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Cantalupo, Charles. War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry, a book review by Marlene De La Cruz-Guzman


"Alewuna Alewuna" or Making Eritrea's Poetry Known: War and Poetry in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry and Charles Cantalupo's 's Seminal Scholarship War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is really a sequel to the most expansive and innovative introduction to Eritrean Poetry in English--an anthology entitled Who Needs a Story: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic--and it is primarily a companion book which provides a valuable multi-pronged approach to literary criticism of Eritrean poetry.


First of all, Cantalupo provides an in-depth personal account of his encounter, study, and translation of contemporary Eritrean poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic. It is a celebration of Eritrean poetry and its emancipation from monolingual confinement and the beginning of a critical literary tradition to form around the poetry of the nation as well as an inventory of the difficulties of capturing such a rich poetic tradition. Secondly, he provides  a very useful material account of the cultural production of a multi-country translation of a three-script/three language book of poetry to be published in Eritrea and abroad with a scarcely known 999 ISBN. It also catalogues the travails of getting it distributed widely on an international commodity market when it was originally produced as an Eritrean product in paper and ink but would soon become an electronic set of digital images--encoded with 0s and 1s to travel across worlds on wires and the air in wireless transmissions--widely available on Amazon and other search engines and easily downloadable for consumption by the digital West.  While this second purpose may be somewhat tangential to many of the readers, it is an excellent primary source of the process of book production in contemporary Eritrea and the ensuing capitalist endeavor of finding international distribution for books emanating from a small, little known African country.


Third, Cantalupo’s book provides the reader with an in-depth analysis of two overriding  themes in Eritrean poetry of the last 30 years: War and Peace. While the analysis of each of these foci along with the variation of War and Peace may seem simplistic,  for a country that launched a 30 year struggle for its mere existence and ensuing independence, these themes encompass most of life's parameters. Therefore, this work “typifies a kind of inseparability of war and peace throughout  Eritrean poetry, the arts and Eritrean life” (xv) just as Martyr’s Day/Independence Day does in contemporary national life.  It tackles life in the uneasy liminal space between the two,--whether it is actually a state of peace with threat of war from Ethiopia, or a state of war with hope for peace or the actual present lull of peace during a ceasefire in the midst of war or a more intellectual state of war with patriarchy while living a civil peace. It yields a most interesting comparison with literature around the globe, for it is universal, Cantalupo argues, in its state of anxiety, hope, and sometimes even normalcy in light of the specter of combat--regardless of whether it is daily, feminist, or nationalist in character--and the ideal quality of the peace whether real, projected, or fully lived in anticipation.


Fourth, Cantalupo provides a clear how-to-chapter on creating literary criticism on contemporary Eritrean poetry by highlighting the work of Reesome Haile and showing young scholars how it is done. This is the knowledgeable work of a poet, translator, and accomplished literary scholar bringing to bear the full extent of his engagement with Eritrea to the analysis of the most internationally acclaimed poet of Eritrea. The choice is natural, for Cantalupo brought Haile much of that acclaim with his translation work on two poetry books of the late author, and Haile’s anchoring inclusion in the anthology he co-edited with Ghirmai Negash. While the book’s primary status is that of a critical secondary work, it is this chapter that anchors it in this tradition although the multi-genre approach of the rest of the book may be more expansive.


Finally, and perhaps most poingnantly, Cantalupo ends the book with “A Reprise” which is in the full sense of the meaning a reprise. It is : a.) a repetition of a phrase or verse. b.) a return to an original theme.  and c.) a recurrence or resumption of an action. In this five page piece, Cantalupo summarizes his experiences in poetic form with the voice of an empowered non-native speaker and poet who embraces the cultural context and lived experience of the poetry of Eritrea and finds a part of his own identity as a scholar woven into the proverbial basket of scholarship about Eritrea produced around the world. It is here that Cantalupo bears his heart as a non-native speaker who translates and recreates poetry in his own native language, English, while never losing sight of the richness and breadth of his editorial counterpart the very talented native speaker, literary scholar, and accomplished poet, Ghirmai Negash, whose contribution is carefully entwined with his own in that basket of scholarship embellished with essential acts of translation, literary criticism, and intricate proposed designs for larger prospects to encompass the neglected oral poetry of Eritrea.


Cantalupo's valuable contribution of making Eritrean poetry accessible to the Anglophone world  is undisputable. Shortcomings are few in this text, for it is the first of its kind. However, it must be noted by this scholar that War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is a second part to Who Needs A Story. It is an essential follow up text in experimental form which makes evident the depth of the former and the new opening for literary scholars to embrace, deconstruct, analyze, and study the poetry of Eritrea. As such it is clearly and concisely written, well-researched and contextualized, historically grounded, placed in a world literature context with strong references to canonical literature in English, and a broad elucidation on a large number of contemporary Eritrean poets. However, this book would have been more honestly titled "Who Needs A Story?. The Commodity: Literary and Critical Production in a Global Literary Market.”


Another shortcoming is that the poetry that Cantalupo cites in its entirety is limited. _ Who Needs A Story, after all, is a different book--with its own ISBN, publisher, distributor, etc.  but it is only from this source that the poetry is taken for analysis in War & Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry. Thus, the poetry cannot be quoted in its entirety, although the valuable literary criticism proferred in this secondary work would have benefited greatly from the reader being able to reference the full poems discussed instead of mere fragments. Only six full poems--in both English translation and the original-- are included in the appendix in War & Peace although the whole of the book centers on Who Needs A Story and necessitates it as a reference. Thus, the main drawback of War & Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is, indeed, that it is inextricably attached to Who Needs A Story.


The poignant honesty of a non-native speaker coordinating a multi-language translation is refreshing, and Cantalupo, the persona in the book, is extremely likable. The modern scholar can easily relate to his struggles, triumphs, and his production.  It must also not be overlooked that this is also a how-to-book for a scholar wishing to do the same work of bringing to international attention the work of indigenous scholars who are not writing in European languages. Thus, Cantalupo’s mixed media book War & Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is in fact a secondary text providing literary criticism, a primary text of Cantalupo’s own poetry, an intellectual autobiographical excerpt, a how-to-book, and a literary and historical overview of the effects of War on Eritrea and its people, as well as a diplomatic masterpiece which navigates admirably well the mines of current Eritrean politics.


In sum, Charles Cantalupo’s War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is an extended meditation on the work of compiling, translating, and interpreting  Who Needs a Story: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic. In other words, it is the outcome of  Cantalupo’s own extended poetic work of translation in conjunction with fellow English professor and Eritrean poet Ghirmai Negash. The work  on this anthology of poetry and the influence of this process on War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is unmistakable. While the former breaks open the cocoon of intelligibility of Eritrean Poetry, which spans nine languages and allows this poetic form to take flight in an international context, Cantalupo’s work in War and Peace actually provides critical and literary insight into the analysis of such poetry and the historical and linguistic context that is so crucial to understanding the ethnically and linguistically diverse poetic production in Eritrea. Thus, in this book, Cantalupo advocates the Socratic premise that an unexamined life is not worth living and selects the work of the poets who examine their lives in verse (76).  In doing so, two generations of survivors go on by using poetry as a guide and to bolster their memories and experiences (55) of times of war and times of peace. Furthermore, Cantalupo exposes the genius of these poets, for he highlights that the story of the individual Eritrean is the story of the whole of Eritrea (114) and every other nation that has fought for freedom and independence.  This extension of relevance and force from the individual to the national to the continental levels is possible because as Cantalupo posits, “the war shatters every other nuance “ (28). Thus, these poets don’t need a story because they have their own, the very same story of their nation, and Cantalupo’s duty and purpose in War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry is “to make them known” (115) because “the poem functions more as an end in itself than as a means to further understanding according  to any kind of philosophical, political or religious outlook (88).  Thus, he has provided the accompanying understanding in this text by making accessible the linguistic,  historical and literary context of the Eritrean poetry he has brought to the world’s attention. 



Cantalupo, Charles. War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, 2009. 178 pages. Paperback.