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REVIEW: 'Wax and Gold' Fahad Al-Amoudi on Songs We Learn From Trees

The theory of Ethiopian exceptionalism goes both ways. The ancient recluse Christian kingdom with its liturgical Ge’ez script, whose royalty allegedly descends from Solomon and Sheba, where some citizens consider ‘Africa’ to be something that exists on the other side of the border is also the same place considered the bastion of African independence, repelling the Italians famously in 1896 and again in 1941. Ethiopia is a place of contradictions, an idea in both the African and European imagination that doesn’t fit within any soluble pre-colonial, colonial or postcolonial narrative. It is no surprise then that an Ethiopian poet has never appeared in the four editions of The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, which has reinforced a Eurocentric understanding of African cultural production.


Why would Ethiopians write in English when they have over eighty indigenous languages, some with their own literary traditions, to choose from? This picture becomes complicated when looking at Ethiopians in the diaspora. Some of us have our parents’ languages, whether it is Amharic, Tigrinya or Oromingnya, but some do not, and have little opportunity to connect with our heritage in meaningful and accessible ways. These factors became important considerations for Alemu Tebeje and Chris Beckett when they worked together on the first anthology of translated Amharic Poetry in English. Songs We Learn From Trees spans two centuries, several continents and oscillates between translations from Amharic, the lingua franca of Ethiopia, and poems written initially in English. They range from some of Ethiopia’s most legendary lyricists, such as Gemoraw, to contemporary international poets, such as Lemn Sissay and Kebedech Tekleab. An anthology of this scope has no binding theme or unifying style. Structured in the chronology of the poets’ working eras, you can chart the history of Amharic poetry from the nineteenth century to the present day and gain an insight into many of its formal constraints, preoccupations, and innovations.


Two tenets tend to underpin most Amharic poetry. The first is the ‘wax and gold’ style. Censorship and patronage have been a feature of Amharic poetry for centuries, often resulting in chroniclers composing poems that subvert authority by deliberately playing on ambiguities in the Amharic language and its formal structures. In this metaphor, the ‘wax’ is the surface, a generally innocuous meaning, and the deeper, electrifying meaning hides beneath: the ‘gold’. Praise poems can be insults, religious poems can be sensual, and conciliatory poems can be provocative. The style is often seen in ‘qenē’, a poetic form that pivots around puns and homonyms. Qenēs first appeared in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and are now part of the modern vernacular, finding a home in popular idiomatic speech. My favourite example from the book is the following couplet:


What use is t’ella? What use is teff? When you see the enemy, serve him coffee (burn him to ashes)

In one reading, these lines appear to be diplomatic and inviting, forgoing the violence of alcohol (t’ella and teff) for the conciliatory offer of coffee. However, a pun on the Amharic word for coffee, ‘bunna’, allows the interpretation to change completely, revealing the true meaning. The ‘wax and gold’ style has endured and adapted over the centuries to accommodate longer lines and longer poems, venturing into the realm of extended metaphor. As Amharic poetry has a particularly folkloric tradition, this is a key vehicle to complicate these fabulations. Though it is difficult to recognise these subtleties in the English language, there are comparable ambiguities: the body as a metaphor for Christ etc. Poets such as Mengistu Lemma, Nebiy Mekonnen and Dawit Tsegaye gesture towards this preference for the slanted and subversive.


When describing Amharic poetry, poet and academic Solomon Deressa once said, ‘the poem cannot be divorced from the land’. Not all Amharic poetry is Black pastoral. However, much of the anthology roots us directly in location or indirectly through language. Early traditional work is very much centred around Ethiopian liturgical and geopolitical history, often referring to the lives of saints, local rulers and Emperors. Other poets obsess with the personification of the world, such as Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin (left) who gives voice to the rivers, lakes and fields of Ethiopia. Many poems in the latter sections of the anthology are written ‘in situ’ as rich, honest and occasionally sentimental descriptions of locations in Ethiopia. Liyou Libsekal’s ‘A Federal’ stands out. In this observational description of a soldier, the speaker has a child-like awe and curiosity about the ways violence has woven itself into a federal soldier’s uniform, through his skin, and into his bones. The poem then turns at the end and we see the soldier again, not as a mechanised weapon but as ‘a shepherd with his herding stick’ over the hills of Addis Ababa. This shift from the urban to the pastoral conveys the federal’s power scope.


Elsewhere, exiled poets explore the tensions of returning home who look at Ethiopia as if through an over-exposed image. Often with a blend of the macabre and optimism, writers such as Hama Tuma present ‘home’ as simultaneously a historical entity and a utopia. One poem reads, ‘Time has subdued my countrymen/ they pass history twice and/ leave no shadow behind’ but in another, Tuma finds a whole country in the palm of a dead man.


There are many challenges to translating Amharic poetry, which relies so heavily on form and the structure of a ‘bet’ – a poetic line. The number of syllables in the line often determines the type of poem and the form the poem takes, which is difficult to replicate in English. Similarly, elements of the wax and gold tradition, particularly double meanings, are almost impossible to translate into the English language, which does not have anywhere near as many homonyms or similar sounding words and phrases as Amharic. Editors are faced with similar issues register and tone. For instance, in Bedilu Wakjira’s poem ‘Truth, My Child’, the Amharic, when directly translated into English, appeared to take a didactic tone that might have fit well into Victorian English. But in Amharic it would not have been considered archaic and distant, rather more tender. Alemu and Chris worked with Bedilu to achieve a translation that captured the essence of the piece, straying only a little from the Amharic.


This anthology is by no means an exhaustive and comprehensive collection of contemporary Ethiopian poets. Despite the editors taking many trips to Ethiopia to track down writers, they will be the first to admit that there are still some writers missing, including many contemporary women writers in Addis Ababa and those in the diaspora, such as Hiwot Adilow (pictured).

Nevertheless, the hope is that this is the first anthology of many. Future editions will better reflect the burgeoning poetry landscape emerging in Ethiopia, which continues to persevere during a time of Civil War, increased political censorship and the increasing financial burdens placed on writers.


 

Author: Fahad Al-Amoudi is a poet and editor of Ethiopian and Yemeni heritage based in London. He is the winner of the White Review Poets Prize 2022 and has been shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poets Prize. He is the Reviews Editor for Magma. @fahadalamoudi



 

Songs We Learn from Trees: An Anthology of Ethiopian Amharic Poetry Finalist for the 2021 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry Edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje. Buy here.


Alemu Tebeje is an Ethiopian journalist, poet, lyric writer and human rights campaigner who left Ethiopia in the early 1990s and now lives next to Grenfell Tower in London. He runs the website www.debteraw.com and his poems have been published in Amharic, Chinese and English, as well as being projected on buildings in Denmark, Italy, USA and UK by US artist, Jenny Holzer. His first bilingual collection of poems, Greetings to the People of Europe, was published by Tamrat Books in 2018 and includes the script of a sketch commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for a migrant re-imagining of Homer's Odyssey, My Name is Nobody.

Chris Beckett is a poet and translator, winner of the Poetry London Competition in 2001 and shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2015. He has two collections from Carcanet, Ethiopia Boy (2013) and Tenderfoot (2020), plus the first-ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry in English, Songs We Learn from Trees, which he translated and edited with Alemu Tebeje. He is a host of the long-standing Shuffle reading series and a proud trustee of the Poetry Society.

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