Ethiopia Boy, Chris Beckett, Oxford Poets/Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Steven Waling
It’s not often that one reads a book of poetry which brings a different music into English poetry; but Ethiopia Boy does just that. The African praise poem is not much appreciated in England; but Chris Beckett, who spent his formative years in Ethiopia, has managed to make use of it in a very supple, subtle way to talk of his childhood and the country he knew then.
Sometimes, for instance, he uses a song-like refrain: “wanzey wanzey” in ‘The Goodbye Tree’ for instance, and there is about the whole collection a different sound world from most English poetry. This carries over even into the concrete poems of ‘Sticks’, which mimic the shapes of all kinds of sticks found in Ethiopia. On the whole, the rhythms dance from line to line rather than simply flow, and you could almost imagine them being backed by drums and kora:
There was a boy in a white-painted house
I have a cow in the sky!
a cow in the sky!
who spilled some warm milk on the clean kitchen floor
[‘ Cow In The Sky’]
…or whatever the equivalent would be in Ethiopia (our Western ignorance of Africa is pretty all-embracing.)
It deals with the pleasure and sadness of growing up in Ethiopia in such a natural way that you’re never aware that your view of the country alters as you go along. It mentions the great drought and the Mengistu period (the Red Terror of one poem) without going into the horrors of it; one gets the feeling of the inevitable distance of being English in Africa, and of the writer’s regrets about leaving behind friends.
All this is achieved though with a lightness of touch and a plainness of diction that is ultimately touching and universal. I’d recommend it to all those looking for a way out of the usual English anxieties about form, because this is neither formalist nor is it particularly ‘experimental’. Its eyes are directed at the world around it, a world full of African music and people dancing to old-new musics across an ancient and beautiful continent.