Solomon Deressa- a review from the archive

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The following is a review of Innes Marshal, director of the HISU Press (today’s Addis Ababa University Press) of Solomon Deressa’s English and French volumes of poems, “The Tone of Silence”, which appeared in the Addis Reporter magazine in April 18, 1969. Innes Marshal was full of praise for Solomon’s collection, admiring it for casting “visual images freely throughout his poems,” and “the sharp rhyming throughout this poem.” It is published online here for the first time.

I can clearly remember the arid voice of my University lecturer on criticism: “No one can write true poetry except in his own language.” What my lecturer perhaps did not take into account for (or, more probably, what I failed to realise was implicit in his statement) is that a poet can make any language his own, to dream in, or, better, to write in, and that, I feel, is what Solomon Deressa has done in his volume of poems in English and French. “The Tone of Silence”.
The sub-titles of “The Tone of Silence” is “a mid-century african portrait”, and the small “a” of “african” is significant in the context. The poems do not drum out political slogans in the name of Africa. Fortunately or unfortunately, my own slim volumes of verse from the rest of Africa are invariably borrowed (on a permanent basis) by friends. In any case I should prefer not to draw contrast between any other African poet and Solomon, and merely point out that political poetry in English tends to generate into doggerel, and that Solomon, african or Ethiopian, has chosen the better part by rejecting extraneous influences.
He evidently believes with Keats that “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses”, and he has, on the whole, digested physically and cerebrally the emotions which go to make up his portrait. This is not to say that he doesn’t make the most of a poet’s right to play with contemporary words and images, and occasionally to fling them in the reader’s face. The last line of “Prayer”, Solomon’s introductory poem, takes full advantage of his license and warns us what to expect:
This is not, then, a volume that is going to appeal greatly to those readers of Addis Reporter who feel that the Reporter’s standard of English is “too high”, for the last thing a poet must fear is the accusation of using “hard words”. I doubt if any gifted poet looks for a word- the appropriateness one wells up where it is needed- and Solomon, saturated in the three languages he may justly call his own, uses all three as naturally as spring water. He may play with a subtle juxtaposition of meaning in simple words, as in “To sweat Out the Hallucination”;
With callous hands for feet, and
head to stand on
With hands that have lost their balm
Like Tarzan I swing
In the labyrinth of my own mind
Screaming forgiveness, dying to be pardoned

Or he may deal in the Latinate vocabulary of the Metaphysicals, to emphasises

The endeavour to find a novelty of sort to utter
cost what it may…

Here, in “Lost Song,” he asks

Is it the gone song or inchoate night,
is it a wounded mind or a tortured street
that lies thickening beneath this
tumid invidious scor
(whip-handle of a prescient star)
the tormentor’s tormented
incandescent metal bar?

And to me the sharp rhyming throughout this poem is a deliberate reminiscence of the drums which Solomon calls up several times in his book, either in metaphor or in physical sound.
Again, he may use a highly personal vocabulary that is rarely handled so successfully in contemporary verse, as in “Death Like Life”, where the drums once more have full play:
But I,
I pour out of the characters of theses
eyes that I myself slice
Medicore songs on incoherence
(juicy looseness of a machete’d
Wagging the lightness in my head:
Drum drum drum
Beat beat beat
Detonate within the head
As drunkenness in a splintered bottle
Chastening unmitigated tam-tam

His inventive terms (“demented collectors cantle-hooked on the tide”, “the welder-me”, “dead at the drumnether”) sometimes, however, as he admits, detonate into mere cleverness, with the stress on each syllable beating out an intellectual joke. I can defend “anti-climax wise” in “The names of you all”, but not so easily “the courtesan on a loud guilt-edged ottoman”, in “Cheap Toy”
Many of us know Solomon as art critic. Like the artist, he casts visual images freely throughout his poems, sometimes impressionistically, sometimes with the transparent depth that make us believe, as in the paintings Gebre Kirstos Desta, that we can really see the underlying Platonic original. “The Dry Well”, for example, is written in clear, almost harsh, half-prose style, ironically conjuring up first an Ethiopian scene, then Ethiopian legend, and finally, an objective summary.
I do not want to quote this poem, but I strongly recommend it to those who believe, with the critic I.A Richards, that “the arts are our storehouse of recorded values”, and perhaps also to those who don’t believe that, an apparently simple, dry narrative, given the force of emotion behind it, can turn into poetry.
“Prose-poetry” (a term I dislike, but convenient here) is also used, but with less success, in a fragment of a love poem. “I would not have believed”, and again in “Have you ever watched a toddler”, which starts with a vivid little drawing of mother and child, and ends with a sad denunciation of those who, like the mother, are too close to emotion to sympathise with the many manifestations of love.
“Ring the Child Alive” is another brilliant glance at lost innocence, this time all too easy to identify with one’s own experience:
Gathering waif-ends and shells
Combing a cold deserted beach
For a child a thousand years dead..

This poem, however, has an ending at once triumphant and resigned:
Turn the sea into a gong,
To ring the child alive
Disturbing his innocent slumber
And then lull him back to sleep.

In contrast to the convoluted vocabulary he uses in his poems in English, the French in which Solomon deals is very much simpler and less fraught with over- and under-lying play on meaning, except in “Café terrace,” where a mocking repetition of “percer” is caught up with “per se”. Some of the French poems are miniature illuminations of grief, perhaps all founded on the first stanza of “Solitude of the Runaway Macadam (à un enfant pied-noir rapatrié)”;

Un coin pour s’asseoir
le temps pour se rappeler
des heures lourdes

Other poems do not lack an ironic humour, underlined in the sharp black-and-white sketch of “Man sitting: From a Hundred Yards”, which is linked in capital letters. It begins

Also strongly recommended is « Regards Aveugles »;
Je suis noir
je suis barbu
grand et maigre,

and the musical little “In a Whisper”,
which I cannot resist quoting in full:
Si je me laissais faire
Tu me méprisais
Aurais-je le droit
De faire ça
A ton amant mon amour

Purists may condemn the fact that, besides writing in French and English, Solomon occasionally flings French terms into English poems. As may own native language is vigorously macaronic (this has, after all been a complaint since the 13 century), I would only quibble when “foreign” words seem forced or out of place, and this fault is rare in Solomon’s volume. I think I shall be in accord with many readers, however, in wishing he had included the originals of the three poems, which I the edition in front of me, are followed by pencilled note: “translated from the Amharic,” for they are very different from other translations from the Amharic.
“Chutta: Black Earth” gives a brilliant impression of market-night on the edge of a Wollega forest, so sharply defined that the reader can see, hear, feel, and catch breath on
The biting evening air
Of the high-shouldered hills
Chutta market, Thursday night in Chutta

The nostalgia of the final stanza is belied by the vividness of the sketch and, rightly, this touches the awareness more keenly than the lighter metaphors of sex in “Mosebolle” (Miles from Elsinore)”. The third poem from the Amharic is “Letter”, a series of memories in which, perhaps, many women are own woman, and many countries and ages from background-not, indeed, so very far from Elsinore, but with Oromo life-patterns flung in:
A silencer, I knew you between boats gada-laden on Aegean
in Summer
And that bitter-cold dark time on
the North Sea in Winter

I enjoyed the beginning of this poem immensely, and was shocked (undoubtedly the author’s intention) at its final elliptical transition into the style of T.S Eliot at his most tiresome.
It is the penalty of being a poet that one is subject to criticism, while the critic is always vulnerable to the accusation of “baboon-assed solemnity’s pretension” a tart phrase of Solomon’s. I have no doubt that he can and will refute many of my comments- indeed, when this article was first broached. I suggested that it should be a dialogue between us. Equally, since no two people have the same reaction to words, my interpretations may dismay other readers.
I hope, however, that they will not be discouraged from savouring the poems themselves. It would be a pity to miss lines which-to quote Keats again- “appear almost a remembrance” of deeper experience: “The odds are against yesterday”; “Turn me away blind if I forget a face”; and the final “Ode to Myself,” with flippant overtones masking its seriousness:
Shall someday be forgiven
My unrelaxing obsession
With the tone of silence

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