Reesom Haile's Poetry -- Charles Cantalupo

Reesom Haile is from a family of traditional farmers in Eritrea, where he was born, raised and educated through high school. After working as a radio and television journalist in Ethiopia, he continued his education in the United States. Obtaining a doctorate in Media Ecology from New York University, he served for twenty years as a Development Communications consultant, working with UN Agencies, governments and NGOs around the world before returning to Eritrea in 1994. Since then, he has written over two thousand poems in Tigrinya. His first collection, waza ms qumneger ntnsae hager won the 1998 Raimok prize, Eritrea's highest award for literature. His first collection in English was We Have Our Voice (Red Sea Press, 2000), also recorded as a two-volume, bilingual CD (asmarino.com, 2001). His second collection was We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press, 2002). Widely published and recognized for his revolutionary modernization of the traditional art of poetry in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea's main languages, Reesom Haile has begun to receive scholarly and critical attention and wide media coverage, including BBC (UK), CNN (USA), Deutche Welle (Germany), RAI (Italy), dmtsi Hafash (Eritrea) Radio Vatican (The Vatican), NPR (USA), SABC (South Africa), SBS (Australia) and VOA (USA). His performances in Tigrinya and English have inspired audiences throughout Africa, Europe and America. The enormous popular appeal of his poetry - in print and on the internet - is evident from the streets of Asmara to the far fields of the Eritrean countryside, where to stroll with Reesom Haile at any hour is to be approached by the young and old and all kinds of people who are delighted to quote his lines back to him.

Reesom Haile writes in Tigrinya. It is a Semitic language and, like the languages of Tigre and Amharic, derives from the ancient language of Ge'ez. It derives, like Hebrew and Arabic, from Aramaic, which is often thought to have been a language - along with Greek and Hebrew - of the original composition of much of the Old and New Testament and of Jesus.

The word "Ge'ez" also refers to the script of Reesom Haile's poems. It is Africa's most ancient and continuous, a 5000-year-old written language. It can be found, for example, on a stele in central Eritrea near the Ethiopian border. This stele was pulled down and run over by tanks, grinding it to pieces during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2000.

Writing in Tigrinya, Reesom Haile joins a growing movement of African authors who are now writing in African languages: their own mother tongues instead of colonial languages like English and French or, in the case of Eritrean writers, Italian and even Amharic, a major language of Ethiopia imposed on Eritrea before it won its war for independence in 1991. This rise of African vernaculars, paralleling the rise of truly independent and democratic African nations, promises a 21st century that will be an African century for literature.

Reesom Haile considers his writing in Tigrinya

A going back to what God has given you and saying "I'm not going to give it up." It's your freedom, your speech, your self-definition, and your self-expression. You cannot give it up. If you lose your language, it isn't just the language you lose. It's the cultural codes imbedded in that language. It's the values, the sense of community, and the sense that I am responsible for my brother, my sister, my mother, and they are equally responsible to me. This is what I do not want my people to lose.

Reesom Haile also writes in a spirit that is inseparable from Eritrea's century-long struggle for independence. In his own words,

The Eritrean struggle for independence is the primary motive force for my art…. We Eritreans have taken on all comers for our right to self-determination, and my art is but a continuation and an expansion of that struggle aimed at self-definition.

Eritrea's war for independence was simultaneously a war for its culture: its ancient traditions as well as its modern manifestations and transformations. Again in Reesom Haile's words,

Successive enemies of Eritrean independence over the years have tried defining Eritrea in ways that would justify the outrageous measures they would take to deny Eritrea its place in the sun. They have tried to diminish Eritrea politically, economically, militarily, and culturally into non-existence except as an appendage of the builders of colonial and neo-colonial empires. But Eritrea has proved a survivor….

War as a cultural education towards making peace requires not only the barrel of a gun but also the barrel of a pen, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o observes. The cultural bomb can be as deadly as bombs falling from the sky. What is in the mind of the person holding the gun and pulling the trigger? The fighter and the writer not only need each other. In Eritrea, they often have been the same person - yet always the same person in spirit. As Reesom Haile recalls:

I returned to Eritrea in 1994 after twenty years of life in exile. I came back to find our languages and our poetry a bit battered, but well, considering they too had been targeted for extinction…. But we carried our languages and our art in our memories and our voices, and we used them as effectively as we used our weapons to defend ourselves throughout the struggle.

Vitally linked, Reesom Haile's language of self-determination and political self-determination produce a supreme poetry of resistance with the confidence to ask,

But what did you assume
About Tigrinya?

Eritrea's daughter,
She wants respect,
The same as you.
Dare her,
She'll dare you, too.

She knows the way
To overcome
The invading tongues:
Her words, her names
Cut them off.
("The Transit of Tigrinya")

A local language and its poetry become the means of survival:

Remember the Italians
Who invaded and said
Eat but don't speak?

Remember the English
Who invaded and said
Speak but don't eat?

Remember the Amharas
Who invaded and said
Don't speak and don't eat?

Believe it or not,
They want to kill us…
("Believe It or Not")

Poetry of resistance is inseparable from the life of the poet and his country:

The dergue
Behaved better
Than the latest
Swarm of invaders,

Haile Selassie
Better than the dergue,
And Menelik
Better than Selassie.

But my country says
Forward, And esh the Turkish,
esh Egyptians,
esh Italians,
esh the English,
esh Amharas,
esh Tigreans,
esh the locusts.


Like a flywhisk.

While focusing on and from Eritrean culture, Reesom Haile's poetry of resistance also has a global dimension as a part of, again in his words, "the indomitable struggle of humanity." He has a self-stated "mission…to create links between my country and the world." Celebrating a "genuine," "Eritrean culture" that expresses "the essence of human struggle," as he sees it, his poetry can simultaneously partake of a literary impulse that is universal, making a literary truism breathe new life. His "imagination" with his "poet's pen," in Shakespeare's words, "bodies forth / The forms of things unknown." He "[t]urns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing / A local habitation and a name." But if the habitation is African, let the name be African. Let the word itself and the word "language" in African languages ring out all over Africa: Mutauro, Ulwimi, Edi, Okasa, Asusu, Lolemu, Ulimi, Lakk, Ruthiomi, Lugha, Harsha, Luqha, Qwanqwa. They are the medium and they are the message, adding up to Africa's greatest expression of freedom: Amandla! The resounding African word is universally understood - as if the story of Babel and the confusion of tongues were not true - by people of all walks of life, all ages and in many languages, local and international, from under the giant Sycamore trees of arid Eritrea to the elegant arts venues of downtown New York City; from the poor, local communities of Johannesburg, South Africa, or Newark, New Jersey to the halls of the world's most distinguished universities.

No one cultivates freedom in Tigrinya and the "local habitation" in Eritrea better than Reesom Haile does. Contained within his two bilingual - Tigrinya / English - collections of poems are myriad of subjects, including: gender equality, colonialism, foreign aid, the use of knowledge, bureaucracy, history, crime, priests, travel, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, camels, books, education, homecomings, exile, money, computers, braggarts, religion, political leadership, hopes, delusions, bravery, civic responsibility, stars, God, illiteracy, ambition, divisiveness, survival, Satan, democracy, old friends, mothers and fathers, cities, small towns, cruelty, soccer, intolerance, impulsiveness, love, language, nightlife, freedom, writing, indecision, non-governmental agencies, learning, sex, super powers, bread, marital responsibility, competition, snails, American foreign policy, democracy, women's rights, global politics, casualties of war, love, the young, elders, the nature of advice, spousal abuse, cooking, cannibalism, coffee, self-image, sleeping together, proverbs, ethnic conflict, carousing, biblical stories, tourism, national identity, aging, values, the future, the pen, words, exile, shoes, masculinity, teaching babies to walk, videos of weddings, religious hypocrisy, history, body parts, suicide, funerals, taboos, freedom, independence, infidelity, flywhisks, community, temptation, unspeakable evil, spirits, old and new housing, frankness, circles, labor, ancestors, mothers, prayers, parenting, toys, food, starvation, war, donkeys, the millennium, Jews, Muslims, Christians, punctuation, political evil, weather, onomatopoeia, loss, wisdom, literature, peace, jokes, teachers, culture, hierarchy, individualism, letters, pastry, paper, poverty, hope, surnames, God, George Bush II, sacrifice, survival, African leaders, dictators, devils, language, relationships, regrets, dependable people, dissent, angels, and home - and often humorously. If there has ever been a poetry with something for everyone, this is it: which also accounts for the great popularity of Reesom Haile's poetry in Eritrea, yet which is now a major factor in his increasing, international acclaim.

His strong and prevailing sense of political struggle and ideals might be considered romantic if they were not so realistic and rooted in the unassailable Eritrean political experience of standing alone and winning a 30-year war for independence. Thus, joining ancient symbol and the modern Eritrean war for independence, he can directly and easily address his country's leader and, by extension, any national leader who needs to know the ultimate source of his or her power:

You wear our crown of leaves
As long as we're free
To say "yes" without force.
As in the beginning,
This covenant sways
With each other's words,
Leading to the good
And holding us together
Not apart in the storm
To a stranger's delight.
This way ? That?
Around? Between?
With this crown of leaves
We meet heart to heart:
With much to learn, but smart
Enough to know what hurts.
We choose you
To wear our crown of leaves.
It possesses no magic
But our history and your name.
("The Leader")

As if breathing the poetic air of Rome when it was a republic, Reesom Haile sweeps even further back in time to Rome's Rome, evoking a Greco-African model.

Greek seedling,
Dear democracy,
Please come with me to Africa.
I have water for the heat
And fire for the cold.
My medicine of local holy water
Will control the termites
And keep you rooted.
Forget your fear.
Come live with me.
I need your shade to rule
When the representatives meet,
With only an acacia
To prick me with its thorns.

The scholars may debate her origins, but Black Athena is alive and well in Eritrea.

Eritrea's daughter
Tells it like it is
Facts are enough for her
And God for a witness.

Eritrea's daughter
Puts gold in its place,
Knows hunger and the worst,
And feeds her children first.

Eritrea's daughter
Knows what it takes
To survive and make
A home for her family.

Eritrea's daughter
Overcomes her fears,
Dresses in bandoleers
And takes on the world.

Eritrea's daughter
Fights for her country.
She strikes like lightning
And drips her honey.

Eritrea's daughter
Joins the old and young.
Love her in all you do
And she drips her honey on you.
("Eritrea's Daughter")

When the leader of any African political revolution morphs all too predictably into the all too familiar "African Big Man" violently and pathologically devoted only to his own, Hobbesian survival as the Leviathan, Reesom Haile approaches him unflinchingly, even savagely, much as Samuel did the sinner, Saul:

When the blood
Of Eritrean men
Floods Eritrea,
Our heroes grow

When the blood
Of Eritrean women
Floods Eritrea,
Our heroes grow

When the blood
Of Eritreans
Floods Eritrea,
We grow back
Again and again.

Deny peace
To Eritrea
And you garden
("Garden Eritrea")

Moreover, Reesom Haile can also espouse the most practical kind of materialism - the politics of hunger - applying the ancient form of the Tigrinya dirge to a modern, African despot and sing:

Who can deny
Kabila, leader of the people,
Got his fill?
His belly testifies.

But I want to know
If his country can grow
On the leftovers.

Kabila, Kabila, Kabila


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