- Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic, and: War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry
Eritrea is a small Horn of Africa country that gained its independence after a difficult and protracted war with neighboring Ethiopia. The country’s small size and its recent arrival on the international scene as a free country notwithstanding, Eritrea boasts a rich literary tradition that spans centuries. It has also a long history of written literature that in the words of Charles Cantalupo in War and Peace extends over “thousands of years” (1). Yet Eritrea’s poetry is still marked by its ubiquitous orality. In the words of Reesom Haile, “[Eritrean] poetry is not something that has left our tongue and lived in the books for a very long time.” Poetry in Eritrea is enjoyed in the town or village square by all citizens, who are not passive listeners but who participate vociferously in the making of the poetry. To understand this communal contour of Eritrean poetry, we must understand the role of the poet in society. As Cantalupo explains, the Eritrean word for poet, “getamay (masculine), getamit (feminine),” means a “joiner.”
Who Needs a Story? is an anthology of thirty-seven poems—twenty-four in Tigrinya, three in Tigre, and ten in Arabic—by twenty-two poets of all stripes, [End Page 208] persuasions, and professions. The poets have one thing in common: they either participated in the struggle for independence as warriors or supported the liberation struggle indirectly. Not all the poems, however, focus on the war and its aftermath. Altogether the poems reflect and document in poetic language the different phases of a nation in the throes of dramatic changes. Informed and shaped by lived reality, the poems reflect pain without being lachrymose.
The anthology aptly opens with Meles Negusse’s Tigrinya poem “We Miss You, Mammet”—Mammet being “the traditional Eritrean Muse of poetry” (Cantalupo 72). The opening poem frames the issues with which the rest of the poems in the collection grapple. The poet here shows how regnant conditions circumscribe the kind of poetry on offer. In a landscape where mourners abound, the poet intimates, “Not a single riff/ Of [mammet’s] melodies remain” (1). Under such circumstances, the mourners are all too quick to assume that Mammet is dead, and with her death, “Poetry is declared dead.” Yet by invoking the muse, the poet knows that poetry is sustenance for the Eritrean individual and collective imagination. What the poet points to and away from is a pervasive existential angst and anguish that numbs the poetic sense of citizens. All hope is not lost, as the poet cajoles the muse, “Still we crave/ . . . / For the mysterious power/ Of your voice to return” and implores her to imbue “the poetry of today” with “your spirit / And sound of joy.” From this opening poem, the anthology signals the range of poems that populates its pages. The poems cover the gamut of human emotions and, taking their cue from the opening poem, deal with pain, beauty, fear, with loss of identity, of voice, of dignity. Above all, the poems celebrate the resilience of the human mind and will.
Who Needs a Story? is the first Eritrean anthology of its kind. There is no doubt that any endeavor that is the first of its kind partially fills a lacuna, and, in the process, whets the appetite of readers for more. The translators and editors are aware of this and intimate that there are similar projects in the offing. The seminal idea of translating Eritrean poetry into English owes its genesis to “Against All Odds,” the monumental gathering of writers and scholars in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, in January 2000. The gathering in Asmara called for a new way of advancing...