To talk about Zodiac, a new collection from Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo, we must first talk about apophenia. Apophenia, I learned from the radio call-in show that echoed from down the hall as I sat reading this book, is the sense that seemingly unrelated things are connected. It can be a sign of mental illness, but when its touch is light, it allows you to walk into a room with a broken door, overturned furniture and toppled stacks of books, and draw the conclusion “danger.” A handy bit of evolutionary adaptation. Unchecked though, and the apopheniac impulse will make you paranoid, addled, irksome to those who must listen to your convoluted conspiracy theories. It is at this thin line, flirting with the edge of too much connection, where you will find Moikom Zeqo’s poetic sensibility.
In his translator’s introduction, Wayne Miller observes that “Zeqo’s images and metaphors pile up and entangle to produce a dizzying linguistic labyrinth.” That sense of ecstatic spinning is part of the genuine pleasure of reading this book. From the first poem, “1” (there is a 12-part sequence of numbered poems inspired by the symbols of the zodiac), we’re plunged into a fretwork of associative logic. Water is the unifying theme of this poem, inspired by the sign of Aquarius. “Water water water: / torrential people – droplet-children from still pregnant clouds…” Zeqo begins. The poem leaps from one astonishing image to another. “Demons of howling rivers” flow into “the beasts of tears released from the traps of eyelashes” and on to “where can I catch the fish / that still hold in its belly / the bottled message / of a drowned Christ child.” Interspersed with these images is a speaker who questions how so much perception can be connected, how a small human mind can rightly perceive an oceanic whole. “Eternity has fallen in love with my tiny, /mortal self,” he writes, and then quips self-referentially, “This All-Encompassing is getting cramped.” To read this poem is to take a wild ride through a water cycle that slips through time and dimensions. It’s the kind of thing that would make your brain hurt if the poet hadn’t cajoled you into loosening your grip and just riding the wave.
The evolutionary biologist I heard on the radio discussing apophenia was very generous with a caller who was afraid she might be going crazy tracking so many connections all the time. The biologist said generously that we are beings designed to make meaning. It is the work of our lives and it is a real challenge deciding how much incoherence we can bear. For the non-Albanian readers of Zeqo, there is a shadow hanging over these poems that we’re missing something we’re supposed to understand. As Miller explains, “Zeqo is trying to articulate for posterity’s sake the full extent of his rootedness in Albanian and Mediterranean culture – and the full extent of that culture’s rootedness in him.” The poem “7,” for example, which unspools a litany of observations on the theme of lions and masculinity in much the same way the poem “1” riffed on water, enchanting us with its opening lines:
When a great man is born
– a sheep begat a lion!
What about a flower: could it
beget a horse?
Could a tree
beget a dolphin?
But as the poem draws us in, Zeqo’s array of historical and cultural references might make some readers feel frayed. What does it mean to say “The heraldic lion Karl Thopia / sits on the lilies of Anjou / and the Krajinin cross of Jovan Vladimir”? In these cases we can be grateful for the translators’ extensive and elucidating footnotes, which explain Thopia and Vladimir were medieval rulers from separate centuries who saw their kingdoms rise and fall, who participated in and succumbed to coups. And now we can understand why the speaker, an ambitious man and a dreamer who is enough of a pragmatist to know nothing lasts forever, goes on to say, “Daily, the lion stalks me.” We can understand why Zeqo ends the poem with a reference to ambivalent masculinity that English-speaking readers will know well and connect with:
every finished book is a dead lion;
books not yet written are living lions.
with his fangs pulled out.
And yet to read this book feels very much like sitting in the presence of a living lion. Or perhaps it is just that the energy in these poems brings out the hungry lion, the prowling mind, in the reader. In a poem like “Terrifying Predictions,” Zeqo plays an ecstatic lyric game of switching on our instinctive tendencies towards apophenia by promising, “When flitting Aphrodite approaches Jupiter / I’ll seal my spirit inside the body of a storm, / I’ll marry a horse to an Angevin lily / a cactus to a newborn comet….” With an easy grace, Anastas Kapurani and Wayne Miller seal Zeqo’s Albanian language into a beautifully otherworldly English in which we can imagine the marriage of “a sea to a fish-tailed deer, / a beggar’s breadcrust to a computer, / a king to a bacterium / a Bogdanian Sibyl to a castrated lion….” We can imagine a poem like a full-fleshed lion that might open his mouth to explain the connections between all things.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink, which won the James Laughlin prize from the Academy of American Poets and is forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2016, and Rag & Bone, which won the Elixir Press Antivenom Prize. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. Recent poems appear in 32 Poems, Barrelhouse, Crazyhorse, Field, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.