This month, Guest Reviewer Rehaana Manek continues our deep dive into the Eight New Generation African Poets.
Libsekal writes as though she has witnessed. Witnessed violence, witnessed empathy, witnessed intimacy and has witnessed the bearing of heavy things. Chris Abani, in the preface of the anthology, he calls the anthologized poets “curators of our humanity” (12). Like a lyrical curator, Libsekal’s lines and form read like sheet music. She illustrates relationship in rhythm, describes a lineage both personal and political through tempo and pulls you into a chronicle of loss, longing, nostalgia and history through beat. She positions her work through this witnessing and it becomes very gendered, as ‘masculine’ sounds and images are contrasted with stories described through ‘feminine’ voice and experience.
When I was young, and my English teacher asked us to tear poetry apart into the building blocks of a narrative, I always, always hated it. I never knew how I was supposed to see through the eyes of a writer and try to understand what they “meant”. In my mind, meaning in poetry is more about affect, than definition. And in Liyou Libsekal’s chapbook Bearing Heavy Things, part of the Eight New Generation African Poets collection, affect certainly abounds. Libsekal’s words are deep and thick, and reading made me feel as though I was swimming in feeling, emotion and nostalgia for a world I don’t even know.
“I left Africa carrying my skin.”
Read these words once over again, and their weight begins to bear.
Gabeba Baderoon’s preface to the book connects Libsekal’s backstory to her work, her travels and her experience. She notes that Libsekal’s poems are “intensely aware of the effect of their lines” (4). This observation sees the lines, intersections and connections of history, travel, displacement, relationships and family in Libsekal’s words and her clear use of these connections, which build into furrows that link every piece in her collection. Baderoon’s study of her work picks up on this affective note, sourcing out sounds, postures, nervous guns, acts of violence and defiant bodies. She notes Libsekal’s use of the body to tell stories of resistance and liberation, freedom and defiance: “Indeed, in the poems, the body carries intimations of politics and injustice” (5).
But my moment of greatest connection with Baderoon’s preface is when she speaks of “the intimacy of empathy” that Libsekal offers us. Although the poems and the preface are not indistinguishable, it was worth it, for me, to read them together. Baderoon’s impressions here are insightful and helped me to make clear many of the volume of thoughts, feelings, and ideas that came into my head as I read the collection; this note on empathy being the most significant. Baderoon says, “Illustrating the promise and confronting the risks that come with its gifts of close observation, deep sense of justice, and formal poise, the finely crafted poems in Bearing Heavy Things move from an intimate scale toward a wide compass of witnessing and empathy” (6). Libsekal’s gift for offering us empathy in rich description is evidenced in every single poem, adding gravitas and glow.
In “To Live Gently,” Libsekal’s words are thick with image and description:
“a mind congested”
“nestle them in a womb of pages forever promised”
“a heart fresh with holes”
Here she layers these images of abundance and density and contrast and consequence. “In the Voice of our Skin,” seems aggressive and forceful, the opening line
“Why do you call yourself Ethiop/as though you had been nameless?”
I imagine a young woman experiencing the refusal and acceptance of identity and knowing the self through history. As an artist Libsekal paints an image of a moment in “Vanquishing Visions,” where “stone incense smoke” evokes an Africa of some other time, of a certain imagined-ness, of coloniality and orientalization that has been constructed by the colonizer for what Africa should be like for the rest of the world. Like this violence,
“she throws lifelines/to drain marrow from our bones.”
Libsekal is a master of feeling, eliciting thick emotion with lines like
“And everything pours out of my ribs”
(“As a Child I Practiced Walking with my Eyes Closed”),
“squeezing ears ready to split wild
of gunshots hailing an end to terrors red
twenty-three times three six five
etched into strands/into pores of even hands”
(My Father Calls me Bibish”),
“I was born to a woman whose hands are washed with ritual,”
“this, always with translucent crowns on blushing fingertips”
(“Childhood was Mud-Play and Dirty Fingernails”).
Libsekal pulls you into a powerful whirlwind of “potent text” (“To Live Gently”), and while reading it you feel a sense of the bearing of heavy things, of the weight of told stories, and described narratives. Her poetry feels grounded in tactile emotion rooted in and experienced; it describes to me a life lived in witnessing, and that witnessing has emerged as weighted, passionate, empathetic, and ardent words.
In “Bearing Heavy Things” she describes for you a moment of loss and change, of tradition and the fickleness of family and chance. In “Agar*,” I could not stop seeing yellow flowers and curving hills, though it speaks of a
“Mounted proud ‘young mother’ in eyes mourning a daughter left behind”.
“When uninspired the Poet Chases Storms” felt like Libsekal herself had peeled open my ribcage and had seen my softness:
“My mother says I shouldn’t tempt fate
I tell her I dig holes to find my roots
before my cells soften and settle
between the kind walls of grass tissue”.
With Libsekal “I dreamt we were made of sand” (“Regrets as long as Fishing Lines”), I “lived in a storm” (List of Things Youth Outgrew”), and I have “come by smelling of rain” (“Because I’ve Learned not to Pick at Scabs”).
Libsekal ends with “Choice”. Both literally and figuratively as her last piece, and her final words echo inside me as I think that they were meant to resound; like they were told to me from inside of a drum:
“If you love and dream you will bury harsh words under solid stone
and feed them inside the brave bones of weak flesh that wants only life.”
Rehaana Manek is an artist, writer, and PhD student in Anthropology at York University. Her research focuses on youth, politics and art in the City, and the ways in which race and creative mediums of expression intersect and open up opportunities for political engagement. She also does work in Youth and Education in Toronto.
Liyou Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet. A graduate of George Washington University, she was the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize.