New translations of seventeenth century Ethiopian poems in praise of Saint Walatta Petros, the 'Daughter of Peter'

There’s no way to write a succinct title for the poems highlighted this week – I’m bursting to share news about a newly translated edition of a biography by GalawdewosThe Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman. Edited and translated by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner from the ancient African language of Ge‘ez, this book reveals how Walatta Petros’s life exceeds so many modern clichés about African women. Her biography, and the extant poems written in praise of her sanctity, similarly challenge us not to ignore centuries of indigenous written literature that complement the more familiar oral poetic traditions of griots, izimbongi and the like. Belcher and Klein are not alone. Thanks to scholars like Annette Damayanti LienauAjami, scripts transliterating African vernaculars are gaining more attention, and Ousseina Alidou’s research on women as instructors of an indigenous script in Niger challenge assumptions about gender and literacy.

 But why does this matter for contemporary poetry? In a moment when form is resurgent and under renovation among many contemporary poets, these translations make available two venerable Ethiopian formal genres, the sälam(ta) and the mälke’. Belcher’s website includes poetic translations of two poems in honor of Walatta Petros, with audio of readings in the Ge‘ez original. (The audio link can be found by scrolling down after clicking on "audio"). More detailed scholarship is included in the book). Each poem is composed in a distinctive formal tradition. Imagine what wonderful work in these new forms may be inspired by these 17th century African voices.

Hail to Walatta Petros (translated by Kristin Fogdall) is a sälamtaBelcher explains that this is a type of short hymn “that focuses on the good deeds or spiritual essence of an Ethiopian leader and/or Christian saint. It begins each stanza with the words sälam lä- (peace upon, or hail to).” The form has between six and twelve tercet stanzas, with a long first line followed by two shorter lines or three or four words. The form ends with a four-line stanza. “Hail to Walatta Petros” compares the saint to a garden, a mirror, a light, a walled fortress and more – she embodies transformative beauty and strength and she is implored, in the poem, to raise the prayers and “incense of our song--/with a censer wrought of light!”.

The second poem Portrait of Walatta Petros is a mälke’, “a very old genre of Ethiopian Ge‘ez  poetry, in which the poet praises the [saint] from head to toe, using the saint’s body parts to create an allegory of the saint’s virtues and life.” Unlike the blazon of European sonnet traditions, the mälke’ is narrative, alluding to episodes from the saint’s life in as many as fifty stanzas of lines, but in each stanza the saint’s name must be mentioned. All five lines of each stanza must rhyme with each, for a rhyme scheme of AAAAA, BBBBBB etc. In Derek Gideon’s translation, familiar tropes are quickened by such praises as “Hail to your nostrils, the houses of marvelous scents,” “your elbows, those buttresses,” “your bowels, never knotted with even the least evil,” and even “your ten toenails, that sit well there together.” Meticulous ecstasy.

 Hail to Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner, along with their collaborators, for bringing Walatta Petros and these poems in her honor to readers in English.

* All quotes are from Wendy L. Belcher’s website.