Episode 17: Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett

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).

Good Bread

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?

Inglizawi Negn!

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

When I Was Ten, I Started Watching Men

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

In the Lion Gardens

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