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Review of Chris Beckett's Ethiopia Boy - Helena Nelson

These poems are not translations; they were conceived and written in English.  But they have the feeling of translation - their success at capturing another country infects the language, form and phrasing.  It works, it really does.

Beckett grew up in Ethiopia.  Memories of childhood are a rich source for any poet: here they are exotic, haunting and poignant.  Events return to him, and characters; and another language, with incantatory power, lurks behind the lines.  Here, for example, are a few lines from 'Dirge for Mrs Ethiopia', which is to be imagined in the voices of young boys singing sometimes alone, sometimes in twos and threes, or in chorus:

because we are struggling, Mother
who will carry us if you are lying down?
who will care for us if the box of your traditional
and modern
    medicines rattles like a pea?
who will laugh for us?
when we have lost our sense of humour?

The poem has a chorus, in the original Amharic - woe, woe to God (wai amlaki / wai-wai-wai!) - a universal plaint of rousing melancholy.

But the boys of Ethiopia are both melancholy and magnificent.  Abebe, the cook's son, is a marvellous character: 'Abebe, gobbling up the afternoon like a kwalima / Abebe, grinning like a chickpea fish / while everybody naps.'

The book includes five central pages of lines and snatches in elaborate shapes and fonts - 'concrete' poems, perhaps, for want of a better name.  This was the only section that did nothing at all for me: it simply interrupted my progress.  The main thread carried me through, nevertheless, until I reached my favourite, the penultimate poem 'About the fish in Lake Langano'.  Here the poet has pitched his tent beside the lake and waits for Abebe to reappear.  And suddenly he does: 'tonight you are sitting again / on the sand of my thoughts / untying your shoes'.  And the fisherman and the fishing (which is far more than fishing) attract the catfish, and the catfish themselves sing out in chorus, leading the poet to his lyrical and lovely final line:

it is too long since he came
it is too long since he bent forward
and called us to him...


this need in the heart of all beings to be fished.
Next review of 'Ethiopia Boy'... To the Chris Beckett page... To the 'Ethiopia Boy' page...
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