(Poet: Alemu Tebeje / Tamrat Books Ethiopian Poets Series No. 2, 2018)
Reviewed by Esther Lipton
This is the first collection of poems by the Ethiopian journalist, teacher, poet and campaigner, who left Ethiopia in the early 1990s. The title is taken from one of sixteen poems written in Amharic with translations by the author and by Chris Beckett who grew up in Ethiopia. Also included, in the Amharic script with English translation, is a short play commissioned by BBC Radio 4 Tamrat in the Cyclops Cave.
The title poem sets out the plight of refugees ‘braving seas and leaky boats, cold waves of fear.’ It asks the People of Europe to remember the words of their missionaries who preached love and non-resistance to their forebears. It is a short poem with an important message clearly expressed.
It is evident from several of the poems that they are based on personal experience (Alemu lives just 200 yards from Grenfell) and true events. In particular, the poignant poem, ‘My Mother in her country town’ in which his mother dies never having seen him for 18 years expresses his deep and profound feelings.
‘the tiny ray of hope inside the sadness of not seeing her slipped out of me and sat down on the ground and wept.’
The poem ‘Visa’ points a convincing picture of a young boy, a protester thrown into the Birsheleko prison ‘whose legs are plugged in ragged trousers, one shoe smiling through a hole in front, his other foot unshod and swollen broken by a whip.’ He is applying for a visa to leave Ethiopia. He appears before ‘the chairman in a woollen suit and tie and expensively buffed shoes’. Despite his brave questions ‘the boy is only tightening his chains.’ Is this boy the poet himself? In the poem ‘Hope’ he is clearly in prison ‘I am locked in on every side but I have a key inside my heart.’
‘Oh, that night’ expresses beautifully the memory of sleeping under the stars. Lines like ‘beneath the blanket of the moon, we/lit ourselves like torches and flared blissfully –wax bodies, souls, love /like a match on lovers skin/flared and rocketed us together into the startled sky.’
Also included in this collection is, ‘The Voices of Grenfell Tower’ previously published in the first issue of Exiled Ink e-magazine. This personalises in a haunting and desperate way, the voices of individuals trapped in the inferno of the Grenfell tower. Mention of an individual by name and the repetition of the words ‘calling, calling’ bring a terrible authenticity to the event which one will never forget, ‘the fire consumed a building now it is consuming me with all the burning voices of the dead old people young people.’
The short play, spoken in Amharic and English is about Tamrat, son of Tesfal, son of Hope. It is based on the story by Homer, Odysseus and the Cyclops. In just five scenes we meet Tamrat, the young Ethiopian boy ‘whose knees are laughing as he climbs mountains’ and finds a cave full of games that he plays with his friends. Tamrat sees the future clearly. In scene two Tamrat and his friends pretend they are cruel policemen like the monster Cyclops. Scene three describes Tamrat’s love for Almaz while scene four tells of Tamrat, now aged 20 at university. He and his friends are involved in student demonstrations against the regime. The Great Policeman has many eyes that, like Cyclops, they join together. His cruelty is vividly described. ‘He keeps us in small cells to watch each other’s every move then rolls over our country’s mouth so we cannot speak.’ Almaz, now heavy happy with his child’, searches for Tamrat among the demonstrators. In scene five we find Tamrat in fear of his life hiding beneath a truck load of sheepskins heading for the border at Metema. Again the atrocities against his fellow students are mentioned and Tamrat curses the Great Policeman ‘let his umbilical cord rot in the ground like an onion.’ In an allusion to Homer, Tamrat explains ‘I have pushed my hands against the stone, I have tried to be a voice for the dead… Now my only way of living is to leave, to turn myself into a shadow man, a Nobody.’ The play ends as Tamrat escapes over the border defiantly shouting at the guards, ‘I am Tamrat, son of Tesfal! I am Tamrat, son of Hope!’
In this play we see and hear the suffering. It enlightens those who have no knowledge of the exile’s previous life; an exile who loves Ethiopia but states that the only way to find it is to leave it. Tamrat is that exile and represents the plight of many other exiles fleeing terror, repression and extreme cruelty.
Protest through poetry helps heal one’s personal sufferings, brings to our notice events of the past and, most importantly, what is happening in current times. To that end, further work of this gifted writer who speaks so compassionately for others, must be welcomed.