Poetry from the Horn of Africa

By Geoff Wisner

Image of Poetry from the Horn of Africa

Launched in November 2011, Warscapes magazine has taken on an unusual niche: the art and literature of war zones around the world.

On March 6, Warscapes hosted An Evening of Poetry from the Horn of Africa in the headquarters of Alwan for the Arts near the tip of Manhattan on Beaver Street. The event was a rare opportunity to hear poetry written in Amharic, Arabic, Tigre, and Tigrinya, in the original and in translation.

Maaza Mengiste, the Ethiopian writer whose debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze I reviewed in 2010, was the moderator of a panel that included Somalian poet Ali Jimale Ahmed, Ethiopian poet Solomon Deressa, poet and translator Charles Cantalupo, and publisher Kassahun Checole. An Eritrean by birth, Checole founded Africa World Press in 1983 and The Red Sea Press in 1985.

Checole spoke of the hidden meanings in verse from the Horn of Africa, something I first learned about from the Ethiopian memoir Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, where Nega Mezlekia writes this.

One can draw a jagged line through a stranded poem, from top to bottom, breaking it into two independent pieces. Each of these halves rhymes and has its own meaning; put together, the two pieces form a body that gives a third and entirely different meaning.

Checole mentioned an Ethiopian novel he has wanted to publish for 24 years. The book has defeated him, though, because he has so far found no one who can adequately translate the poems embedded in it.

Charles Cantalupo has published collections of poetry by Reesom Haile, one of Eritrea’s leading poets, of whom he wrote this.

Reesom Haile writes in Tigrinya. It is a Semitic language and, like the languages of Tigre and Amharic, derives from the ancient language of Ge'ez. It derives, like Hebrew and Arabic, from Aramaic, which is often thought to have been a language—along with Greek and Hebrew —of the original composition of much of the Old and New Testament and of Jesus.

This is from Reesom Haile's poem “The Leader”:

You wear our crown of leaves
As long as we're free
To say “yes” without force.
As in the beginning,
This covenant sways
With each other's words,
Leading to the good
And holding us together
Not apart in the storm
To a stranger's delight.
This way ? That?
Around? Between?
With this crown of leaves
We meet heart to heart:
With much to learn, but smart
Enough to know what hurts.
We choose you
To wear our crown of leaves.
It possesses no magic
But our history and your name.

More poems from Cantalupo's anthology Who Needs a Story? can be read on the Warscapes website, which currently features a retrospective on the literature of Eritrea.

Toward the end of the evening, poet and translator Anna Moschovakis read verse by the Ethiopian poet Surafel Wondimu.

The recipient of a grant that sends artists to unfamiliar parts of the world, Moschovakis returned from Addis Ababa with recordings of the poet performing his work to a jazz accompaniment. To hear this verse as it was spoken in its homeland was an unusual treat and a fitting end to the evening.


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