This dark image is perhaps typical of what Ethiopia conjures for today’s European reader. Too recent spectres of drought, famine and attendant griefs cast long shadows over a culturally rich land; its ancient wonders, even “Haile Selassie’s glamorous barefoot empire […] blazing young singers of Ethio-jazz” are less readily summoned. To Chris Beckett’s considerable credit, that whilst acknowledging that darkness, he reawakens not only his own memories of his happy sixties childhood there, in the process preparing lighter vistas for us all.
In a short, packed, introduction, he describes problems in finding his voice. His solution lay in reading Ethiopian poetry widely, and translating Amharic verse: “the real voice of my boyhood […] stuttering back to the surface and start to write its own sort of poems.”
Beckett wears his learning lightly. He offers an apology for being insufficiently expert in the many, many languages and poetic traditions of Ethiopia, suggesting that he merely “imitate[s]”. Beckett is a harsh judge of his achievements, both in his translation and in his own verse. Despite his protestations, few readers will be more knowledgeable about these areas. In any case, these poems all stand firmly and require no apology. His footnotes, like his introduction, betray a light, well-judged hand with sufficient, illuminating explanations which neither patronise nor overweigh the lines. Fine typesetting contributes fittingly.
That typography is showcased wonderfully in the expansive shape poem “Sticks” – the most ordinary of subject-matter made extraordinary. There are so many poetic forms and devices in this collection: list poems and laments, curses and praises, descriptive verse and some very funny poetry indeed. Consider his take on being English in Africa, as his father
looks on scandal-browed
out, forks! out, schooly Englishness!
we trill, loading our strips
of injera with bombs of
senafich and slither-chicken
Politicians, local buses and flies are all fair game. Untranslated words charm with their sounds throughout. The word play, wit and rhythms of “Lion buses”, and the listed images of “Motorcar!” delight, just as “Dirge for Mrs Ethiopia” haunts. “Wondrossen, the prayer child” dreams another, lyrical world. There is so much to challenge and to amaze.
The figure of Abebe opens, weaving his achingly cool, increasingly dangerous way through the book –
Abebe, gobbling up the afternoon like kwaima
Abebe, grinning like a chickpea fish
while everybody naps
(“Abebe, the cook’s son”)
In the penultimate poem around him we hear of the Red Terror and Eritrea, and recognise in
Abebe, the slim good-looking boy, who became a man when I was not looking
not only that lost boyhood friend, but a metaphor for Ethiopia, and our own relationship with the land:
how could he keep tumbling off the shelf of our mind’s eye
and break into a hundred songs?
(“Cupboards and a guitar”)
This beautiful collection will be loved by those who know the country, and will also make a fine cultural primer for those intending to visit. It will speak to those who dream of Addis Ababa and the highlands, but may never meet the land first hand. For those whose images are based on needfully harrowing charity campaigns, Ethiopia Boy may balance the picture.
And since Ethiopian poetry is spoken, it delights in the sounds of
words and in the physical presence of the people it addresses.
This may be written as Chris Beckett’s introduction to Ethiopian poetry but it speaks equally of his own. For any poetry lover, that is reason enough to read this collection.