In this episode, the poet, editor and translator Chris Beckett talks to Niall Munro about his latest book, Tenderfoot. Chris discusses growing up in Ethiopia and questions of privilege, perceptions of Ethiopia and a responsibility he feels to write about the place and its people. Chris also talks about how he portrays his nascent sexuality and how he reflects on Ethiopia then and now after numerous trips back to the country in recent years. You can read more of Chris's thoughts about writing the book in his blog entry for the Carcanet website.Chris has published two collections with Carcanet, Ethiopia Boy in 2013, a sequence of praise poems about his childhood crush Abebe, and Tenderfoot in July this year. He co-translated and edited the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry, Songs We Learn from Trees, also out from Carcanet earlier this year. Chris’s partner is Japanese painter and sculptor, Isao Miura. Together they published a book of drawings and poems in 2014, Sketches from the Poem Road, after Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and led to a wonderful exhibition of sculpture, paintings and paper installation at the Glass Tank in 2016 at Oxford Brookes University.
'Good Bread', 'Inglizawi Negn!', 'When I Was Ten, I Started Watching Men' and 'In the Lion Gardens' are all © Chris Beckett and reprinted with the permission of Carcanet Press from Tenderfoot (2020).
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for Abebe i.m.
Still warm and spongy almost wet a circle of injera on the mesob sits in my mind’s eye and goes with me reaching its gentle hand into my head
it makes me think about the day your father took us to a market in the hills that red-eyed roadside boy furiously begging to be fed…
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?
Sometimes he stands on the balcony in his blue pyjamas and sees it through the eucalyptus trees
slips out when day is lapping at the dark and stands there looking over garden gates and walls
over tin roofs clicking in their shadows down a track that wanders into the evening
out towards the faintly green distance of hills already stirring with bats and the idea of pumas
he can hear bells and bits of conversation someone far away banging a nail knows himself to be small and foreign
standing on the balcony of a big quiet house that holds him up holding him like a hand under his feet
but never feels unwelcome in the semi-dark if someone hails him from the track he will call back Selam!
if someone asks where are you from, little boy? he will answer proudly Inglizawi negn!
he doesn’t really know right now where English is or what but is not troubled by the things he does not understand
while his eyes follow silhouettes of long-tailed birds and he feels this moment stretch almost forever
Some walk into a sunbeam and their heads catch fire
some smoke an arm around their friend or saunter hand in hand with him
others keep their shyness like a torch inside the pocket of their trousers
unzip themselves against a wall and whistle as their boiling water flows
many have the necks of swans that suddenly swing round to look at you
hundreds every day are causing bushfires to break out boys’ tongues to parch
be my boy wife!
one calls but hotly not in words from the beautiful jet coals of his eyes
Old men sitting by the apple trees
can you hear me? I am an old man too we’ve shrunk inside our shirts our coffees are so strong they may outlive us
I look for Tagesse who’s he? a boy who I imagined in the famine when we both were boys Tagesse shouting at it scraping by in it grieving and enduring like the meaning of his name
he must be getting on an old imagined man no, I did not send him to another famine or the Eritrean war I did not forcibly resettle him in Illubabor I could not write more suffering
says Tagesse and rises from a bench of smiles because he made it through his being here is blessed! he comes towards me autumn eyes and winter hair a courteous old man of Ethiopia
but do I clap him on the back when I had food and he did not? his life and mine his acre of the mountains worlds apart Tagesse, sit with me beside the cages old lions have such splendid manes!
tell me your story from the start not its surrendered facts but every feeling just as you remember it 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… my joy in boyhood filled a thousand fizzy bottles kicked at sadness like a mule but now I’m liverish, light-headed old stomach trying to digest
the plate of misery it missed just as your happiness will always be half-starved by wants and horrors which I heaped upon you years ago
open your eyes!
you shout at me, but not unkind so I stand up and look at you, at me and feel that I am falling
by Chris Beckett