Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the month from this year, click here.

The current book of the month is…

December: Songs We Learn From Trees eds. Chris Beckett & Alemu Tebeje


This month, we’ll be moving in to our new physical space in The Community Works, in the heart of the city centre on Park End St. We share this fantastic new space with a few local organizations and businesses, and hope it will grow to be a real community hub and resource for all sorts of local goings-on. One of our fellow tenants sharing this new space is Lula’s Ethiopian and Eritrean Cuisine, serving delicious traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean food. In light of this, our featured book this month is Songs We Learn from Trees edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje, the first anthology of Ethiopian poetry in English.

A remarkable introduction to poetry written in Amharic (one of the many languages spoken in Ethiopia), this is a varied and accessible collection which captures poetry from across the entire tradition. Beckett and Tebeje are clearly attentive and sensitive in their translations and framing of the poetry. Their preface lays out the traditional styles of Amharic verse: the rhythmic get’em, religious q’ine, and the semena worq form which means “wax and gold”: poems have surface (wax) meaning, wordplay and imagery which obscures the deeper hidden (gold) meaning. These forms and techniques are evident in the collection’s poems, and it is interesting to see how Beckett and Tebeje navigate them in translating these Amharic traits into English.

What makes this collection so particularly striking is the ground it covers: beginning with folk poetry from the oral tradition, the reader gets a feel for the world that these poems are being written in. There are love poems, praise poems, war cries and prophecies, songs of exile, but also more playful moments as in a boast written in the voice of a flea. The latter half of the collection then introduces 20th century poets, reflective, philosophical voices with frequent reflections on what it means to be Ethiopian.

Finally, a large section of the anthology is given to contemporary and diaspora poets. It is striking to see the themes from the former half of the book echoed in these more modern pieces. There are poems on speech and silence, identity and belonging, the landscapes of Addis Ababa. There are also reinterpretations and new stories to tell: new versions of exile and persecution (including a plaintive poem in the voice of victims of the Grenfell fire, and a poet reflecting on ten years spent in a Somali prison). Clear in these poems is the love and pride for a homeland, its landscapes and people. This anthology is an important showcase of these powerful, modern voices and the poetic landscape from which they emerge.

Why not borrow it at our opening weekend on December 4th and 5th? We’ll be open from 11am til 4pm, with lots of books to browse, librarians on hand to give recommendations, and plenty of opportunity to also tuck into some of Lula’s delicious Ethiopian food while you’re there!