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Songs we learn from trees

Chris Beckett explains how Rimbaud inspired the first ever anthology of Ethiopian poetry in English!

swlft_front.jpgLike many Rimbaud enthusiasts, I love his poems, but also his life story. The daredevil speed and appetite with which he lived. The brutal changes he put himself through, whatever the cost. When a new photo is unearthed, like the one of him sitting on a terrace in Aden, discovered in a Paris brocante in 2010, I feel shocked, excited, as if I have received a postcard from my long lost brother… I also like to count the coincidences, those little points where our life-paths seem to cross over the ages: my friend Emma who lived in the house on (the then) Great College Sreet where he lodged with Verlaine before their bust-up; the Grand Hôtel de l‘Univers in Paris where I always stay, and the Grand Hôtel de l‘Univers in Aden where he stayed; the fact we were both commodity traders, Rimbaud coffee, me sugar…

ethi_group.jpgBut my closest life-connection to Rimbaud is that he lived in Ethiopia which is where I grew up. He worked mostly in Harar, but travelled up to the then capital Ankober to sell guns to King Menelik. Jules Borelli recorded his arrival: M.Rimbaud, a French trader, arrived from Tadjoura with his caravan…he knows Arabic and speaks Amharic and Oromo…Yes, of course, like his dashing absent father, Rimbaud was a linguist. I remember reading this in Graham Robb’s wonderful biography and feeling ashamed of my scanty Amharic. My own father had learnt the language when he worked in Addis Ababa, and I still have his handwritten word lists and grammar. But as an adult I had forgotten whatever Amharic I knew.

Then two things happened which convinced me that I must follow Rimbaud’s lead and as I could not go to live in Ethiopia, I would sign up for an Amharic course at SOAS in London.

First, one day browsing the packed book stalls in the Piassa district of Addis Ababa, I discovered a book called ራምቦ  (Rambo) with the famous Etienne Carjat photo on the cover. When I opened it, I saw a translation of Le Bateau Ivre in Amharic, የሰከረ መረከብ, by Professor Berhanu Ababa, also photos of the author Sendu Ababa visiting Charleville and Roche. There was even a photo of her reading the Amharic version of Le Bateau Ivre in the Volterra Teatro Festival in Italy! I was thrilled, and really wanted to read the book and compare this translation with the original.


Second, I was already on a mission to find and study as much Amharic poetry as I could, in order to imitate it. This was the time when I was just starting to write the poems which became my collection Ethiopia Boy (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2013), when I realised that English verse forms like sonnets or terza rima and iambic pentameter could not help me access the atmosphere or feelings of my Ethioian boyhood. As I eventually wrote in the Preface of Ethiopia Boy, ‘only when I started reading as much Ethiopian poetry as I could find, and after I had a go at translating some Amharic poems myself with the help of a friend, did the real voice of my boyhood come stuttering back to the surface and start to write its own sort of poems.‘

That friend was and is my co-translator and editor of Songs We Learn from Trees, Alemu Tebeje. Alemu is a briliant poet and journalist who had to flee Ethiopia in the early 1990s because the government did not like what he wrote. We had met at a huge memorial event for the Ethiopian poet laureate Tsegaye Gabre Medhin, at the Irish Centre in London and went on meeting regualrly in a pub in Fulham Broadway. I would sometimes have to pinch myself, because in some lights, Alemu looks uncannily like Emperor Haile Selassie!

So, with something of Rimbaud’s enthusiastic madness, and a good Ethiopian friend beside me, I threw myself into the hunt for Ethiopian poems which I could read in English or translate into English. On a visit to Addis Ababa in 2007, my friend Zerihun Tassew introduced me to Bewketu Seyoum, a well-known young poet and writer, who gave me a copy of his book with the powerful short poem ሃሰሳ ሰጋ (Hasesa Sega), which I later translated with Alemu in London:

In search of fat

A multitude of thin people, all skin,
call out like rag and bone men,
"Where's our fat?" They rummage
every mountain, stone and huddle-huddle,
search in the soil, search in the sky.
At last they find it, piled up on one man's belly!

I sent this and other Bewketu poems to Modern Poetry in Translation, at that time edited by David and Helen Constantine, who loved them and even printed one on the cover. Bewketu came over to represent his country at the Parnassus festival in 2012 and I have to say there was something of the young Rimbaud in his stance, a sort of bravado, a defiance which audiences I think found very attractive. He wrote a poem comparing London to a giant anthill…

Over the following years, I discovered other poets such as Zewdu Milikit in Gondar, Fekade Azeze, Mekdes Jemberu and Bedilu Wakjira in Addis, and Alemu’s great friend Hama Tuma, an important poet, short story writer and political campaigner living in exile in Paris. Hama writes in English but for the rest our translation process was varied: sometimes I would make a literal translation at home and take it to Alemu who would point out where I had gone wrong (very often!), or we would simply sit with a poem and discuss it while I made notes, which we would then email back and forth until we got to a literal and then a more poetic English version we were both happy with, for example this short poem by Getnet Eneyew, which has the aphoristic, witty style of many Amharic poems:

An impossible thing

If truth is building a house
and lies offer to help,
trampling the mud,
preparing nails – then
the house will never be built
and truth will not set foot in it.

At this point we would decide if we thought a translation was good enough to send to Sasha Dugdale who had taken over as editor of MPT. Then one day Michael Schmidt, head of Carcanet, asked if I had any Ethiopian transaltions to submit to PN Review. I did and I did, and he published them. Then after a year he asked if Alemu and I would be interested to do an anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry for the Carcanet Classics series. He wanted a wide-ranging book, with Folk  & Religious poems, 20th Century and Contemporary poems, including by poets of the Diaspora.

suitcase.jpgAn immense challenge! a Rimbaldian voyage to exotic lands! I remember thinking of Rimbaud’s trusty leather suitcase as I packed my bag and flew back to Addis, where I sat down with the marvellous Wondwosen Adane, lecturer on Amharic Literature at Addis Ababa University - which incidentally is housed in the Genete Leul palace built by Ras Tafari (later Hale Selassie), son of Rimbaud’s ‘true friend’ Ras Makonnen, the governor of Harar. Wondwosen recommended 15 of the best contemporary poets working in Ethiopia, including Tagel Seifu, Bedilu Wakjira, Ephrem Seyoum, Misrak Terefe, Seifu Metaferia, Meron Getnet and Ayalneh Mulatu. I hurried back to the Piassa and bought a camel-load of poetry books!     


Some 3 years later, after many miles of translation, editing, discussion, introduction, Alemu and I hoved into view of the final manuscript of the anthology, rising in front of us like the gates of Harar!  

alemu.jpgThe project really did feel like a journey, a bustling caravan of books, poets, translators, advisors trekking up from Tadjoura and then here we were, the book published and piled up in the marketplace! We are not Rimbaud selling second-hand European guns to Ethiopia; not Rimbaud sending off the account of his Ogaden findings to the Société de Géographie in Paris: we are simply inviting you to come with us on an adventure, to explore Ethiopia’s colourful, diverse and flourishing literature. This is a dialogue we are hoping to encourage, a two way street between Ethiopian poetry and the world. As Lemn Sissay, the lion of Ethio-British poets, writes at the end of Listener, his amazing poem of personal discovery:

it was me
tuning in through the hissing noise
to you tuning in to me

Chris Beckett

Postscript note: Alemu & I were ready to take the anthology on the road for a week-long UK Launch Tour, with Ethiopian poets coming from Ethiopia, Paris, Washington, London. Unfortunately the tragedy of Covid-19 intervened, so for the time being we have substituted a Virtual Video Tour on Carcanet’s YouTube channel:

There are wonderful readings by Misrak Terefe, Zewdu Milikit, Lemn Sissay, Makonnen Wodajeneh, Alemtsehay Wodajo and of course Alemu himself.

We fully intend to re-launch the UK Tour at the National Poetry Library in London and other venues in Leeds, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere, just as soon as the New Normal allows! If you would like to be kept informed, please email Chris at

Or look for details on the News page of my website:

Meanwhile, SONGS WE LEARN FROM TREES is available on Carcanet’s website (as well as Amazon, Waterstones etc) with a discount and free postage:



Posted on:Monday 22nd June, 2020