Devina Shah reviews Ribka Sibhatu’s Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! translated by André Naffis-Sahely, Poetry Translation Centre, 2020.
In Aulò! Aulò! Aulò!, her first book-length publication in English, Eritrean poet Ribka Sibhatu evokes the political landscape of her homeland and mines the terrain of personal memory, presenting a selection of poetry that is immersive in its storytelling, complex at the level of ideas and effortlessly intricate in language and style. Published by the Poetry Translation Centre as part of their World Poet Series, the poems have been translated by André Naffis-Sahely, sometimes directly from Italian originals and in other cases from Sibhatu’s own Italian translations of pieces she originally composed in Amharic and Tigrinya.
The titular ‘Aulò!’ is the Tigrinya term for ‘chant-poem’ and fittingly encapsulates the otherworldly spirit of the fifteen selected poems here, which use myth, folklore, fairy tale, song and lyric as modes and range in form between poetic short stories, prose-poems and free verse. Despite its incantatory name, the book is grounded in real events; Sibhatu’s biography (and that of her home country) infuses her poetry with political anxiety and cultural responsibility.
Born in Asmara in 1962, Sibhatu was falsely imprisoned at the age of seventeen after rejecting a marriage offer from an Ethiopian politician. She fled to a relative’s home and completed her education under an adopted false identity. After marrying a Frenchman she moved to Lyon, later divorcing him and moving to Rome. As an activist-and-artist-in-exile Sibhatu’s preoccupation with the role of the poet as both witness and wanderer is perfectly captured in the poem ‘Word’ which appears exactly halfway through the book. The opening stanza, ‘Holy Word | inscrutable essence | land of the foreign | wandering woman’, portraying her particular poetic landscape as one which is sacred, unknowable and welded with her status as a ‘wandering woman.’
The opening poem, ‘Lampedusa’ is also its most visually and emotionally arresting. Recounting the tragic event of 2013, where a boat carrying 368 refugees sank less than half a mile from the Sicilian island of Lampedusa (a popular entry point for Eritrean refugees), the poem uses both cinematic visuals and elegiac vocals that burst through the page: ‘They set a sail on fire | to signal their distress, and as the flames | began to spread, the most frightened | leapt overboard, tipping the boat over. | Then they were all adrift in the freezing sea!’ The viewpoint shifts like a reportage camera, moving from wide-shot, to mid-shot to close-up, respectively depicting a view of ‘the promised land’ from the barge, the group of refugees struggling in the sea and the searing image of a woman who has just given birth, drowning with her child attached to her via umbilical cord. The lens pans out for its final lines, ‘a tragedy struck the Eritrean people. | One of many they have endured’, the tone mournful, almost deadpan, burdened.
In ‘How African Spirits Were Born’ and ‘The Exact Number of Stars’ Sibhatu uses the poetic fable to communicate the prosaic duties of good governance and skilled kingship. In the former the story of a greedy prince becomes an origin story about evil spirits, the poet locating the spiritual world inside a brazenly political context. In the latter, the genocide of the elderly and their wisdom allows a tyrant to experience a redemption arc – this reader didn’t see that ending coming.
In the prose poem ‘Virginity’ Sibhatu turns a traumatic memory from her youth – that of being trapped into marriage by a ‘a handsome youth and four old men’ who turned up at her house because the original bride ‘had been violated’ – into a painfully absurdist report about the predicament of young women in Eritrea. This fusion of autobiography, political commentary and mournful nostalgia abounds in the rest of the selection, with poems such as ‘Prison Cells’, and ‘My Abebà’, recalling distressing memories to both call back and re-imagine difficult times, a lost homeland and beloved people. Alongside the landscapes of politics and personal memory, there are poems such as ‘The Oasis’ and ‘To the Sycamore’ that hold the geographical features of Sibhatu’s homeland as emotional and psychological refuges.
Traditionally the invocation Şïnşïwai, which translates to ‘I have a story to tell’, opens an aulò. Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! demonstrates Sibhatu’s storytelling gifts across an immense range, whether thematic, tonal or formal. Naffis-Sahely’s translation captures the poet’s intricate weaving of multiple worlds – fable and grounded reality, elegiac and absurd, spiritualised emotion and reportage. Through her poetry she allows us to step into her unique gaze as an artist and activist in self-exile who plays ‘melodies | that shape | the world | to which she belongs.’
– Devina Shah
Devina Shah read English and Modern Languages at Wadham College, Oxford. She is the founder of Quince Magazine, a new online literary and visual arts journal featuring work by writers and artists from around the world. www.quincemag.com