Preface to We Have Our Voice,
by Charles Cantalupo

a bilingual edition of selected poetry by Reesom Haile
with Charles Cantalupo, Africa World Press / Red Sea Press
(Lawrenceville and Asmara: 1999), forthcoming.

I first encountered Reesom Haile in Asmara, one evening during Eritrea's annual, outdoor, 8-day cultural festival in Asmara: a highly popular event, thronged with people from Asmara and from throughout Eritrea and featuring all of the arts -- agricultural, domestic, industrial, language, performing, technological, visual. Taking place in the extensive fairgrounds called "Expo," the festival's theme was "Inheritance." It encouraged Eritreans from all walks of life to taste and see their new nation through the many forms of its longstanding and highly valued multicultural and multimedia expression. Be it a poem, a computer program, a painting, an ancient manuscript, a display of tools, a dance, desert housing, a popular song, a camel, a coffee, a textile or a pile of particular wood to make a fire, people could look all around them at a wealth of highly varied examples of their culture, including each other, and marvel, "We have…we have…we have."

I was following the crowd to a poetry reading. The area where it took place seemed to be shaped like a basin, with children -- whom I didn't expect to see at such an event -- seated in the middle, the poet and the audience at opposite edges. Actually, the arrangement was just a platform with a podium and the audience gathered in a flat place in front of it -- but my initial misimpression was telling.

Amiri Baraka, the poet of my home soil, Newark, New Jersey, has written that

[t]he arts are not peripheral to human development but at the center of it....They are education, information, inspiration and economic development, if someone would but recognize it....It's up to us, the artists, to take up the challenge and not leave it.... [A]rt is to raise the people, the artists must take it upon themselves.

The Expo festival put "the arts…at the center" in a way that I had never realized -- because it included so many different kinds of arts and people -- and never experienced before. However, when Reesom Haile read his poems, I saw "Art…raise the people" again as I had never witnessed. The audience and the reading space seemed physically raised up to be even with the poet speaking his lines. The children in the middle were joining Reesom Haile in his lines, anticipating and echoing them, with great pleasure, too, especially when he spoke the poem, "Alowuna, Alowana," "We Have." It swept through the crowd and it was sweeping the entire nation and its diaspora with the verbal music of Tigrinya affirmation:

We have men and women...
We have women and men….
Without end in the struggle
To grow, study and persist.
Who think and think again
To teach, learn and know…
Without the lust for power.
Who stand up or down
With our consent.
We have God and a future.
We have men and women
Who belong in our nation
And we belong with them….
We have women and men.

"Rejoice." I say it again when poetry can become a kind of daily bread or currency for all kinds of people -- writers, children, artists, young professionals, working people, the elderly, government people -- and create a rapport and a give and take among all, including the poet. This is a work of high value.

Poet and scholar, Reesom Haile has returned to Eritrea after a twenty- year exile, which included teaching in Communications at The New School for Social Research in New York and a subsequent career as a Development Communications Consultant, working with UN Agencies, governments and NGOs around the world.

He is widely recognized for his revolutionary modernization of the traditional art of poetry in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea's main languages. We Have Our Voice is the first bilingual collection of his poetry. Its enormous popular appeal -- in print and on the internet -- spills into the streets of Asmara, 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 explains the phenomenon this way:

Our poetry is not something that has left our tongue and lived in the books for a very long time. Our poetry is participatory. When I recite my poetry at home, the people listening to me will say, "add this to that, add this to that." It is participatory. It's not something that we put on the wall and say "Oh, this is pretty." Our traditional poetry form is ad hoc. Someone will just get up and say something to try to capture the spirit of that particular time. And people will add, "why don't you say so, why don't you add this, why don't you extend it." It is very much part of the tradition. I am putting it on paper because I think it is about time we start storing it for the next generation.

Thus a poet, almost by necessity an individualist, can also be a voice of the people and a kind of nationalist, albeit spontaneously through the construction of a parallel between tradition and change: in John Coltrane's words, "a force for real good." It illuminates within We Have Our Voice, only a small selection of Reesom Haile's work, a wide variety of topics, 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 and super powers, and often humorously.

Writing in Tigrinya, Reesom Haile joins a growing movement of African authors who are writing in their own African languages. This rise of African vernaculars, paralleling the rise of truly independent and democratic African nations, promises a twenty-first century that will be the African century for literature. For Reesom Haile, writing in Tigrinya is to go "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…your self expression and you cannot give it up." With thousands of African languages dating back -- orally and in written form -- over the course of millennia, an unimaginably rich resource is about to be tapped by African writers and for Africans themselves, yet to be globally shared.

As for my English versions of Reesom Haile's poems, they are basically the products of an email collaboration between the author and me, though we have met, become friends and both share experiences in each other's native places and cultures. Most generously, he would email me a poem's literal translation and I would return it to him in the form of an English poem based on his original translation's sense and its appearance in Tigrinya in Waza Ms Qumneger Ntensae Hager, the book in which most of the poems had already been published. In my work, I also took into account how the poems sounded on an audiocassette of Reesom Haile reciting his lines. When necessary, he would graciously send back additional literal versions of his lines to indicate what my English was still missing, and thus together we'd try again to join -- which is the Tigrinya concept for the act of poetry, different from the European identification of poetry with the process of making -- our two languages in the common effort of poetry. Of course, I can only reproduce some of the many levels of meaning and association that a Reesom Haile poem offers to anyone who hears or reads it in the Tigrinya original. While he and speakers of Tigrinya and English know what my English versions continue to miss, my poetic faith is that more is gained than lost in the translation process.

Moreover, there should be more and more translation of African- language poets and writers into other languages precisely so that the mutual exposure can enrich our cultures, our languages and us all. Thus far, there has been very little of such translation and we are the poorer for it. The world needs to hear and know the Shakespeares and the Bibles of African languages, but their real names are known only by African language writers, while they also know these European texts precisely because many of them have been translated into African languages.

Tigrinya is widely regarded as a difficult language, as is Eritrea often thought to be a place that is hard to truly understand. Notwithstanding such truisms, my English versions always attempt to represent the spirit if not always achieving the letter of Reesom Haile's work. That we built We Have Our Voice through email is fitting since one of his first and most popular poems, "Dehai" or "Voice," is about his publishing most of his poems -- sometimes even two a day -- on the popular Eritrean website, Dehai.

Speech online
Can set you free….

ezm! z-ezm! ezm! z-ezm!
ebum! b-ebum! ebum! b-ebum!

…We share the screen
Like the sun
And our freedom of speech
Reads the poetry in thought

Throughout Reesom Haile's poetry there are at least two constants. First, not merely on the screen or the page but in reality, his poetry possesses a comprehensive, prudent, not polarizing, universal, accessible, explicit, tried and true, political sense. Uncommon and, perhaps, even unavailable in most American and European poetries today, it is practically in every one of his poems, as if he "kept [it] in his stomach along with the food …[he] ate a long time ago," as he has remarked. This is apparent in a poem like "Learning from History," on the waxing and waning of Marx and Lenin's influence,

…we all make mistakes.
The evil is in not being corrected.
Aren't we known
By what we do, undo and do again?

There is a strong and prevailing sense of political struggle and ideals that might be considered romantic if they were not so realistic and rooted in the indomitable Eritrean political experience of standing alone and winning a 30-year war for independence. Thus, the poet can address the country's leader:

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.

A second constant in Reesom Haile's poetry is his music, in Tigrinya, of course, but also in the sense of the translations of his poems into English. I could only try to reproduce this sense and not the Tigrinya sound in English, which has its own music. Great poetry, however, should always carry with it, in its original language or translation, a universal music. It is our inheritance and poetry's source, as Reesom Haile also attests in reflecting on his own poetic beginnings:

It starts with z-ezm! ebum! b-ebum! -- which is our drum, our expression of happiness. That is all the struggle is about: that finally we can be happy. I start when I go back to the sound of z-ezm! ebum! -- to the...everyday songs....then the words start flowing in.

Copyright © 1999 by Charles Cantalupo

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