A South Bank audience gives an enthusiastic welcome to Ethiopian poet Bewketu Seyoum reading from his new chapbook.  London Grip agrees…

 

In Search of Fat
by Bewketu Seyoum
(translated by the author with Chris Beckett & Alemu Tebeje Ayele)
Flipped Eye Publishing
35pp

The Poetry Parnassus gathering at London’s South Bank achieved a notable success at its very first event – a lunchtime reading on the QEH roof garden – by introducing the Ethiopian poet Bewketu Seyoum.  Along with his co-translator, the British poet Chris Beckett, he performed a remarkable set of poems, mainly chosen from his first English chapbook In Search of Fat.

The most striking feature of Seyoum’s poetry, both spoken and on the page, is its precision and economy. Many of his poems are like aphorisms.  Where a British poet might feel a need to set a context explaining how a thought came about, Seyoum often launches straight into a general – but sharp and precise – observation about life and human nature.  For instance, the title poem of Seyoum’s chapbook is an indictment of inequalities in society which begins with a multitude of thin people, all skin saying “Where’s our fat?”  After three lines vividly describing their search, the crisp payoff is At last they find it, piled up on one man’s belly.

The book contains just seventeen poems, each printed both in English and Amharic script; and from such a slim volume – especially one in which many of the poems have fewer than ten lines – it is hard to provide quotes and extracts that don’t give too much away. This is especially true of a poem as compact and well integrated as ‘In search of peace’ which in just three lines gives a startling twist to the ‘swords into ploughshares’ theme, cutting clean through all sense of familiarity or cliché.

It is by being so economical that Seyoum is able to make poetry out of thoughts that might seem naive if they were overstretched even to a few more lines. Hence he tells us that many creatures take refuge / in the shade of a tree. But where can the tree shelter?  And when faced with an array of injunctions on the side of a building he wishes for a little piece of wall, a little piece of power to write Prohibitions are prohibited!

The few longer poems in the book have a more meditative less aphoristic flavour. ‘Songs we learn from trees’ is a story of St Yared who, slipping away … from the armlock of the world, overhears the thoughts of a caterpillar and also of the leaf it is eating. Both a caterpillar’s grist, a leaf’s lament / were turned to gold in Yared’s chant.

This chapbook is itself like a small glinting piece of gold and Flipped Eye are to be congratulated on producing it.  Bewketu Seyoum is well known as both a poet and a novelist in his own country; but until now his appearances in English-language publications have been limited to magazines.  It is to be hoped that In Search of Fat will prove to be the first of many British book publications.