Water and Carbon by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated by Ani Gjika


Revelation came to you on a September day,
not on top of a dry mountain, but in the chemistry lab
during the last class period when you were starving,
when, after Hamlet’s monologue and equations with two unknowns,
it became clear there was nothing more to learn. 

“Human beings are simply made of water and carbon,” he declared,
and wrote a long formula full of holes on the board
like a metal trap for rabbits.
He was the messenger, St. John, the chemistry teacher,
drenched in sweat,
his belt buckled on the last hole. Clean-shaved,
hair trimmed and licked flat with “Figaro” oil…

Shouldn’t he look at least a little more miserable?
Shouldn’t he at least have a beard?
Shouldn’t at least a bush nearby light up on fire?

“Simply water and carbon!
Maybe even a little magnesium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphor…
In short, little choice involved.”
And he chucked the chalk away

like a key, useless,

after the door is pulled out.

He shook his hands. Mission accomplished! The last words already spoken. 

Now disperse and spread the good news!
Or go to hell; who cares!

A bitter relief in the air, the scent of freshly cut grass.
Suddenly, we no longer knew who we were; suddenly we were all the same. 

So what was that eternal worry on my mother’s face?
And what sort of chemical compound
were Adler and Schopenhauer talking about in the other classroom
from which only a thin wall separated us
or an entire existence?

Water and carbon. Measurable.
They measure your weight when you’re born, height, heartbeat,
they encase and stamp you with a belly button like a leaden seal
you have no authority to open! (You have no authority over yourself.)
They measure your temperature, in the shade of course,
your sugar levels, albumen, iron, reflexes on your knees,
your tongue, twice, before and after a meal,
(what does this have to do with speaking?!)

They measure the perimeter of your head for hats
so you can think coolheadedly,
and your chest for a suit
through a pair of icy cold tailor hands which first tickle you
under your armpits and ribs, 

but then they make you nervous.

They fill you up with pads on your shoulders and chest
so no one can hear what’s inside.
Double-breasted, single-breasted, spare buttons, fake pockets on your pants.
All yours! Now you’re one of us!
Welcome to the kingdom of water and carbon!

And as they recruit you, they check out your naked body.
You have to be healthy, the impeccable lamb of the herd
for a sacrifice in the name of your country.
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you don’t know what to cover with your hands first: 

between your genitals and shaved head
you choose to cover your genitals
forgetting that it’s exactly the mane 

which makes a lion king.

“To protect what? Where my territory begins and ends?” Nothing is yours.
Attack and invade. Use trickery like the knight in a chess game:
two squares horizontally, three vertically.
Ambush on your fate, face to face, or on its back,
exactly where it doesn’t expect it.

And don’t forget: as soon as you plant your feet somewhere,
hang a torn shirt or patched pants outside on the clothesline,
just enough to frighten the crows.
This is your passport;
poverty makes you a citizen anywhere you go, poverty makes you indigenous.

Your body throws you under the bus; your body betrays you.
Your body is simply water and carbon.

I was 17 one morning in my prison cell
when after a night in delirium, running a 107 fever, 

with bronchopneumonia,
I woke up drenched in my own urine.
I was neither a child nor a man


Then in labor camp, in the marshes
I saw the theologian gathering rotten bits of cigarettes for a single drag,
just enough to smell them.

But when I saw 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.

Of course, it’s always the witness’ fault,
the wrong eye at the wrong place.
Without a witness we wouldn’t even have crematories
and only white fumes would leak out of history’s nostrils.

There was so much dignity in the body of the old man who hung himself 

(rejected here on earth and now also in heaven),
in his bare feet like a saint’s, his body — a frozen planet
revolving one last time around itself,

in his head drooping to the side,
as if he were refusing to witness even his own death…

But it didn’t end here; they plucked his gold teeth,
with such disgrace as if they were plucking three generations.
Declassed, even among the dead. 

How could a toothless man protect himself on the Last Judgement? How would he formulate his arguments?
The dead will laugh; angels will crack up.

And so, he too, would be forgotten.
Simply water and carbon like everybody else.

The living went back to work, eyes down as if at their own funeral.
The whips on their joints and back

gave them no time to think for long.

You can’t be the last in line — this was the goal, morning to night.

But where was our country at that moment? Where was Caesar?


“They stripped us naked

and beat us under cold tap water

with Soviet boots. We fainted. But…”


“But the next day all four of us were alive, on roll-call.

And the officers made a bet for a case of beer on the boy from Tropoja 

having left him outside in the snow all night long naked as the day he was born.


“But one of them lost his bet.”


“When they beat the old man like a child slapping him in the face, and I

did nothing to help him…”


“Then I knew that even death didn’t give a damn about us. It approached us like a dog,
 sniffed us then left us alone…”


“We were simply femur bones, without marrow.”

And his eyes suddenly beaming,

as if he’d just found a nail on the wall where he could hang

a single painting,
he added:
“However, Sargeant Halim was a good man…”

“What good things did Sargeant Halim do?”

“He didn’t do anything good,

but he didn’t do anything bad either.”


Then one day, you become one with suffering,
suffering transforms into a limb
which you must treat generously like the other limbs:
wash it, clean it, cut its nails carefully, keep it warm,
feel its numbness,

like that arm you place under your head late at night,
dumping on it all your sleepless weight when the light
of the camp’s projector
moves cunningly over the brown blankets
like the eye of the jackal searching for the weakest prey of the herd.

Nothing and no one came between you and your suffering. 

Dissolved in one another like water and salt
(now you don’t even remember which one of you was the former).

And you quit complaining.
From your lungs carbon runs out freely.

“I’m tired of listening to you. Enough now.

Tell me just one thing: Why did you tolerate all this?” 

asks from an ocean away
his own brother, groomed by Hudson’s breeze,
in a country where the right to pursue happiness 

is guaranteed by the constitution.

“And what should we have done according to you?!”
“Should have been killed, three of you, 

so the rest would have lived with dignity.”

But this doesn’t fit chemistry laws. Water and carbon’s only mission
is to stay alive at all costs.

And to stay alive they need just basic instincts,
basic like words and phrases in a small pocket dictionary
tourists use in foreign lands.
Basic like: “bread”, “water”, “How do you get to the nearest town?”
“Do you have a vacant room for tonight?” “I can pay cash”.

Due to instincts

some of us returned home alive,
with a pair of borrowed shoes.

Built a hut of reeds and mud where we began again
under a sky where a colorless porridge was stewing
with all the leftover seeds, like Noah’s porridge.
We were guns without latches. 

We softened walls with our shadows.

And we bore children, two-dimensional children,
like ribbons of light that enter from under a door
or through a torn tarp roof.
Daydreaming children, the children of survival
who noticed only the bonny haunches of the farm oxen
and at night, like a secret sect
gathered around “Dickens”.

You can’t conquer evil. Evil ends on its own.

No matter how big, evil has its own moment of saturation:
sharks get fed up, wars get fed up, inquisition fires get fed up,
epidemics get fed up,
cholera and the plague get fed up, glaciers too…

Even dictatorships have their saturation point,
when sulfur spills out of their sick stomachs. 

And blessed he who’s destined to live through the Epoch of Saturation:
like paradise in those illustrated religious flyers
where tigers and people bask together under the sun, in peace,
in an apple orchard, by a river of honey, co-sufferers and

Fault is not a feature of water or carbon. Fault doesn’t exist.

Children yes,
but adults never abandon their toys.

Among tin bowls and aluminum spoons,
coats and same-size clogs, among shaved heads, we
were identified by our lost causes:
someone believed in “the republic”, another in “the monarchy”,
another in “the revolution”, and another in “the truth”,
yet another
simply in “health”,

(a little too much faith there
for four square meters of space).

And the one who used to talk to himself or a wall corner,
got a little carried away once when he said he was Costantine the Great.
But with a mind separate from the body
he was precisely like the Constantine statue
in Musei di Conservatori in Rome, even more so,
with two right hands.

You have no right to occupy two places in this world,
even in prison there’s no space for two personae.

So one day, they took him, all of his pieces,
who knows where; who knows which piece ended up in court 

and which one in the madhouse…
And he was only 25 years old. 

Looked at from above
we were simply an anthropological museum,
somewhere a millwheel shined, somewhere else a parchment yellowed
and somewhere else a horseman’s costume hung
without a horseman in sight.

Water is recyclable.
Nature is a good housewife; lets nothing go to waste.

They say the one who posed for Jesus’ portrait in “The Last Supper”
was the same person who posed for Judas’ four years later,
this time no longer that soft-skinned, gold-haired church choir boy,
but the man convicted of heavy crimes in a prison in Rome.

It is water
that can make wonders in four years,
it can turn cloudy, freeze, spoil, flow out of its bed…
Wonders that even Da Vinci’s eagle eye couldn’t predict.

And so each of us could have four lives.
In the most fortunate case
we could be recycled from a balloon into cleaning gloves,
then into a car seat and in the end into synthetic snow
at the shooting of a romantic Christmas scene in mid-July,
until the director, satisfied, yells out, “Cut!”

Where there’s hope, there’s compromise.

But, what can be said of that man
who willingly chose to die of starvation?
Ecce homo they shouted mockingly, the people in uniform,
materialists, who couldn’t wait to wash their hands.

Because dignity,
if not inherited, can be contagious. 


Water has a short memory.

From Palm Sunday to Good Friday there are five blessed days;
in Jerusalem, the one they welcomed as triumphant,
was nailed as “faithless” on the fifth day.

“But, if we’re only water and carbon,
then what is love? How do we know it’s love?”

You can’t know, but others can,
because you reek of burning, smoke, like the homeless.

At camp, when mail arrived on Tuesdays — letters from wives,
fiances, lovers — one of us was always emptyhanded;

“No letters for you!” meaning “She left you.” That moment all eyes around you conjugated the verb “leave” in all the tenses, forms, persons,
they’d go beyond etymology, all the way to Salome
and “The Dance of the Seven Veils”…

Never before had you found yourself so naked,
so naked they could count the hairs and pores on your body, the nerves
seething under the skin like a labour of moles.

They could easily make out your heart 

like a late tomato, unripe, green,
so green you’re stunned.

And whoever goes ignorant to Rome, returns from thence the same.


“You are free” they told him, after fortyfive years. “Where will you go?”
It was the same as asking someone on death row

“What song do you want to hear?” or to be more accurate,
“Do you know what you’ve lost?”
A second punishment, a second execution.

It was the end of June. The sky opened its mouth ear to ear
laughing brazenly
exposing a group of clouds on lonely mountain peaks
like the ticket seller her wisdom teeth 

when he asked: “A ticket to sea, please!”

The journey was long,
the longest our kind of water and carbon could ever take,
in a boxcar that smelled of freshly baked buns and sweat.
He stopped at the wrong station. Travelled the rest of the journey
on foot. The breeze from the poplars softly hitting him on the neck
like a newlywed entering the bedroom for the first time not knowing
if that gesture was congratulatory or consoling.

And here’s the sea!
How can man hide such miracle from man,
how can you hide water from water?!

Where had he seen that white ship departing from the dock?
In the dreams of the father, grandfather, great-grandfather?

Around him, circled men and women in speckled bathing suits
and joyous children with sunburnt shoulders.
He alone in the wrong season,
late, premature.

He alone fully clothed, head to toe
like a black piano, closed in the corner of a hall around which the world
revolves undisturbed

longingly touching a myriad grains of sand only one of which
will end up in the belly of a shellfish
where pain, with time, will transform it into a pearl.

Luljeta Lleshanaku is internationally known as Albania’s most important and inventive poet of her generation. A winner of International Kristal Vilenica Prize in 2009, she is the author of seven books of poetry in Albanian and six poetry collections in other languages. Negative Space won 2013 Author of the Year Award by the Publishers Association at the Tirana Book Fair, Albania. Her American collection Child of Nature (New Directions, 2010) was one of 2011 Best Translated Book Award poetry finalists and her British collection Haywire: New & Selected Poems was nominated for the 2013 Popescu Prize by Poetry Society, UK.

Ani Gjika, author of Bread on Running Waters (2013), is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and NEA fellow for her translation of Luljeta Lleshanaku’s work from the Albanian language. Gjika’s poems and translations appear at AGNI Online, Salamander, Seneca Review, World Literature Today, Ploughshares and elsewhere.