War & Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry, by Charles Cantalupo. Mkuki Na Nyota Publishers, 178 pp. $24.95.
War & Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry covers three decades of poetry in nine languages—a sizeable chunk by any standard. As this is ostensibly the first book of critical writing on Eritrean poetry, one can see why writer, translator, and professor Charles Cantalupo cast his net wide. It is his hope, and mine, that now that the dam has been broken more translations of Eritrean poetry will be forthcoming and, therefore, more critical work on the subject as well. That said, this particular book left me unsatisfied.
Prior to publishing War & Peace, Cantalupo published an anthology of contemporary Eritrean poetry entitled, Who Needs a Story? War & Peace, it turns out, is essentially a companion to the anthology. Still, I found it odd that Chapter 1 of War & Peace is entitled “The Story on Who Needs a Story.” It begins, ” . . . the publication of Who Needs a Story is a story in itself. How did the first anthology of contemporary Eritrean poetry in translation ever published come into being?” As one might suspect, this chapter comes across as self-promoting, rather than poetry-promoting, detailing Cantalupo’s efforts to achieve publication and internationally recognized cataloging for this book. Not an ideal tone to set for a book of literary criticism.
The book breaks its analyses of contemporary Eritrean poetry into three subsets: poetry of war, poetry of war and peace, and poetry of peace. In the prologue, Cantalupo acknowledges “the inseparability of war and peace throughout Eritrean poetry, the arts, and life.” This statement sets loose a cascade of questions. Do other nations separate war and peace in their poetries/arts/lives? How? Are we in the United States in 2010, for example, living in peace or at war? Cantalupo’s language is a kind of euphemism for a “benefit,” if you will, of colonialism: wars are fought on other people’s territories. I can’t see that any of us are living without war in our lives. Some of us are simply able to choose not to see it.
Likewise, if a poet from the United States were to write about watching a child mature, we wouldn’t necessarily call that a poem of peace. But the poems discussed in Chapter 4, “Peace,” are considered poems of peace simply, it seems, by the fact that they are not overtly about war. Cantalupo quotes the poet Saba Kidane in her poem, “Growing Up”:
He’s getting to be that age—
Measuring, he knows how much.
Sometimes he beats me at math. . . .
He knows what I have to do
And even takes care of our pets.
“Growing Up,” Cantalupo writes, “is a remarkable poem precisely because it is by a contemporary Eritrean poet, and precisely because war and its effects seem to play little if any role in the narrative.” Perhaps, as Cantalupo suggests, what is remarkable about “Growing Up” is the poet’s ability to put on blinders toward the ravages of war. Perhaps Eritrea’s history of violence means its poets have been rendered incapable of writing about everyday things without the lens of “war” or “peace.” I remain uneasy, however, because of the superimposed and oversimplified dichotomy that Cantalupo’s categorization insists upon. I’m inclined to think its poetics are more complicated, and that the organization of this book is by its nature simply unable to make room for the kinds of complexities that life and writing are full of, even (and maybe especially) amid the ravages of war.
In Chapter 2, “War,” Cantalupo alludes to Eritrea’s complicated history of invasion and colonization. But he also enacts a kind of literary colonialism, comparing the African poets’ words to those of an unspoken European “standard.” Consider this paragraph:
Aware of [Wilfred] Owen’s perspective on Horace’s famous line or not, contemporary Eritrean poets write as if they know all too well the horrors Owen recounts and their incongruity with Augustan platitude. . . . Eritrea’s war poetry . . . repeatedly takes an Horatian and/or Homeric stance on war. . . .
In a related instance, Cantalupo imagines Hamlet “mutter[ing] to Polonius or the gravediggers, in [the aforementioned poet] Kidane’s words. . . .” Kidane, he adds, “provides a perfectly succinct and lively illustration of the famous words from Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. . . .”
In Chapter 3, “War and Peace,” Cantalupo writes (in reference to the poet Isayas Tsegai’s refrain, “I am also a person. I’m an Eritrean,” from his poem, “I Am Also a Person”): ” . . . the poet seems to adapt the Cartesian formula of being—I think, therefore I am—by substituting an Eritrean reality or identity for mere thinking. . . .” By using Descartes as a starting point for this analogy, Cantalupo organizes his analysis Eurocentrically, even though he’s discussing an Eritrean poet and an Eritrean poem. Why must Kidane and Tsegai suffer these postcolonial comparisons?
At times, it seems Cantalupo comprehends the devastating effects of colonialism on language, as well as something of its relationship to the history of war and peace in Eritrea. He writes: “Confronting successive waves of nineteenth and twentieth century attempts to colonise Eritrea, [the poet Reesom] Haile also considers his local language and its poetry as the means of survival.” And on the very next page: ” . . . if the habitation is African, let the name be African.”
But if Cantalupo does indeed understand the complicated relationship between language and colonization, I am all the more baffled and dismayed by his frequent comparisons of modern Eritrean poets to old, white bards. Is he assuming his readers will be unable to find a frame of reference in the post-colonial moment that moves beyond the classic European example? There is, Cantalupo writes, a growing movement of African writers writing in their own languages instead of colonial languages. He adds, “if the language of any group of people—however small in population—is not recognized, then the people who make primary use of that language cannot be recognized.” Acknowledging this, how can Cantalupo fail to see that recognition applies equally to literature as to language itself? It is an extension of colonialism to extol Eritrean poetry because it embodies or resembles European literary values. It must be valued independently. This is the real task of translation, and the real difficulty in post-colonial translation.
In Chapter 5, “Reesom Haile, ge Tamay,” an essay on the esteemed poet Reesom Haile, Haile hints at a promising direction that this volume might have taken. In a statement on the nature of Etritrean poetry, Haile writes:
Our poetry is not something that has left our tongue and lived in the books for a very long time. Our poetry is participatory. When I recite my poetry at home, the people listening will say, ‘add this to that, add this to that’. . . . Our traditional poetry form is ad hoc. . . . I am putting it on paper because I think it is about time we start storing it for the next generation.
Putting the emphasis on the oral traditions of the past and correlating the translation of oral to written with that of Eritrea’s nine languages into English (and other colonial tongues) would have better served this volume, enabling Cantalupo to focus on what is truly distinct about contemporary Eritrean poetry, rather than straining to fit it into the framework of our understanding of European poetry.
Regarding the act of translating, in a self-indulgent poetic reprise of the first chapter, Cantalupo writes:
But we got better and better, settling into a style half
Beat poet, half Greek Anthology, at least that’s what I heard,
Not knowing oral traditions of Trigrinya performance.
Reesom addressed me as ‘Joiner’ ‘Mighty Joiner,’ I’d reply.
I am sure Cantalupo is joking with his request to be called not just “Joiner” (so identified for the concept of joining two languages), but “Mighty Joiner.” Still, the overtones of colonialism in this anecdote are impossible to ignore.
I’m clearly not cutting Cantalupo much slack regarding his failure to question or acknowledge the relationship between colonization and language. But Cantalupo is a dedicated translator (he has translated many African poets; he also served as conference co-chair for 1999′s Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures in the Twenty-first Century and as organizing chair of South Africa’s Buwa: African Languages and Literatures into the Twenty-first Century), and this is the first critical book on Eritrean poetry ever. So even as I’m grateful for his dedication, I feel that he owes it to the poets he critiques, the languages he translates, and to literature itself to write into the difficult questions regarding this confusing and murky space we call postcolonial translation. I wish this book were more of an opening up of a story that is no doubt messy and complicated—and therefore beautiful, rather than the neatly sewn up and falsely presented package that Cantalupo offers here.
“None of Eritrea’s contemporary poets needs a story,” Cantalupo writes toward the end of Chapter 4. “They all have their own and they are ‘great’. If ‘nobody knows’ them, or if they are only known for the most part to Eritreans, then this book has a purpose: to make them known.” Patronizing and solipsistic, this thesis does a disservice to the poets Cantalupo has worked so hard to translate and to publish, because it makes it seem like a favor, rather than a respectful, educated, and long overdue critique of contemporary Eritrean poetry.
Ellen Welcker is a poet living in Seattle, Washington.
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