The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - Ethiopia Boy
Reviewer - Hama Tuma
Chris Beckett, the award-winning poet whose first book The Dog Who Thinks he is a Fish was published in 2004, grew up in Ethiopia during the 1960s when I and many others were making our way into the university and to protest and rebel against Emperor Haile Selassie's rule. Ethiopia was then, as it is today, a land of contradictions, of sumptuous feasts (gibr with raw meat and tej drink) in the palace, and, as Beckett notes in his poem The banquet, where 'daytime beggars show (us) sores and stumps/ stick hungry babies under our noses,' a land of famine and injustice, of oppressed people stubbornly clinging to their pride and tattered clothes.
Beckett has captured the spirit and soul of the land, the fatalism ('I am bad days coming and days that are worse than that,' To the man with a guzzler wife), and, yes, the romanticism and eternal hope of the ordinary Ethiopian. Compared to today, those were hard but relatively gentler days and, as Beckett delves into his memories as a boy, his poems conjure for me and that generation more than 'three notes of longing' for the lives we led. Ethiopian literature, poetry included, was forced by the reality to swim in allegories, in double entendres (wax and gold), in satire - all of which is manifested in Beckett's poems, which are full of nostalgia, direct and honest without being overly sentimental. He writes of great wonders like Aksum, and satirically asks 'what about the scabs on Tamrat's knee?' (one of the best poems in the collection), and of the land that greets bare feet 'that chatter about the past, feet that jump into the future' (Earth's greeting to feet). As Ethiopian as the legendary cow in heaven whose milk we never get to see or drink, Beckett has written an ode to friendship (in Abebe the cook's son and Cupboards and a guitar, for example), to the spicy dishes of Ethiopia (in Praise shout for Asfaw, the best cook in Africa! and Wot?), and he shows that even at that young age, and as a relatively privileged farenji, he had a sharp eye for the inequalities: 'A man who gives peace to a house he never enters.' (Berhanu, the nightwatchman)
He remembers an Ethiopia that, on the whole, no longer exists. Even Addis Ababa (the new flower in his poem Addis and Abebe) is old, but not flowering at all as he had hoped. And yet Beckett who writes 'adults are like insects, mistaking you for pollen' is not at all pessimistic. His Lemon for love and other poems are joyful, exalting love and noble values that are or ought to be universal. Beckett's poems can go well even in Amharic, but he is not just a poet confined to one poetic tradition and to a past that is no more than just a vivid memory. He uses Ethiopian oral poems as his template for many of the poems: praise shouts in his own or other boys' voices, warrior-type boasts of a shoeless man and a restless fly-whisk, a dirge with the refrain wai amlaki! as you might hear near any church. Half-rhymes and repetitions are plentiful, creating a lively colloquial atmosphere with a genuine Ethiopian flavor but not losing sight of the universal. Anyone who reads these poems and is not very aware of Ethiopia and its realities can still enjoy them, since they transcend boundaries and also call for more than one reading to get the wax, the real message.
Langston Hughes lamented in his Afro-American Fragment: 'So long, so far away, is Africa.' For Beckett, Ethiopia is here and now, in his memory, alive in his versatile poems, not far away and distant, but near and vibrant. The scabs on Tamrat's knee are still here, alas, and we are lucky that the 'demon who jumps out of the third graveyard and eats the memories of children' (Small nervous prayer) did not reach Chris Beckett, who like his late friend Abebe may 'keep on tumbling off the shelf of our mind's eye,' but is still capable of breaking into a hundred songs.