Reesom Haile:
Prophet of the Global Village

Essay by Karl Young

When Herbert Marshal McCluhan penned his famous one-liner about the "world becoming a global village," over 30 years ago, he apparently had several things in mind. Prominent among them were the stereotypes of African society that run through his writing, based largely on photos from National Geographic magazine, Tarzan movies, and the reports of a few superficial anthropologists. The phrase has entered current usage over time, and perhaps it can accurately, and uncannily, describe phenomena that McCluhan could not have predicted, and perhaps could not have understood. If the world IS becoming a global village, it is doing so through odd and unpredictable alliances of the technologies of super corporations and the art forms of micro-cultures. It does so in part by the efforts of hearty "explorers" and "anthropologists" who come from African communities to earn a living in the strange and alien cities of North America and Europe, Somet work in esoteric fields such as computer programming and bio-engineering. Then they bring lessons -- often lessons in what NOT to do -- back to their own homes.

Rock 'n' roll has become, for better or worse, the first universal art form. It was largely the invention of African communities along the Mississippi River and the African towns within such cities as Atlanta, Kansas City, Chicago, and Detroit. One of the offspring of rock 'n' roll, reggae, has reached out from the micro-culture of Jamaica to wide audiences of dark skinned people in Africa and India, and, carrying a somewhat different message, to the light skinned people of Europe, the Americas, and parts of Asia. Mega-corporations such as Sony and Phillips may be responsible for the delivery systems of the music, but the music retains much of its origins in the musical forms of East Africa and their development among slaves and the descendants of slaves in the Western Hemisphere. Through these forms, seemingly powerless micro-communities have reshaped the ruling classes' lives in a total fashion -- one that has altered everything from the way they walk to the way they dress to the way they work to the way they perceive the passage of time to the way they dream.

Although this example gives the world a common means of communication, it also tends to wear down local traditions, many of which remain useful and salutary, the product of long evolution and careful testing over many generations. If we ARE moving into a global village, we should strive to retain the best features of village life. This means preserving the distinctive characteristics of different parts of the village, while at the same time not isolating those parts into antagonistic ghettoes and suburbs. Here in the United States, many of us hope to see the now almost entirely African city of Detroit pull itself out of the desperate economic wreckage of the American automobile industry. If it accomplishes this massive social feat, it will serve as a beacon and a model for other African cities around the world. In Africa itself, the rebirth of the ancient and venerable Eritrean nation may prove an inspiration and a model for other parts of the world, particularly those ravished and blighted by the atrocities of the slave trade, colonialism, and the dogmas, coercions, and bribes of competing religions and ideologies. If it succeeds, YES, PARTICULARLY AGAINST ALL ODDS, it will do so in part by the strength, flexibility, and wisdom of its people, which in turn have allowed it to maintain its own unique identity without retreating into the dead end of isolationism in a world that could obliterate it with a single nuclear bomb. It will also do so through the poetry of people like Reesom Haile, who have worked out the means of retaining and defending their indigenous culture while simultaneously finding ways to integrate it into the other cultures of the world.

In this universal context, Reesom Haile's poetry plays a major role, as poetry should in any form of social evolution. This poetry is at once local and global, as its author is at once a devoted champion and integral member of Eritrean community, as well as a confident and adept citizen of the world -- and, perhaps, one of the first prophets of a truly habitable and humane global village, seeking a type of poetry at once specifically and indelibly Eritrean, and a significant contribution to the poetry of the world at large.

Understanding this poetry, from the point of view of a total outsider to Eritrean culture, Reesom Haile's love of the Tigrinya language may seem difficult at first, but the language itself may play a crucial role in reaching a global audience. Reesom Haile states this love plainly in his poems, and of course, the statements come through with perfect clarity in English translations. But for a man to SAY he loves his language and to actually FEEL it are two different things. A curious indication of this love comes through from the way Reesom Haile speaks and writes in English. His discourse is full, rounded, suggesting that he relishes speaking, likes to sound good to himself and to others, and that he constantly searches for the right way to say what is on his mind. If he had not learned to love his own language, it seems unlikely that he would take such delight in another. In some parts of Africa, and perhaps more prominently in India, you can find Anglophiles who have turned their backs on their native language and put their energy into English. But there is usually something sadly missing in their English. If I am not mistaken in my belief that Reesom Haile's fluency and felicity in English comes in part from his love of his own language, perhaps this is one of the first and most profound things he has to tell us about the global village. If you do not love and respect your native tongue, you may have difficulty talking to or understanding people from other parts of the world -- whether they be Eritreans living abroad or English speakers from Canada or Australia, England or the United States. In saying this I am not arguing for ANY kind of linguistic purity. People growing up in multi-cultural and multilingual communities often show great felicity in code switching and in creating new languages out of the different tongues spoken around them. But they, too, have learned to love their linguistic environment; and they often supply the ingenuity that keeps language evolving into something suitable to new needs. This has certainly been the case in many parts of Africa, and the impact of speakers and singers nurtured in the mysteries of linguistic syncretism keeps, and has kept, such languages as English and Spanish alive and dynamic.

Love of spontaneous native speech moves into the more deliberate and conscious areas of art. Although this dimension remains specific to Tigrinya, there are things that an attentive listener can comprehend without knowing a single word of the original language. The sound properties of Reesom Haile's poetry become immediately insistent on hearing him read, even on tape or compact disk. The intricate rhymes, consonances, what seem to be grammatical vowel shifts, and other sonic characteristics not only testify to the poet's skill, they produce delightful sounds in themselves, whether you understand them or not. In some places, the poet repeats lines, and this leads to one of the most intriguing characteristics of the sonic dimensions of the poetry: In some instances, the author produces lines that mean different things but sound so similar that only very careful listening (and probably some pointers from someone who knows the Tigrinya) allows an outsider to hear the difference between them. Rhetorical structures, often built on apposition, parallelism, and antithesis, can come through in exquisite, sharply defined sonic units if you can follow the poem in translation. In yet other instances, minimal variations in sense come through in other languages. This became particularly clear in reading translations into Icelandic, German, Spanish, and French which I put up on my Internet World Wide Web site. One of my favorite poems illustrates this very well:

Your Sister

Daughter sister
Your own sweet daughter
Your mother's
Her sister's and brother's
Your father's daughter
His brother's and sister's
Your brother's and sister's
Your older brother's
Your older sister's
Whoever that may be

Daughter of this town
Daughter of your neighbor
Daughter and sister
Of our nation
Your sister
Your daughter
Your grandmother and mother
Your fiancée and your wife
Every daughter
Part of you
Your own sweet daughter
Sister to sister to sister

Respect their rights

In Tigrinya, such poems could be heard as relatives of the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass. It's hard to find instances of English poetry that come close to the intricacies of Reesom Haile's Tigrinya. There may be parallels in the call-and-response, solo-and-chorus forms that have already spread out from Africa, and such minimalist forms as those used by peoples in the Itruri Forest and the Kalahari Desert, which have remained local. I hope more knowledgeable participants at this conference can address such formal parallels. Aside from the deep significance of what the author has to say, it is not difficult to understand why Eritreans, even children, recite the poet's lines back to him when they encounter him on the street or in other public places: such sound patterns almost ask to be memorized and repeated. For some, particularly the children, the mnemonic value of rhymes and repetition may serve an educational or exhortatory function.

As intricate as the sound properties of Reesom Haile's poetry may be, it is difficult to imagine a poetry more straight- forward and unadorned in modes of address. Plain statements, often in simple declarative sentences, make up most of the poems, leaving no room for decoration of any sort. Even metaphor and simile appear sparingly, and they often come more in the form of a parable or story than adornment, embellishment, modification, example, or accessory. This is a poetry addressed TO YOU, THE READER; TO YOU, THE HEARER. They are not based in the conventions of theater or in private rumination, but the kind of speech that people engage in every day when relating to each other without intermediaries. What could be a more direct utterance than the following poem? Even if it was not actually spoken to the women or to someone observing them with the author, this is simple statement:


Ethiopian women
Who are gorgeous
And wearing traditional dress
Wait in Cairo airport:
Beirut bound export
For restless lives
Of making beds
And little money.
Go with God, my beauties.
I don't envy you.

Reesom Haile's fascination with plain paralelism, antithesis, and dialectics alone can produce a wide range of poetries within the unadorned nature of his opus. The following seems appropriate to the laconic wisdom literature of many traditional cultures:


First the earth, then the plow:
So knowledge comes out of knowledge.
We know, we don't know.
We don't know we know.
We know we don't know.
We think
This looks like that --
This lemon, that orange --
Until we taste the bitter.

This can extend into poetry that resembles some of Lorca's surrealist miniatures:

Team or Twins

Left -- right
Black -- white
Open -- bite
Peace -- fight
What is this?
Team or twins?
Twins or team?
Don't confuse the seam
With how to win.

Often the antithesis or dialectic breaks into two voices:

Foreign Aid

I give.
I give some more!
So why insult me for giving?

You make me beg.

On the plainest and simplest level, Reesom Haile's poems replicate the speech of one person to another. And they can be read as such speech. But they can also represent a communal voice speaking in solidarity. This leads to one of the author's most important, and perhaps unusual, set of characteristics. He is a patriot whom readers can believe and take seriously -- this is highly unusual in late 20th century poetry. The United States has not produced an UNRESERVED but CREDIBLE patriot poet since Walt Whitman, and I doubt that it can. Perhaps Eritrea will go through a similar process of post- revolutionary enthusiasm that wanes as the country loses integrity, new ideas, hope, optimism. But perhaps Eritrea will defy the odds here as elsewhere and produce a durable poetry of optimism and trust in community. The America poet Charles Olson longed for just such a poetry, and it is unfortunate he did not live long enough to encounter the work of Reesom Haile.

It has become increasingly difficult to find a poet writing on politics and community without recourse to oblique imagism, argot [often stilted], collage, and, well, a whole catalogue of indirect forms. I can't think of anyone since Roque Dalton who could make sense and be taken seriously as a political poet who relied on no artifice, but stuck to direct statement. Unfortunately, Dalton's poetry doesn't translate easily or well from the Spanish, and without capturing the particular snap of his delivery, the poems often come across as hack work tracts when translated into English. This is not the case with Reesom Haile. Perhaps the reasons for this depend on the two poets' associates: Dalton spent most of his adult life discussing, arguing, haranguing other party members or members of closely related parties. Reesom Haile has not. Instead, he has spoken to people in all walks of life in many parts of the world, from street sweepers to artists, from architects to derelicts, in Asmara, in New York, in Brussels. Even in Eritrea, where party lines can seem as confusing as those of Dalton's El Salvador, Reesom Haile's associates never seem confined to cadres, but extend through the whole spectrum of society. In a personal letter to me that easily could have broken into a poem, Reesom Haile told of a visit to troops assigned to patrol Eritrea's dangerous border with Ethiopia. The troops took turns standing guard and helping local farmers bring in crops. His enthusiasm radiated out of the words like the lights of fireworks. Perhaps this unalloyed enthusiasm, on all levels, is precisely what sets him apart from other poets working along similar lines in other parts of the world.

The turning of this century finds western poetry in an odd position. The great renaissance which scholars now call "modernism" ended long ago, though its energy and inventiveness continue among people who work in near isolation, outside the imperialist and totalitarian cliques that spend more energy vying for literary-political leverage than they do with poetry, which they often see as "superseded" by theory. The Baroque nature of so-called "post-modernism" drifts farther and farther into Rococo decoration and irrelevant sophistry. But important things have always happened outside regnant cliques. I've already mentioned the origins of rock 'n' roll. The position of the great African- Caribbeans, particularly Derek Walcott and Aime Cesaire seems completely secure, though inextricably tied to European movements. Perhaps the work of Reesom Haile, Ngugi wa Thiongo, and others who have returned to Native African languages while making sure their work is available in one of the widely-spoken, widely-read, and widely-printed European languages, will set the pace for a new century, in which the global village does not patronizingly take its name from stereotypes of Africa, but originates in that continent -- particularly among people like Reesom Haile who fully understand the importance of sound, reliable, and pleasing communication in any village, small or global. Marshal McCluhan hinted at a giant village in which everyone watched the same television programs. Reesom Haile sets an example of active, participatory exchange among all citizens.

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