A Woman in Ethiopia – Ethiopia Observer

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Douglas Oliver (1937-2000) was a British poet known for his international conscience with a substantial reputation in the late 1980s and 1990s, finding a larger audience for his socially-committed poetry. The following poem, A Woman in Ethiopia appeared in the collection A Salvo for Africa (2000) and was written through the device of a lens. “The lens acts as a reminder that the western male gaze always objectifies women and in the framing of African women there is a greater removal and increased risk of constructing fantasy,” writes a critic. Although written from the perspective of an outsider, the work contains a remarkable amount of sensual detail.

A Woman in Ethiopa

Through the telescope’s smoking lens
I see a woman rising in her heat of limbs
from the red desert of Ethiopia;
a priest above her holds a cross
and reads from a dark book: she doesn’t
think of me though I think of her intently
and watch the bitter smoke of her sweet fires
making haze round a claystack chimney lodged
in thatch on her circular house of stones.

I speak her country’s name but my blazed trail
gives out in this interior. The woman’s mood
remains mysterious as she rises. If it’s joy,
it has nothing to say but ‘Join us’; but I can’t
walk beside her child (wearing a Baltimore
Orioles ’cheater) across old battlegrounds
to the well. He secretes a social closeness
born in the swift mood below the rib-cage,
behind the forehead, under the swollen belly.

Often the insubstantial passing thing
counts – myself at a dance passing by my former
lover’s dress now topped by a baseball jacket –
deserts spread in certain of my memories,
trivial compared with these red hills of Ethiopia
eroded by farm failures of the dispossessed,
coniferous forest of zigba and tid, disappeared,
coffee bush brittle twigged, cattle bony
on the shoulder, malaria in the lower plains.

I’ve spoken the country, can’t count its secret joy,
interior of stones mottled with cooking tar,
misted by cobwebs, a woman rising
in her heat, walking towards the inner place
of celebration, the wrested feet of a pullet
no longer dusty, bones thrown into leaden water,
some joyful mood my melancholy can’t infect;
there’s bubbling within the door shadows
for the unnamed occasion. Shame’s my borderline,

since, however far I go, I won’t get hungrier,
and poverty has stages I shall never know.
They tie the gut in ivory knots; a little boy
can only waddle with his belly or a girl
lying in mama’s arms hurl all her heart
into her yelling. The tourists curve out of these
deserts and emerge on blinding shores,
where eyesight swivels, dragging sheets of light
too sparkling to match our own dull hearts to.

A woman rises from a stool this morning/night.

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