Charles Cantalupo

I am in a quandary. Why has my translation of a short story originally written in Tigrinya, “The Girl Who Carried a Gun” by Haregu Keleta, provoked nearly as many questions and comments in the few months that it has been posted as all of the Eritrean poetry I have translated and published, including three books, over the last fifteen years? Who were the EPLF? What did they do? Were there a lot of Eritrean women soldiers? The story is autobiographical, right? When did the Eritrean against Ethiopia take place? And who were the ELF? Why the Marxist elements in the story? Where is Eritrea? Can you tell me more about its history? 

The same questions could have been prompted by many of the poems I have translated, but they haven’t been. For example, Eritrean history appears in most of them since contemporary Eritrean poetry is rarely personal or individual, despite its sometimes sounding autobiographical when it is not – like Haregu Keleta’s short story, too. Furthermore, most of the poets I have translated were formerly EPLF, that is, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front soldiers or “fighters” (as they preferred to be called), and ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) soldiers, too, before the EPLF defeated it in a mini civil war. In addition, Eritrea’s location in the Horn of Africa and its war with Ethiopia have figured in a lot of the poems. Also, many of the poems I have translated reveal an Eritrean revolution that was Marxist, and I also have translated Eritrean women poets who fought in the armed struggle. 

One answer to my quandary is that if contemporary Eritrean poetry and “The Girl Who Carried a Gun” present roughly the same subject matter, to most readers the short story is a more inviting, accessible, transparent and attractive literary form than poetry. Actually, one of my closest colleagues in Eritrea, Zemhret Yohannes, head of Eritrea’s Research and Documentation Center and of the Eritrean publishing house, Hdri, has been telling me this for years, repeatedly urging me to publish an anthology of Eritrean short stories as a companion volume to my anthology, Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic (Asmara: Hdri Publishers, 2005). Reluctantly, I finally agreed to try by translating a few stories as a test to see if they would attract any interest.

But I am primarily a poet. In comparison with my abilities and desires to communicate through images, formally rhythmic language, rhyme / alliteration / assonance, poetic forms, and lines of print that usually end long before a page’s right margin, my skills in constructing and understanding prose narrative feel like a disability. Writing or translating poetry for nearly forty years, I must admit, of course, that I have known for nearly as long – once I moved beyond writing teenage protest songs against the Vietnam war – that poetry is generally perceived, in English at least, as marginal and less inviting and accessible than prose fiction. But as a poet I have never fully understood or, at least, accepted why this is the case. My incomprehension, furthermore, was reinforced when I first began in 1998 to witness and understand that poetry – contemporary or traditional, oral poetry – in Eritrea was central, enjoyed and understood by nearly everyone, especially in public in performance.  

Now, however, after my experience with Haregu Keleta’s short story, must I finally concede, bowing at least to the western gods of prose fiction in the literary marketplace, that no Eritrean poem, at least in my translation into English, could ever state as clearly or accessibly something like this from “The Girl Who Carried a Gun?" “[A] few months of military training made my soft body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter – far from a girl who was afraid to go outside." 

Claudia Moreno Parsons begins her provocative essay, “Into the Landscape of Humanity” with: 

Is poetry the answer to war? Of all the systems of communication we have, one of the most effective in considering and talking about the horrors of war is poetic language. That most ancient form, poetry, can tell the truth about war in a way that other forms of language do not. The ability to extract threads from the complex mass, to lay images before us one at a time – teaching us, in a sense, the aesthetic of war….

“Talking about the horrors of war,” is poetry unique? Is there also “truth about war” that is unique to poetry and not to “other forms of language,” particularly literary language? In either case, is such a unique quality believable? Desirable? Furthermore, can there be an “aesthetic of war” only about its “horrors?” An “aesthetic of war” without glories? Can there be any aesthetic without beauty? 

But if poetry is not “the answer to war,” what is? Does “the answer,” and whether it is poetry or not, depend on place, history, and language? Can an attempt to ascertain “the answer,” any answer, defer questions of class, race, and gender? 

Alternating between “yes” and “no” in trying to resolve such questions, I am distracted by a vision of the authors of Gilgamesh, Exodus, The Iliad, The Aeneid, Beowulf, La Chanson de Roland, El Cid, Sundiata and other warlike epics getting ready to approach the stage for their laurels, pre-written acceptance speeches tucked into their robes. Yet I see closer to the stage, a group of young men, as if they have been secretly tipped that their names are going to be called instead: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and a few more, among them a faintly smiling and older Thomas Hardy. Unlike the epic poets, this group appears more with it and wired, as if they know that the audience could care less about and even dislikes most epic performers and their vaunting lines about war and its heroism, violence, death, and “the glory that was Greece, / …the grandeur that was Rome,” as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “To Helen” (164-65), or Babylon, Egypt, England, France, Spain, Mali, wherever…. I see Oliver Stone and Kathryn Bigelow approaching the podium together to open the proverbial envelope and smiling at the group in the front rows, yet I catch out of the corner of my eye several of the epic war poets leaving their seats and pulling on their beards as they head for the exits.  

“[T]alking about the horrors of war…poetry can [my emphasis] tell the truth about war in a way that other forms of language do not,” but the nature of that truth is debatable, at least between traditional epic poets and, to take only one example, the greatest British poets of World War I, yet nearly most poets, epic and lyric, who come after them. Although not an epic poet, Horace is being straight and means his famous line, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (Odes, III.2.13; 144), “It is sweet and right to die for your country,” despite his own possible dereliction of warlike duties, whereas the line’s most famous citation, in Wilfred Owen’s eponymous poem, is ironic, meaning the opposite of what it says when invoked amidst

…An ecstasy of fumbling…
…yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime… 
…guttering, choking, drowning. 
…the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
…at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues….

Dying in war is neither sweet nor right, according to Owen, his peers, and nearly all poets since, at least most who are published and read, whether – to name particularly American conflicts – they write about World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq out of direct or, as in the case of Ammiel Alcalay, historical experience. Yet who wants to be so patronizing as to imagine that ever more shocking technological advances in the weaponry of war, typified by Owen’s portrayal of a poisonous gas attack on a World War I battlefield, are something beyond or worse than “the horrors of war” as understood by ancient or medieval poets, who imagine an array of supernatural kinds of violence and killing: if not as shocking and even seeming contrived to us, still indicating a desire to add to the horror of – what postmodern warfare seems more and more obsessed to avoid – an ultimate reality of the immediate physicality of one human killing another to survive?   

Nevertheless, in the midst or in the shadow of war at least as much as what can be readily imagined about ancient epic poets, most modernist and postmodernist epic poets, even romantic epic poets like Williams Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805; 1926) or Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855) simply “would prefer not to” engage it, in Herman Melville’s famous phrase in “Bartleby the Scrivener” (11). 

But poets who do, from In Parenthesis (1937) by David Jones to Ammiel Alcalay in from the warring factions (2002) or in his translations of Semezdin Mehmedinovic, sarajevo blues (1998), can no more than Owen find anything but irony in Horace’s famous Latin tagline. Yet in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell suggests that such cynicism and nihilism in Jones, at least, has its limits, since his poem “associates the events of front-line fighting…with Arthurian legend, Welsh and English folklore, Old Testament history, Roman Catholic liturgy, Norse myth, Chaucer, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the poems of G. M. Hopkins, and even the works of Lewis Carroll” (146), becoming what Fussell calls "appliquéd literariness" (153). As if to avoid any such literariness and its inevitable nostalgia for the heroic values of ancient poetic epic if not actual war or, perhaps, to create a different kind of literariness free of such blandishments, Alcalay in from the warring factions also creates and even appliques himself a phalanx of texts. In Parsons’ words, “Lines are quoted verbatim from sources as disparate as political speeches, documentaries, UN documents, poets both contemporary and ancient, and the nineteenth century Pequot orator William Apess. Alcalay turns the straightforward business of war – the news reports, the magazine articles, the speeches – into a new form.” The occasional and usually unpredictable deployment of mostly long-lined free verse reinforces the text’s aura of a new kind of verbal expression and literary style, albeit formally descended from the projectivist poetics of Charles Olson and in content akin to the anti-dulce et decorum est tradition of poetry relating to war. Bringing “these disparate elements together into one long, epic poem,” Alcalay, in his own words, even “needs[s]…to confound the whole notion of a narrator, or a single self” (192).  

With ancient epic and lyric praise of war and its values of heroism, violence, death, and glory having metamorphosed into most romantic, modernist and subsequent epic and lyric poetry’s – with few notable exceptions – abhorrence and even avoidance of war and any praise for its values, have we reached a kind of end of the history of poetry as far as the topic of war and its representation are concerned: the sociocultural norms, however varied, of people who read and/or hear poetry requiring there be nothing “sweet and right” about it anymore? Have a 20th century of two world wars, the Cold War, many other wars of national liberation, and a 21st of continuing global and local terror and violence waged in the name of nations, insurgencies, ethnicities, and religions made the representation in poetry of war – if it’s not one or two thousands years or more in the past and in the form of medieval or ancient epic – impossible to conceive of except in Simone Weil’s famous terms? “Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away;” where “the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to;” where “[t]he bitterness…is… undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero’s head no washed out halo of patriotism descends?” (6). Moreover, have we reached an end to any serious contemporary poetry about war through not only a near universal abhorrence of war itself but also of any poetic artifice – unless it also be a kind of anti-artifice like Alcalay’s – being devoted to it? 

The answer to all four questions is yes – at least for the present. Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Alcalay’s war writings, and, most persuasively, the virtual absence of any great contemporary poetry about war in the last two hundred years unless it conforms to Weil’s terms reinforce this conclusion. 
On a smaller scale, I also know this to be the case first hand: not as a poet who would write about war any differently through direct or historical experience, but as a translator of contemporary poets who could say Horace’s Latin “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” without any irony in their minds or voices and translate it the same into their own languages and poems. Furthermore, these poets embrace and express a level of force and violence as profligate and apodictic as anything in Weil while also revealing war as not only about fighting but also friendship, love, natural beauty and other perennial issues of life. Also, these poets neither express doubt and self-consciousness about their abilities to convey “the horrors of war,” as if they could be beyond comprehension or adequate representation, nor any need for a new kind of poetics or anti-poetics to recount such conditions. Thus as a translator, despite the historical and literary record established by Fussell, Alcalay, and others, including my own predisposition, I am challenged to find – discover, rediscover? – the words and poetic forms in English that can represent and embody such an outpouring of verbal art and genuine emotion, in this case, in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic, three of the nine languages spoken in Eritrea. As if to accentuate this quandary, a close verbal equivalent for the word “poet” in Tigrinya is “getamay,” which not only means “joiner” but also translates as “challenger.” 

But meeting this challenge is not my point. A reader can judge whether I have for him or herself, going to Voices Compassion Education, WLA Journal, Universe of Poetry, and two of my books, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (2009) and Who Needs a Story: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic (2005). I would add, nevertheless, that while many literary journals published poems from the anthology, Who Needs a Story, the same editors rejected most of its poems about war as a positive and praiseworthy, “sweet and right,” and necessary means of Eritrean nationalism and liberation, when there was no other way to achieve independence from Ethiopian annexation and colonization, whatever the original language I translated from: neither elegant Arabic – 

I sing for the children of Ar,
Of a love in the forest and caves
Of Golujj – a painting finished
With the barrel of a gun – the soldier, 
Abraham, shot, carrying out the body
Of his hero, Mahmuday; 

Homeric Tigre – 

He sees his enemies like sorghum bending
And breaking, their heads spilling out all red.
Never missing the target, his bullets
Fall like rain hitting the lake, and it floods
As in the days of Noah, only with blood….
He throws the trees and rocks out of his path
And grabs his weapons – nobody’s laughing.
Fields planted thick with mines, impossible
Desert sand and heat, crocodiles swarming
The rivers and gaping valleys in his way
Reveal him close and watching overhead
Before he leaves them choked with too many dead.

nor baroque Tigrinya – 

…we still need to see him back with us
…        in this brutal place
Of too many heroes and martyrs yet
…Like a pearl? A stately shade tree needing
Our protection? A pillar of light? Gold?
A compass? A diamond? The riches of 
Grass or flesh. The mighty lion? Words
And comparisons cannot say enough….
    (47, 49, 51)

Or can they? Have they already said too much? Two, three, four millennia – Virgil and Homer back to Exodus and back to Gilgamesh – of such poetry have sufficed. The problem is not poetry itself or what the poetry is about – war. Nevertheless, is the positive spin on “the horrors” the only problem? Or is that group of young nihilist, anti-war poets self-assuredly winking at each other in the front row of the awards ceremony also about to be disappointed at the end of the sentence “And the award goes to?” 

Of course, they are. On this imaginary occasion, they are as delusional as the epic poets because it is not about poetry. And not even about prose. It’s about film. They are at two removes. So am I – and Claudia Moreno Parsons, Ammiel Alcalay, and many more as well. Together we’re in good company, but the audience and the academy aren’t really interested in us. War, yes. But poetry, much less poetry about war, its praises or its horrors, without or with occasional beauty? No. 

Such a conclusion is obvious to most, but is it to a true believer in the power of “[t]hat most ancient form, poetry,” to “tell the truth about war in a way that other forms of languages do not?” I want to agree wholeheartedly that “[o]f all the systems of communication we have, one of the most effective in considering and talking about the horrors of war is poetic language” and its “ability to extract threads from the complex mass, to lay images before us one at a time – teaching us, in a sense, the aesthetic of war,” but again, I am in a quandary. In theory I can agree “[T]hat most ancient form, poetry, can tell the truth about war in a way that other forms of language do not.” But in practice? When I consider the lackluster critical reception of all my translations of Eritrean war poetry in comparison with the much stronger response to an experience from the same war recounted in a single short story? If only I didn’t translate it, I could still be happy in my state of denial.

Then again, maybe I should attribute this cri de couer not so grandly to poetry itself but, frankly, to my own translations. To be in a state of denial about the merit of one’s own literary work, that is, its lack of merit, although common, is the worst of reasons for questioning the value of an entire literary enterprise, in this specific case, the efficacy of contemporary poetry about war. I must confess that in translating Eritrean poets who wrote about war, I could never wholly escape the feeling that my job was impossible, at least quixotic – and not only because they wrote lyrically and positively without irony, doubt or self-consciousness about horrific violence and a dying heroically in battle. This sinking feeling even stayed with me as I steeled myself to the challenge of trying to find an English language and diction that had not been used for a century or two, with the exception of Kipling, that might convey the genuine emotions that these poets embodied in their work. Moreover, I could accommodate poetry that was without irony and positive about war – from poetry that was ancient to its pre-modern dying gasps in English – and, as I learned to be open to the possibility of poetry without irony and positive about war in the 20th century and beyond, I even began to feel that I could find the language to express this. In praise or blame, the language was the same. After all, the language of modernist and postmodernist poetry, albeit it profoundly anti-war, was rich, regardless. To take the examples of Jones or Alcalay, they both produced rhetorically difficult, elaborate texts, applying modernist – in the case of Jones – and postmodernist – in the case of Alcalay – radical literary experimentation to express war’s shattering of traditional experience and understanding. 

Ultimately, however, my greatest insecurity about my translations of contemporary Eritrean war poetry was that, regardless of its war traumas, neither modernist nor postmodernist, experimental poetic forms became the way to translate them. My first impulse was to use them, believe me. But when I applied such widely accepted 20th and 21st century aesthetics or poetics to translations of Eritrean poets and shared the results, they rejected them outright as incomprehensible and barely related to their work in style or content. The poetry was no more radical and experimental in an expected modernist or postmodernist way than it was negative and ironic about war. 

I should have known better. I had experienced a similar rejection when I first started translating Eritrean poetry several years before. From the moment I first heard him read to the acclaim of a stadium-size crowd in Asmara, he struck me as “absolutely modern,” to use Rimbaud’s famous phrase, yet in a way I had never experienced and had to learn. His most famous poem, “Alewuna, Alewana,” “We Have, We Have,” was the first he gave me to translate, the “u” and the “a” signifying gender, respectively men and women. The words “Alewuna, Alewana,” or “We have. We have, ” recurred in nearly every line of the poem, and usually paired with either the words “men” or “women.” Therefore, I thought I would translate it in the form of a kind of grid, with “We have” positioned at the corners and key points, as in concrete poetry, and the words “men” and “women” visually arranged across the page as if projected by “We have. We have.” To reinforce the connection of “We have” to “men” and “women,” I inserted the third most repeated word in the poem, “who,” which led to a verb, as in Reesom’s Tigrinya original, describing what men and women could do to rebuild Eritrea: sacrifice, gather, provide, lead, grow, study, persist…and so on. Along the lines of the Olson’s projectivist poetics, I imagined the poem as a kind of field of energy filled with the poet’s spontaneously projected language. 

Another reason I thought the style of concrete and projectivist poetry would pair with “Alewuna, Alewana” was its strong, almost overpowering oral dimension. When Reesom would perform the poem, with a machine-gun like, rat-a-tat-tat velocity, he would retard pronouncing the refrain, “Alewuna, Alewana” – whereupon the audience would respond similarly in a kind of answering wave, “Alewuna, Alewana.” Translating the poem – and the experience of hearing the poem – into English to be read, I wanted to intimate and gesture toward its great oral, performative power, by radically altering its visual layout. I should add that in their original forms, in Ge'ez or in Latin script, Reesom always center-justified his lines, even though Tigrinya poetry had no more a tendency to center-justify than most other languages, and Reesom stood all but alone among Eritrean poets who did this and did it well. Thus, Reesom’s center-justifying his lines became indicative of his unique voice in the history of Eritrean poetry and functioned like a trace element of his inimitable performative power. To make the reader more aware of it, or at least of something being different about the poem than merely its sentiments, I thought it required more visual adjustment on the page than merely manipulating the margins. 

I emailed my translation back to Reesom, and he rejected it in an email the same day. Again, although I had no doubt about Reesom’s poetry being “absolutely modern,” based on my seeing how audiences responded and my simultaneously recognizing his rhetorical sophistication, I didn’t understand how. But soon after the rejection, he sent me another email about Tigrinya and his poetry.

It 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.

Reesom wanted poetry that had few if any critical equivalents in English, especially not modern: spontaneous, fresh, oral, unforgiving, accessible, and public; a kind of daily bread or common currency for all kinds of people – writers, children, artists, young professionals, working people, the elderly, government people – to create a universal rapport of give-and-take. I never experienced such poetry before.

Therefore, what I learned about Eritrean poetry from translating Reesom Haile, I applied to my translations of Eritrean war poetry. What else could I do? Their literary quality could still be dubious, but should I have persisted with my translations as I saw fit rather than as the original Eritrean poets did, if the work would have garnered any more editors’ interest? Would the benefits – publication, greater circulation, and more critical attention – of my translations’ falsifications have outweighed the notion that we are no more at an end of the history of poetry about war than we are at an end of history itself, to recall the original, much scorned phrase? 

But what if I am not in a quandary? What if I am not in a state of denial about poetry’s limits? What if my translations of contemporary Eritrean war aren’t even horrible. Could there be another reason for readers’ avid curiosity about “The Girl Who Carried a Gun” in comparison with their comparatively complacent response to translations of Eritrean poetry? What if I go back to the most obvious reason: that the short story is a more inviting, accessible, transparent and attractive literary form than poetry to most readers?  

The form of the short story is international, all but universal, familiar and probably the most accessible of all literary forms. Most any reader can respond to it immediately and feel secure based on his or her having read many short stories before. 

But African language poetry in translation? It is as proportionally limited as the short story is widespread. In short, there is an endemic failure to translate and publish African language poetry (Cf. “Translating African Language Poetry: Is There Enough,” Modern Poetry in Translation 3:16, 119-24; “Literature, power, translation, and Eritrea,” Journal of Eritrean Studies IV:2, 21-24). No continent has less of its indigenous language poetry published. Every major international journal – in print or online – is complicit in this failure, since their publishing African language poetry is minimal if at all. With only a few exceptions, every major African literature anthology is similarly complicit. And the translators are few, especially if high quality literary translation is the criterion. 

Consequently, besides translations of African language poetry being subject to the standard marginalization that nearly all poetry, at least in the west, suffers in comparison with prose fiction, the fact that there are so few translations makes them even stranger and more forbidding – or at least less familiar and easy to talk about. I attest to that personally. It was a new experience for me, as I don’t doubt it would be for most western readers. After decades and decades of reading contemporary poetry, I never heard or read contemporary poetry like Reesom Haile’s or poems by Eritrean poets about war. When I first did, I hardly knew how to describe it, and I knew even less about how to translate it. Reading the translation of an Eritrean short story is different. The content may vary from story to story, language to language, but the form is familiar, accessible, and totally recognizable, even when its viewpoint can seem still foreign and strange, as in “The Girl Who Carried a Gun,” which is also neither negative nor ironic about the experience of being a soldier in a war. 

Thus, “poetry” can be and poetry still “is the answer to war,” but the answer changes. “[P]oetry can tell the truth about war in a way that other forms of language do not,” but the truth changes, too. “[O]ther forms of language” tell it as well, but better or worse, uniquely or not – who can really tell? Also, who can tell how translating and reading more African language poetry as well as poetry – for example, from Gikuyu, Acoli and Swahili in East Africa; from Mandinka, Akan, and Yoruba in West Africa – would affect and change the writing of war poetry in the west?  

Regardless, “the truth about war” according to contemporary Eritrean poets who fight during Eritrea’s revolution compared to “the truth about war” according to an Eritrean woman who similarly fights and writes a short story about an Eritrean woman fighter during the war remains roughly the same. It is sweet and right to die for your country. For them to think differently throughout Eritrea’s thirty year armed struggle for independence, as if such a truth could only be ironic, the nation would not exist. Contrary to a popular bumper sticker in the United States, in Eritrea war is the answer – it is the answer of Eritrea’s poets and writers of prose fiction and nonfiction, too, at least throughout that war. 

Readers of the poems in English translation have been put off by such a conclusion. But it doesn’t seem to have bothered readers of the English translation of the short story. Both the poems and the short story embody an ethic, perhaps also an aesthetic, about war that is, frankly, outdated and objectionable to most English-language and nearly all western readers of more than popular literature. Still, the short story by Haregu Keleta is more popular with them than all the war poetry famous in Eritrea, albeit in Eritrea only, and that I have translated, by Isayas Tsegaye, Solomon Tsehaye, Fessahazion Michael, Ribka Sibhatu, Fessehaye Yohannes, Solomon Drar, Saba Kidane, Paulos Netabay, Mussa Mohammed Adem, Mohammed Osman Kajerai, Mohammed Mahmoud-El-Sheikh (Madani), Ahmed Mohammed Saad, Ahmed Omar Sheikh, and more. 

If they write short stories about war instead of poetry, would this still be the case? Probably not, but like it or not, these poets and their local readers and audience find two propositions like “war is the answer” and “poetry is the answer to war” to be compatible. In the west and much of the world today, neither answer may be considered tolerable, but it is a foundation in the history of poetry out of which our contemporary poetry has emerged and, therefore, an “answer to war” that still should be more familiar than foreign. These Eritrean poets and writers in a tegedelti tradition, the Tigrinya word for Eritrean fighters, echo a tradition embodied in the Latin, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which has been translated for millennia upon millennia and continues to be translated; a tradition that is now extended, again through translation, to include languages and traditions that we have not known before but that we can know if we really do believe that “poetry is the answer to war” – however different the poetry, the answers, and the wars can seem. 

Texts Cited

Ammiel Alcalay, from the warring factions (2002; Los Angeles and New York: re: public / UpSet Press, 2012). 

Charles Cantalupo, Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic, translated & edited, with Ghirmai Negash (Asmara, Eritrea: Hdri Publishers, 2005).

___ War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers 2009). 

___ “Translating African Language Poetry: Is There Enough,” Modern Poetry in Translation 3:16, 119-24. 

___ “Literature, power, translation, and Eritrea,” Journal of Eritrean Studies IV:2, 1-40).  

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Haregu Keleta, “The Girl Who Carried a Gun,” translated by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, Words Without Borders, October 2013.

Horace, III.2, Odes and Epodes, edited and translated by Niall Rudd (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994). 

Semezdin Mehmedinovic, sarajevo blues, translated by Ammiel Alcalay (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1998). 

Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), Melville’s Short Novels, selected and edited by Dan McCall (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2002)

Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1920), The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by C. Day Lewis (New York: New Directions, 1962).

Claudia Moreno Parsons, “Into the Landscape of Humanity,” Warscapes, March 12 2014.

Edgar Allan Poe, “To Helen” (1843), The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 1, The Poems, edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force, translated by Mary McCarthy (Wallingford: Pendle Hill, 1983). 

Charles Cantalupo’s new memoir, Joining Africa – From Anthills to Asmara (Michigan State University Press), documents his years of literary work in the Africa, particularly in Eritrea. His translations include three books of Eritrean poetry, We Have Our Voice:  Selected Poetry of Reesom Haile (Red Sea Press), We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press), and Who Needs a Story? – Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Hdri Publishers). His monograph, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Mkuki na Nyota) analyzes the poetry in Who Needs a Story? With major grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development, Cantalupo co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference and festival devoted to African languages and literatures, held in Asmara, Eritrea. He is the writer and director of the documentary Against All Odds (African Books Collective, 2007) and a co-author of the historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.” Also the author of books on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, on Thomas Hobbes, and two collections of poetry – Anima/l Woman and Other Spirits (Spectacular Diseases) and Light the Lights (Red Sea Press), Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University.