots. “Hidden Water” reads like a sacred chant:

there is love in the mind by the singing rock
down the river by the ancient tree

love in kangaroos, goanna and emu
love when spirit speaks no human voice

at the sacred sites eyes unblemished
watch wedge tail eagle soar over hidden water

find the love

She clearly finds it, helped in part by connecting and reconnecting with her biological family, including her son. She also attends what is called Australia’s first National Sorry Day. “A torrent of emotion whips through me,” she writes in prose, and I thought of torrents of emotion felt by women and men whose stories of coming to grips with what necessitated the Sorry Day will never be told.

Toward the end of the book, Eckermann gets a traineeship at an Aboriginal owned-and-operated gallery. She falls in love with learning in a fresh, energetic way, and spends more time with her son. There is something vaguely New Age about the way her story stops: “Together we will be there always, turning the past hurts into healing.” These are the last words in the final prose section of the book.

Eckermann has conquered her fears. She and her loved ones have cried many times and brought their stories forward in a way that can help others avoid similar situations. Well-crafted resistance responses to wrongs are always a sign of hope.


Tears. Negative space. Shaping and illuminating both. Two strong, alert women who have articulated their tribulations and the tribulations of others. There’s no such thing as too much of this kind of light, especially in dark times.


Photograph of Luljeta Lleshanaku © New Directions. Photograph of Ali Cobby Eckermann © Adrian Cook.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →