The Manchester Review

Three Ethiopian Contemporary Women Poets

Three contemporary Ethiopian women poets

from the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry, Songs We Learn from Trees, just published by Carcanet Press



This era of exile
winds its spindle
of raw cotton
before the seed is removed
and life bursts out,
before the cotton is combed,
before it is roved
and made into thread,
before it is woven into cloth,
before its pattern is decided
and its colours applied,
before it is given a name,
before it is worn as a garment,
before it is put on as a cloak,
before it is blessed…
this age of exile
spins without uncoiling,
tangles without threading,
and before its cotton-life begins
it announces its end.


Before my finger loses its best friend
(written during the poet’s 10 year detention in a Somali prison)

Before my finger loses its best friend,
before it casually forgets its pen
and begins tapping on the ground;
before the clean sheet disappears
on which it pours out its complaint,
conversing with the world;
before it gives away the means to write
its message, share the panorama
of its thoughts using a pen determined
to write soberly, and when it’s sober,
writes in blood-red ink, un-wash-away-able!
and if anybody tries to scrub its writing off
or over-paint, it flares up and if they try
to burn it down the dry sheet will turn wet;
before my finger casually forgets its pen…

without a drum-beat, it can carry
across borders, without an arrow
it will penetrate the eye,
demolish buildings, put up new ones,
it will never be confined, because the mind
cannot be chained like legs, its dreams
cannot be lowered to subhuman levels;
before its aspiration will evaporate,
at day-break when night fades to protect flesh
from lifting off the bone and changing into dust,
when mind is deep in worry about enemies,
before a pen loses sight of its best friend,
before it starts talking to the ground by tapping on it,
when the brain is restless, bleeds a little,
when imagination is all-powerful, bright red,
before anything is casually forgotten,
before the mind sells out in order to survive,
when it is docile to its inner consciousness,
writes down its message, ink on paper –
now the pen speaks, spreads its wings, flies
endless distances, demolishes the old, builds new…

and if the pen falls in love soberly,
like a bee sucking droplets from a flower,
if it sips love from the inkpot,
then it will write in praise of beauty,
how the world is blessed with wonders,
beautiful words will beautify its work,
enchant its readers with artistic voice,
put love into the house it builds,
removing the old view, replacing with its own,
so readers see love through the pen’s
eye, a pen’s precise perspective…

as hopefully is happening now,
before my finger casually forgets its friend
or the clean sheet of paper disappears
on which it pours out this complaint,
before my pen finds itself speaking to the floor!

(translated by B. Selassie & the poet, with Chris Beckett)


KEBEDECH TEKLEAB is an Ethiopoian poet, painter and sculptor based in New York. As a student activist in Addis Ababa, she was forced to flee in 1979, escaping through the Ogaden dessert, where she was captured by Somali soldiers and held in a concentration camp for ten years. Eventually, she arrived in USA where she studied at Howard University in Washington, then worked as a studio artist and teacher. From 2016 she has been teaching in Queensborough Community College, New York. Her art work has been widely exhibited in USA, including at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. She has published one book of poems, Yet New? (Where is it?), with Kuraz Publishing, Addis Ababa.



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