- Where War Was: Poems and Translations from Eritrea by Charles Cantalupo and Lawrence F. Sykes
As an Eritrean in academia, it is not often that I am afforded the opportunity of engaging with literature about my country. It is even more rare for me to have been given the opportunity to review a book that highlights the resilience of the Eritrean people through an alternative lens—poetry. Charles Cantalupo traces the sentiments of life during and after war in Eritrea in his new book Where War Was: Poems and Translations from Eritrea. Cantalupo's extensive knowledge of Eritrea is the result of much time spent in the country, his first trip having been in 1995, only a few years after Eritrea won its independence. This collection of poems pays homage to Cantalupo's experiences in Eritrea, from the imagery he presents through his words that are bolstered by the amazing visuals by Lawrence F. Sykes, to the choices of Eritrean poems he has selected to translate. Additionally, Cantalupo does an incredible job of showcasing the suffering the Eritrean people have faced, which can get glossed over or bogged down when presented in less creative forms. [End Page 210]
Where War Was is split into two sections: the first is comprised of poems he has authored himself about Eritrea, while the second half holds poems he has translated that were written by Eritrean people. There is an interesting contrast that can be found within these two sections. Cantalupo's poems represent his own perspective of the things he has done, seen, heard, and felt while in the small country. The latter half contains a first-hand perspective, incorporating an array of Eritrean poets, women and men, contemporary and preceding. While there are books on Eritrean history, none encapsulate the wide range of emotions that the Eritrean people were forced to suffer through. Cantalupo is telling an Eritrean history, but from a different vantage point, centering feeling and language over historical facts and political opinions. He is telling the much-needed story of Eritrean resilience, heart, pain, and love.
The best thing about poetry is that it leaves room for readers' interpretations. As someone who is being trained as a historian, there were certain poems that stood out to me more than others. Cantalupo's poem titled "5/6/98" embodies the trauma surrounding the incitement of the 1998 Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, which stole the hope and joy of the people of recently emancipated Eritrea. "Trees in full bloom / Break at the waist. 'Nation' translates / Into 'hatred,'" he writes, emphasizing the destructing nature of war while simultaneously critiquing the notion of "nation" in times of warfare (28). He repeats the phrase "Forget before. / Now remember twice," a testament to the constant Eritrean struggle of maintaining autonomy (28). This process of "remembering twice" is one that is deeply embedded in the Eritrean psyche and serves as evidence for the no war/no peace stalemate Eritrea and Ethiopia have sustained since the failed Algiers Agreement of 2000. Cantalupo's reflection of the funeral of Isayas Tsegai is introspective and heartfelt, and its documentation in this book is vital, as Tsegai was an important playwright, poet, and artist during his life. Cantalupo's respect for Eritrea is very clear throughout Where War Was.
The visuals presented by Sykes are incredibly powerful and lend to the messages of the poems. Photos of children playing in mounds of rubble, remnants of bombed buildings, the simplicity of the standard Eritrean front door, older women on their way to church, or a bicycle being propped up against a wall, all speak to the daily existence of Eritrean people. Cantalupo informs us in his preface that Sykes was the only person to encourage him to return to Eritrea in 2002, all of his other colleagues along with the US government warning him to stay away. Including Sykes's photos along with his poems only added to Cantalupo's emphasis on Eritrean resilience that can be found throughout the book.