Wax and Gold

Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje (eds) – Songs We Learn from Trees: An Anthology of Ethiopian Amharic Poetry (Carcanet, 2020)

It’s rare for a guided tour to give a true sense of place. Often, it’s just the marketing blurb you read in the guidebook, repackaged and with added pointing. Songs We Learn from Trees is something even rarer; a tour of Amharic poetry that feels both comprehensive and deep. A journey into culture.

Edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje, the collection provides a concise but critical introduction, followed by a treasury of folk poems, a selection from the twentieth-century and an anthology of contemporary poets and their works.

As an addendum, we also have works from diaspora poets, including Manchester’s own Lemn Sissay. There is something of everything, and the range of voices and subjects is truly varied.

Amharic poetry is ripe with tradition. The warlike machismo of African folk poems mix with the fecund symbolism of Abrahamic religion. Ethiopia is, after all, home to some of the earliest Christian and Jewish communities outside of the Middle East, and its prowess in war kept colonisers out throughout the nineteenth century.

A less noble history of internal persecutions gave birth to the technique of “wax and gold”; writing that works on two levels. A poem seemingly about one thing, the “wax”, is peeled back by the listener to reveal the true golden meaning underneath.

Sometimes the wax and gold is quite direct.

The Lion has died and the Buffalo has fled,

So we vote for the Elephant to trample us instead.

The Lion (Haile Selasse) and the Buffalo (the Derg regime that supplanted him) were replaced by the Elephant (the EPRDF government) in 1990.

At other times, the wax is thick and the gold hard to distinguish. Then we enter a realm familiar to haiku-readers, where cherry-blossoms – or in this case alder trees – carry special meanings for the country’s rulers.

Mengistu Lemma, a twentieth-century poet, offers a comparison between traditional Ethiopian dress – “trousers, kuta, shirt” –  that have no pockets, and the new Western styles that are riddled with them: “chest and breast pockets, hip pockets, back pockets”. What are these pockets for, he wonders?

Many pockets lead to many questions

And all of them are empty

Of an answer…

Perhaps better to be “the basic Habesha”, who, without pockets, is at one with the land. Yet, starving and poor as the Habesha is, we are left wondering if this vision is truly a happy one.

There are poems of anger as well as of reflection, and most joyful of all are the poems of wry observation.

Everybody knows that God made man first, Meron Getnet tells us in “Prototype”;

He sketched you first,

before He dreamed me into being

As the finished product.

Alemu Tabeje offers another short fable of an aging man with “salt and pepper” hair. He adds a young wife to his older one. The younger pulls out his grey hairs, hoping to make him look young, while the older pulls out his remaining dark ones, to make him look old. Soon he is bald, and attractive to neither.

I’m starting to agree with the old rumour that Aesop was from Ethiopia.

State of the nation poems abound as well, or, more rightly, state of the continent. Poems like Fekade Azeze’s “Africa Calling” are scathing satires of African strife; “do not call for a consultation to create jobs and develop business […] let Africa develop with bombs and guns!”

While, more reflective, Yohannes Admassu’s “Let Me Question You” presents us with a voyager journeying through the land of the dead. The questions he asks are resonant. “Have you free speech among the dead?” he’ll ask, or do the dead ever get disappeared, or worse, by their leaders? This poem is wax and gold at its eerie best.

The poems in this collection are excellent, and timeless. They leave you with a feeling for tradition and a new angle from which to approach the written word. I have no doubt that a work like this will inform and inspire new works in response, not just from poets of African descent, but from any who are interested in the word. Not just a primer, then, but a cultural provocation.

For anyone interested in poetry from beyond the Anglophone tradition, this collection is a must-buy.

Joe Darlington

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