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Songs of Life – A Load of Enjoyable Poetry

“Love is blind,” people often say, whatever they mean. “Love is not physically challenged,” writes Ms. Selam Kidane Woldu, a young female Eritrean poet. No love is blind, Selam Kidane argues back. “It has eyes, /hands /And Feet.”

If poets see observe, and think in the same way as most of us do, and come to the same conclusions as most of us have reached, then, I don’t think, they can truly be called poets. Who wants his or her ideas echoed back to him or her? He or she has them already.


Poets see truths that are not revealed to us, and observe things hidden from our views. Due to their position as thinkers, poets are viewed with by society and may be thought of as crazy, who see things that are not there. As a result of their unique observations, they hold unique truths, which are not often shared by the rest of us, and for this reason poets come into conflict with society, which they want to influence and change. Most certainly, Ms. Selam Kidane Woldu doesn’t see and think like most of us.

Ms. Selam Kidane was a medical student when she published “Songs of Life,” a collection of poems in English in 2015. “Songs of Life” is a small book, with big ideas and deep thoughts. It makes readers think about the issues it raises. It is impossible for people to read and not be influenced by the thoughts the poet shares with us, which I think is the hallmark of great poetry.

Using biblical allusions and, to a certain extent, popular western fairy stories, Ms. Selam writes about issues such as dreams, hope and despair, love, life and death, relationships, jealousy, and other human desires and emotions.

Most of her poems are very short but so interesting that one feels one is given a delicious piece of cake, which one enjoys and relishes so much that one wishes the cake were a little bigger. A number of the poems are four or less lines, such as the following poem: “When weeds grow in your garden, /Then your eyes open, / To see a forest, / A sight that is greater than a mere garden.”

Some of the poems raise important issues and show us the kind of society in which we live. In one poem, “Paying the dower,” Ms. Selam writes about the dowry system. In this poem, the parent of a young woman has to ‘bribe’ her or his future son-in-law so that the young man may marry his or her daughter. Ms. Selam gives her poem such a twist that we see the injustice of the dowry system still common in the Tigrigna culture. It is natural, especially for women, to feel the injustice of this practice, which yokes women to a marriage that undermines their worth and whose foundation is a shaky ground.

“My daughter is more than a jewel.
For her hand they scrabble
Like hyenas over a bone.
When I found one with pure blood
I said – you can have my daughter.
His family came together –
And they keep saying that the scale is not right
Your daughter is not enough
Add a few thousand to make the scale right.
I raised a daughter
And I am paying him to take her.” (Songs of Life, 72)

But, Ms. Selam doesn’t just question the society we live in. She also asks us to see ourselves, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our values. In “Betraying the dark roots”, which reminds us of Okot p’Bitek’s “Song of Lawino,” she writes about a man who wants to be and lives like a white man. “Try as I might to erase the dark/ Every sunset found me / Unmarred with white – Brown and black.”

Ms. Selam even goes further and doesn’t stop at exposing society or individuals, and shows us our problems may be with our way of perceiving. She invites us to inspect our vision, our way of seeing critically, and correct our vision if we find something wrong with it. In “Optic” she does this.

“I eye the eye
To observe the world that revolves around me
I eye the eye
Does it look out?
Or does it let the world –
Outside have a glimpse of the inside?
I eye the eye
To see if my lenses are befogged
My window is dirty and –
My mark is not steady.
I eye the eye
If the view is obscured
If the sight I perceive
Is an illusion only
And my eye is belying me.
I eye the eye
To see
If – I can trust the sight that I see.” (Songs of Life, 37-38).

In other poems, such as “Sententious”, she exposes no views or unjust practices or customs but just describes and shares with us her observation about life. Taking the biblical story of Eden, she observes that whether we like it or not life is a choice.

“The choices we have to make
The turns we have to take
The days spent pondering
Which boxes to check
Even no choice is a choice in the end.
Life is a garden
With a tree in its center
Whether or not to eat the forbidden fruit.” (Songs of Life, 41)

I could go on and list and discuss many more poems and show how beautifully Ms. Selam has written about different issues. Each poem is more beautiful than the other and one derives as much pleasure out of one poem as out of the next or the one before it. I cannot say which poem is my most favorite because I can mention a number of them, which I liked tremendously. Though I don’t know why, I like this short poem, “Dreams that fly”, much more than the others.

“There are dreams that fly
Like Birds,
They circle the earth
Searching for willing nests.” (Songs of Life, 24).

Reading “Songs of Life” for the first time, I was so impressed that I wished the poems were written in Tigrigna, the poet’s mother tongue.

To be honest, as a bilingual, I sometimes have a dilemma, which language to use to express my thoughts. Sometimes I observe myself writing in English, and not in Tigrigna. If I try to say the same thing in the other language often it is not as successful, and I find out that I am unable to express the same thoughts as effectively as I did in the other language. Sometimes, I could find no words in English, which is a foreign language to me, which I can express myself in Tigrigna without difficulty.

I know people have different reasons why  they want to write in this and not in that language. One reason could be the question of audience. If an Eritrean writes in English it is obvious that more people will read his or her works. However, that decision automatically excludes other readers, especially Eritrean readers, whose mastery of English is not good. It is true people who write in English have bigger readerships, and the chances of the book selling in big numbers is greatly multiplied, especially if the author is able to penetrate the international market. Obviously, it makes sense to use English or widely spoken languages if a bigger audience and, therefore, a bigger market, is the writer’s number one goal. If, however, money is not the writer’s foremost goal but instead to have a family conversation, a family chat, to communicate and share ideas with those closest to the writer it makes a lot of sense for the writer to use their language in the conversation. You as a writer, share your thoughts and they benefit from your wisdom and they may, in turn, comment on and enrich your understanding of the issues you have raised. Seen in this light, if Ms. Selam had used Tigrigna, her mother tongue, though she would have faced the danger of not being read widely, she would certainly have added to our wealth of Tigrigna literature.

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