Jan 5 2023
Poetry review – TENDERFOOT: Anne Ryland admires Chris Beckett’s affectionate poetic reflections on growing up in Ethiopia
Tenderfoot is a love letter to Ethiopia, where Chris Beckett spent his early childhood. The apt title, defined in an epigraph as ‘a newcomer or novice, especially a person unaccustomed to hardship’, also echoes the tenderness that suffuses this collection; it is a vibrant and passionate sequel to Beckett’s acclaimed second book, Ethiopia Boy.
The opening poem, “Inglizawi negn!”, forms an intriguing threshold to 1960s Ethiopia. The pyjama-clad boy standing on the balcony of his house, already conscious of his foreignness, is mesmerized by ‘hills / already stirring with bats and the idea of pumas’ and ‘silhouettes of long-tailed birds’. Beckett writes with openness and honesty about the experience of being a white boy growing up in Ethiopia, and of returning in later years as a gay man.
One appealing feature of Tenderfoot is the ‘donkey couplet’ introducing each of its four sections: ‘here comes a donkey / loaded with beans’. A note informs us that the donkey, whose load ranges from figs and troubles to hope, is often employed in Ethiopian poetry ‘simply to set up the rhythm and rhyme of the poem’. The notes and glossary are indispensable; the reader is frequently sent off to research further!
Forms, styles and preoccupations of poems pay homage to Amharic poetry, with its long tradition of poems of protest, praise and boast. In a collection largely free of punctuation, inventive use is made of white space and exclamation marks are generous, often conveying Amharic idioms, such as ‘ayee!’ and ‘wey!’ Beckett has learned Amharic and his joy in the music of words (Ethiopian poetry is often oral or sung) sweeps us along. The exuberant language is an unexpected and effective counterpoint to poems that confront the most traumatic subjects.
The first section concentrates on boyhood in Ethiopia, offering sensory poems in which we can almost taste the dishes. “Sweetheart” paints a delightful portrait of a couple hosting a meal, in a country where ‘my stomach/hodé’ is a term of endearment, so ‘stomachs stand / for love’. Seeking to capture the voice of his child self, Beckett writes about the discomfort of being well-fed and secure, when there is hunger and poverty all around him. It requires courage for a poet to face a vast, distressing and ‘difficult’ subject like famine head-on, and explore it from the Ethiopian perspective. “Praise shout for a stomach” expresses protest through a sequence of arresting images:
You who hangs inside me like a leopard in a thorn acacia tree!
While Tenderfoot is populated with memorable characters, one person is radiant: the cook’s son Abebe, focus of the boy’s crush. In “Good bread”, the poet and Abebe (accompanying the cook to a market) are approached by a child beggar. The elegy closes with a pivotal question:
do any of us really understand, Abebe how finger close a boy can be and still have nothing nothing of the world’s good bread?
Ethiopia’s troubled and tragic past resounds throughout. “Elegy for a thunderstorm” opens with ‘What is a storm if not weeping?’ The tone verges on biblical, yet there is something glorious about ‘even rainbuckets / lick their lips’. The thunderstorm, half-fearing its own power, unleashes itself ‘like a stampede of buffalos’. Concluding this section is the haunting “Small angry famine”, which commemorates those who, years later, can scarcely speak about the famine ‘but sometimes standing on one foot / they fish an angry couplet from their throat’. The hunger poems are almost unbearably moving.
A sequence, “Outside the gates with Abebe”, constitutes the second section. Its loose, note-like form conveys awed breathlessness. Words float on the page. A poem typeset vertically resembles gate railings. Everything is alive and moving: the gates ‘doze like horses standing up’ while ‘the track trots past’. But ‘even sunshine here is hungry’ and this world is disrupted by accidents. The boy’s love is expressed tentatively when he kisses Abebe’s foot, which has been pierced by a nail. One senses that even witnessing a mule killed by a truck is tolerable because it is shared with Abebe.
Beckett’s versions of the traditional Ethiopian famine couplets are full of deft twists, and lend a distinct texture to Tenderfoot. The third part, “Tagesse’s hunger poems”, is written in the imagined voice of a boy living through the 1960s famine. The name Tagesse means ‘he endured’. The couplets protest about everything including God, described as ‘He who doesn’t even have a tummy!’ The witty and defiant tone renders these couplets particularly hard-hitting. To quote just two:
at the shepherd boy’s funeral yesterday everyone cried and forgot to be hungry here comes a donkey loaded with almond cakes just another poem playing tricks
The final section of Tenderfoot focuses on contemporary Ethiopia. Beckett addresses homosexuality and homophobia in this deeply religious country. We meet street boys who appeal “Uncle! take me to a better place”, and the vernacular (such as ‘bushti’, a common pejorative term for gay) is again integrated to powerful effect. There are also affecting poems about youth unemployment, in which young men speak out collectively, and pickpockets, where the emphasis is on pocket rather than victim, and the perpetrators evoke compassion: ‘even they / know this is not them’. “In the Lion Gardens” is a reunion with the imagined Tagesse, who did survive and is now an old man. The poet probes himself, ‘but do I clap him on the back when I had food / and he did not?’ This poem is beautiful, and painful:
we’ll sit here for a month, a year the apple trees won’t mind until my ears are bleeding and my heart has stopped …
Sardonic and teasing, Beckett’s praise poems are never in the slightest danger of sentimentality. There are poems honouring serval cats, the bookshops of Addis Ababa, the ghosts of Ethiopian poets, and indeed Amharic itself, just one of the country’s eighty or so languages. One of my favourites is “To a weyala/minibus conductor”, and not only because he is a ‘deacon of the minibus’. Language as innovative as ‘you dieselgulpy littleshirt’ and ‘you furrowbrow and grindesert’ is hard to resist.
This collection illuminates, informs and challenges. Tenderfoot is a heartbreaking and, yes, nourishing immersion in Ethiopia.
Anne Ryland’s third poetry collection, Unruled Journal, was published by Valley Press (2021). Her previous books are Autumnologist, shortlisted for The Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2006, and The Unmothering Class, a New Writing North Read Regional title. New work has appeared in journals such as Long Poem Magazine, Magma, Acume and Crannóg. She has translated poems by the German poet Hilde Domin.