By David Nilsen
Ethiopian American poet Mahtem Shiferraw won the 2015 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her collection Fuchsia, and the book has been published from University of Nebraska Press as part of the African Poetry Book Series. The book is a vibrant and meandering exploration of Shiferraw’s Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, her experiences as an African immigrant living in America, the interplay of the senses, womanhood, the nature of memory, and the universal language of poetry itself.
The opening poem of Fuchsia is the collection’s title poem, and it sets the tone for the visual intricacies to come, especially with these opening lines:
It’s a deep purple thought;
once it unraveled prematurely
and its tale broke, leaving a faint trail
of rummaging words.
The poem then looks at recollections of Shiferraw’s childhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, memories rich with sensory details–colors, smells, sounds, textures. Even the somewhat gruesome images of her father slaughtering a sheep in their concrete living room are beautiful in their detail. She explains the inseparable relationship between color and memory in her homeland:
If you ask how to say “burgundy” in Tigrinya, you will be told
it’s the color of sheep blood, without the musty smell
of death attached to it. It’s also the color of my hair, dipped
Finally, she offers us a final exuberance of color in describing the hue of the book’s title:
And then, you ask, what is fuchsia–and there’s a faint smile,
a sudden remembrance, an afterthought in hiding, forgotten smells
of wildflowers and days spent in hiding, in disarray.
A few pages later, in “How to Peel Cactus Fruit,” Shiferraw again employs multiple senses in the task of describing the succulent reward beneath the cactus spines.
Then, finally, sink in the teeth
with eyes closed, and the tongue suddenly
tastes seasons, winter, rain, dust, flour, cold,
and the acrid winds of Dahlak deserts.
As in the the opening poem, in which Shiferraw used these colors to paint a textured picture about her childhood and its joys and terrors, she here harnesses the beauty of colors and smells and tastes to speak to deeper truths. Early in the poem, she explains the cool flesh of the fruit “softened the heat / created after the soreness of a / long, silent cry.” She ends the poem by broadening the reach of this salve: “This is what cures war: // the taste of watery fruit / in your mouth of fire.”
In the poem “Synesthesia”–the condition of having one sense triggered by the stimulation of a different sense–colors hold meanings and spill all over Shiferraw’s words. Colors here are memories, fears, people. Colors drip from her childhood, her awakening to the troubles of the world, her adult wounds. There are many meanings in the lines that close the poem:
But listen to black. Listen to
black notes, black heart, listen. Black is art. Not of the artist, the art of
being. The painful art of memory. Here’s to remembering.
Throughout Fuchsia, in the midst of picking up her memories of childhood and family and holding them up to the light to see what colors refract through them, Shiferraw looks farther back to the origins of her country, and of humanity itself. In “E is for Eden,” she tells us “You were made in somebody’s image, / but you have forgotten.” In “Plot Line,” she speaks of the biblical character of Adam, of the tragedy of he and Eve learning shame, and of the disconnection this brought between human hearts. The pursuit of origins and family history is weaved through this collection, and the poet’s national and familial heritage are often intertwined. In “Talks about Race,” she laments:
And how to cradle and contain the disappointment that is
rekindled whenever someone does NOT know
my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.
I don’t know how to fit, adjust myself within new boundaries–
nomads like me, have no place as home, no way of belonging.
She searches for that belonging, and the only place she finds it is in memories and conjectures of family. In “Dear Abahagoy–,” Shiferraw recalls uncles and cousins and other relatives, and makes this pleading statement:
But I come from a family of storytellers
and I’d like to believe
you are still here; if not in me, then in
my mother’s light, in my uncles’ eyes, in my
aunts’ laughter, in my grandmother’s heart.
But please, in me, one can imagine her whispering after this. If the strengths and propensities of her ancestors are found in her aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents, they must certainly be found in this young woman so far from home. There is loneliness in this collection, and pain. Shiferraw writes of the wars and violence of her homeland, the racism we’re still not past in America, the disconnection of being an immigrant, sexual assault, and more, but always underneath it is a connection to where she comes from, both physically and spiritually.
The imagery of the hyena stalks these poems. It is rarely brought out in the open. It hides in the shadows, comes out after dark, steals, kills, nips, taunts. It is the worst of where she’s from, the worst of the world she was born into. In one poem it takes the fattest calf in the night, but usually it is heard laughing, a sonic shiver of fear. At points, it is pitied, almost admired. It seems often to be fear itself. It isn’t the final beast standing in Fuchsia, however. In “A Secret Lull,” the book’s final poem, it is the lion whose voice is heard. It is the voice of the strength of a resilient people, Ethiopia’s children, Africa’s children.
You have been given
the heart of a lion;
this is what happens
before the roar
Shiferraw speaks then to the peace between violence, to mothers dreaming goodness for their children, for children born into a world that contains the sensory beauty she has described throughout the collection and familial heritage and love she has repeatedly referenced as a shelter. The roar of these children from their lion hearts “…is not deafening, or frightening / but a slow rumble growing up from their bellies.” They will overcome the hyenas that will pester and harry them from all sides. She concludes the poem, and the collection, with these poignant words:
Now, who’s to say
their roar’s strength
does not lie in sorrow?
Fuchsia is available now at Greenville Public Library.