(Poem) Eritrea My Ithaca by Louisa Calio

Kassu Tsadik.  Photo credit:  Louisa Calio
Kassu Tsadik.
Photo credit: Louisa Calio

(For Kassu Tsadik, courageous Eritrean mother)


Khartoum Telatta, a refugee camp (1978)

Weeks pass,

and the young men and I grow closer.

We visit refugee camps regularly,

and on one particularly bright day,

a day when people and objects

appear closer and more luminous,

we meet an old and beautiful Eritrean woman.


In the purple light of dusk we sit

inside a small concrete hovel

sipping the thick sweet coffee she offers.

Still wearing the traditional pristine, white muslin dress

and veil of her ancestors, she appears

insular and separate from external surroundings;

I watch as she moves gracefully, despite the confinement

to joyfully scoop the dark coffee beans into a small

black iron pan she roasts over a charcoal flame,

making a fresh pot for each round of servings.

She smiles warmly as I ingest the delicious aromatic brew.

Her hospitality and generosity have remained,

even under these circumstances

the simple ritual we share binds her to me

and to all those who have stayed compassionate

while living in hell and under fire.

Although we cannot speak a common language,

when it’s time to leave,

these words come to me in a deep impress:

Fix your eyes on a thousand, thousand stars

in the black dome of sky,

stars that do not shine, but spit hell fire.

Look on the sweet earth,

parting, exploding,

earth our fathers worked with sweat.

Look, but don’t walk on it

It may become your gravesite tonight!

See the flowers, rose petals,

Only thorns are left.

This is my song today, yes.

Think of those you love dearly

Now think of losing them, multiply this 4 million times

And surely your loss will have touched mine

My name is Eritrea; my name is South Africa, Somalia, Iraq

my name is America, before and after the European…

I am an Eritrean, although I was told by your country, I am to be Ethiopian. I am sure you were not told of this.

The scars of many tears cover my face

—my struggle an endless battle cry.

Was my beauty the cause of this

or the buried treasures within that attracted so many of them

Italian, Turk, Arab and Greek? Too many to name

have come and ravished me. Taking, taking so much greed!

How I would prefer to speak to you

of our customs and dress

The netsala women wear covers my head

The table we set is seated with eight

-we share one plate.

Our land is also shared – divided by lot

We are many kinds of people and speak many languages.

How I long to tell you of our cool highlands

our capital Asmara- as it was…

our desert, touched by the Red Sea

the sea that led Moses to freedom

shall see freedom in me

Red, red now with the blood of my children.


Wars are interminable separations

My children are all refugees or dead

Who will pay this blood debt?

We are still fighting the wars of possessions:

my gods, your gods, my land, your land, my race, your race.

We remain locked in the jaws of separation

each regretful act justified by past dreadful deeds

ever recreating the patterning of pain.

We are not yet making unity; we are not yet making peace.

Each branch of learning remains at war

as we remain caught in contradictions.

Today I will call myself human being

will you join me?

All of the colors make one light

why stay in the dark?

The speed of light is very great

Just imagine where we could be!

We each need the same basic things:

a blazing sun, a golden glow around everyone,

enough to live, enough to eat, to love.

There seem to be many paths before us,

but all the paths really divide into two.

Which will you take?

The glitter of fool’s gold has been

a false light for far too long.


From Journey to the Heart Waters by Louisa Calio, published by Legas Press (October 2014) Write P.O. Box 149 Mineola LI NY 11501 att: Gaetano Cipolla. Or Amazon.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Louisa Calio.