Tuesday, 14 November 2017

In Search of Ethiopian Poet Bewketu Seyoum

The work of Ethiopian poet Bewketu Seyoum is a recent discovery for me.  Thanks largely to the online journal The Missing Slate, I have learned he was born in Mankusa in Gojjam, north-west of Addis Ababa; that Seyoum's mother comes from a family of Orthodox priests, and his father is an English teacher; that he has a degree in Psychology, has published three collections of poetry, two novels, and two CDs of stories, that in 2008, he was awarded the prize for Young Writer of the Year by the President of Ethiopia, how in June 2012, he represented Ethiopia at the Poetry Parnassus Festival in London, and how he even finds time to perform as a stand-up comedian!  I have also thoroughly enjoyed the examples of his poetry I have so far discovered.

I Won't Climb a Mountain

I won’t climb a mountain
to touch the clouds,
I won’t lift the frown
of a rainbow into a smile,
I won’t borrow
Tekle Haymanot’s wings
or Jacob’s ladder —
when I want to climb,
the sky will come down to me!


As one might expect from a poet who doubles as a comic, wry observations and humorous comments on the modern world are never far away in Seyoum's repertoire, in his prose as much as in his poetry.  In the story Its All the Same, a curmudgeonly Ethiopian full of disapproval for modern society embarks upon an absurd attempt to plan a suicide sufficiently respectable for one of his self-perceived high standing, while many of his stage routines recount the funny side of Ethiopian assimilation into Western life. He also likes to hold a laughing mirror at his own society.  In a recent interview on website Ethiopian News and Views, Seyoum described how: I am fond of melancholic humor. One evening I encountered a shabbily dressed guy rummaging through a garbage can in one of the streets of Addis. I came closer and asked “what are you up to man?” “I am only looking for some leftover for supper” said the man sadly. Touched, I took out my wallet and offered him to buy  bread. The guy took the money and made his way to the nearby shop. Soon, he returned with a candle and a match and went back to the garbage can to look for some leftover. This is a kind of stuff I like to include in my work.


Even when Seyoum's poetry focuses on social themes, it is often shot through with an elaborate humour, as in the poem In Search of Fat, a reflection on his country's famine-ravaged past, and a scathing rebuke to the self-serving politicians:

In Search of Fat

A multitude of thin people, all skin,
call out like rag and bone men,
“Where’s our fat?” They rummage
every mountain, stone and huddle-huddle,
search in the soil, search in the sky.
At last they find it, piled up on one man’s belly!

While at other times, this social focus is more sharply framed within a philosophical context:

The Door to Freedom

If tortured spirits
who have lived in chains
are suddenly called to freedom,
the door of their cell thrown open
and the guards sent home,
they will not feel truly free
unless they break through the wall.
 In a similar vein, the Puckish  Prohibited! avows a libertarian streak:

Smoking is prohibited! Whistling is prohibited! Peeing is prohibited!
The whole wall made up of prohibitions.
Which one is right??

Were I blessed with a piece of wall, a little piece of power,
my slogan would be:

Prohibitions are prohibited!


Seyoum's rejection of rules and structures takes on a less militant colour in The Road to Nowhere, a snapshot of contemporary society which could be inspired by scenes of any city, and finds its author in contemplative mood:
The one who looks to be in a hurry.
The one who looks to be quick.
The one who drives a good car.
The one who wears designer shoes
and the one who goes barefoot.
All these intellectuals and illiterates
travelling up and down the road,
overcrowding it from top to bottom.
Look how they go back and forth
and never get to their destination!


Seyoum is rarely political in any explicit sense, nor do his poems hammer home any uncompromisingly didactic ethos, but are rather expressed from a somewhat polite, peripheral perspective, as may be natural to one living in new environments, surrounded by unfamiliar cultures. On the one hand, perhaps wary of the lessons learned from his past in a country wrought by conflicts, he takes a gently dismissive swipe at well-intentioned ideals:
So long as there is an Alexander the Great next door 
who sees a weapon in the cup he drinks from
I shall not be moved by the anti-gun cheerleaders 
with their innocent smiles 
I shall not invite white doves
to hover over my pillow 
I shall not throw my armour
into the trash.

Yet this world-weary cynicism is off-set by a warm embrace of genuine innocence, a desire for peaceful coexistence, and a restored faith in the better elements of humanity:

So long as there is a woman next door 
who sees a jug for drawing water 
in the fallen cannon shell
I shall not panic 
when the war drums sound
I will not despair 
when the army starts
its goose step.
 But he can also be biting, and uncompromising.  The poem which first made me stop short and take notice, was the damning Elegy, a bitter screed against environmental depletion, similar in its uncomplicated despair to Hopkins' Binsley Poplars, and railing against exactly the same sort of destruction:


The fall of every leaf diminishes me,
so when I hear a rustle
I send my eyes out of the window
to look at the trees in the yard.

Alas! where there were woods,
I see flag-poles standing.
Men have swept nature’s nest away
to build their cities.

The melody of the nightingale
has lost its immortality
and I am sitting on a dead land,
writing an elegy in the sand.

The poetry of Bewketu Seyoum is by turns observational, and philosophical; dryly derisive of greed and political hypocrisy, and carried through with warm humour and respect for life. With poetry recitals in London, comedy appearances in Manchester, and a new book recently launched by the author at a live reading in New York, his star is slowly beginning to shine beyond the horizons of his native Ethiopia - which is excellent news for Bewketu Seyoum, and for all of us who will therefore come into contact with the work of this uniquely talented poet.

Remember Me 

When the night is still
and you overhear through your bedroom window 
a footstep fade like the last raindrop from the sky,
remember me. 

When the moon is low
hanging like a white nest on the edge of the universe 
and your heart 
is filled with an unexplained joy, 
remember me.

In a life ringed by thorns 
when you glimpse the rose beds,
remember me.

 Translations:  the B.S. with Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje Ayele,  except Prohibited!  - Bahrnegash Bellete, Road to Nowhere - B.S. and Chris Beckett, and  The Poem, and Remember Me -  Cheryl Moskowitz

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