post Gebre Kristos Desta

September 14th, 2010

Filed under: Art — Mitiku Adisu @ 22:56

Gebre Kristos Desta
By Mitiku Adisu

I don’t know what recollections my readers have of the late-poet/painter Gebre Kristos Desta [GKD] but I have two of my own. Please indulge me while I recount them.

Abstract painting by Gebre Kristos Desta

I believe I was in fourth grade when suddenly I and a bunch of classmates found ourselves jostling over pieces of yellow colored flyers being thrown into the air by the head teacher. To make it short, I managed to get my copy of GKD’s poem Ye Tteffer ByTawar when a charitable gust flew it right into my arms. True to reality in our part of the world, it was by sheer accident, therefore, that I was introduced to this incredible poet. And I never could forget him after that one incident. I hastened to read the first few lines which I also managed to commit to memory thereafter,

Gmash Qald Alawqm
Mot Endahu Lmoot, baSekond meTogna
enqlf endaRessa zeLalem Ltegna
mangad siTugn saffi …

I care less for half jokes
let me die, die in split-seconds
and fall into an endless sleep like a corpse
make way, broad way, for me…..

I was speechless, and instantly fell for this alien and enchanting intonation of what I thought was a novel perception of reality. I did not yet realize you could do what GKD just did – refuse to abide by traditional parameters and at the same time be true to your own cultural identity. One reading and I could not do it a second time. It was simply too much for a heart of a lad my age and build. May I intimate that it felt like mounting a rocket engine onto a baby Fiat?

The range of emotions the poem evoked at the time was not easy to pin down. But I know it involved an invitation to exploration, a sense of liberation and danger, longing, and fear of the unknown. I folded the poem and quietly stuck it within the pages of my textbook. For all I remember I did not need to open to those pages every time I wanted a lick; often just thinking about it did the job for me. A [yellow] hiss here. Folded. A [yellow] sigh there. “mangad siTugn saffi… mangad siTugn saffi”, it hissed and sighed.

Eight or so years later, I was at the Commercial Bank near the National Theatre waiting for a friend draw some cash. Once again, for the second time, a friend pointed out the poet/painter to me in real time and in real life. GKD was in sanforized khaki shirt and pants ceaselessly scribbling on the back of a bank slip standing to the side of the teller’s window. Pretending to be waiting in line I had my protruding and almost bursting eyes trained on his swift hands but all I could make out was lines lines more lines angry lines confused lines crazy lines… alien lines alighting on fast shrinking space. These must have been the tell-tale signs for a man who had rendezvous with death for he did not to live to be fifty [1932 – 1981]. What struck me watching him that day was the white spots on his hands and his face which I later learned were the result of a rare skin disease. [Were the spots battle scars caused by the Arts and the Sciences dueling over his soul?](1) And the crazy lines? These I was told were the warp and woof of the Abstract painter. I had no clue what Abstract painting was or could figure out why someone did not simply copy Nature without complicating an already complex and mystery-ridden life. Alas, I could not muster the courage to get closer to shake hands or talk with him; and that was to be the last time I would see him. Talk of missed opportunity! [“Missed opportunity” being the moniker for every educated Ethiopian 45 years of age and above.] The interesting thing is that I was able, with little luck, to ransack discussion forums and the blogosphere for few GKD poems. And just recently I came across a bundle neatly compiled by Amha Asfaw(2) [himself a prolific writer, poet and translator]. What struck me this time is the poet/painter’s preoccupation with death – certainly, a subject for another day. For now I take it we’ve become fast friends already through this brief recollection. And so, without further ado, I leave you with my rendering into English of Ya Tteffer ByTawar.(3)

The Alien(4)
I care less for half jokes
let me die, die in split-seconds
and fall into an endless sleep like a corpse
make way, broad way, for me
so I can move from end to end
with the speed of light, let me go past [galactic] worlds
and be sun, radiant sun, all-illumining, like the firmaments of God,(5) let me
be a volcano, a molten lava, its ashes, flood, flood of fire
intense, a million-, nay, a billion-fold
Make way, make me a broad way
let me move in darkness, in black, pitch-black darkness, where eye sees nothing, to still regions where
time is motionless, to airless, endless empty caverns
let me flutter and survey it all … for me the star is a plaything
A piece of earth, I write about earth, on black paper, on parchment of sky
as I glide recharging with celestial spark
I move and move and ransack(6) the heavens, storm bolted gates
Till non-being comes into being, silence woken
With huge strides I move
From earth to moon to star, from world to world
I move and move and create
I make the sun my habitat,
Let me burn a million- , aye, a billion-fold than Seol, and a million more than flames of Gehanam
make way, make a broad way for me…


Happy Ethiopian New Year September 11, 2010/ Maskaram 1. 2003

Translation Copyright by Mitiku Adisu, August 2010 All rights reserved


(1) GKD joined the University College [later Haileselassie I University] to study Agricultural Sciences but changed course two years later to pursue his life’s passion; the rare disease struck thereabouts.

(2) I suggest readers contact Amha Asfaw for more information. Appreciations to Amha for compiling the poems for public use.

(3) The Amharic version [as altered] is included. My recollection is  ‘indehu‘ not ‘indihu’; ‘bet‘ not ‘beten’, …For some reason I had always thought the title to the poem was ‘Menged Situgn Sefi‘ … Not ‘Yetefer Baytewar‘ or ‘Yetefer Mirkogna’. More research is needed to clear the confusion.

(4) Flow, faithfulness to the poet and his culture and avoiding excessive literalism were considerations that governed this translation.

(5) The phrase approximates Tsiriha Ariam the highest seat of power, the very Throne of God.

(6) Attests to the poet’s determination and his insatiable desire to unlock mysteries.


  1. That was an enriching view in to the very soul of this great painter and poet. Your view helped me to understand and respect him even more. Thank you.

    Comment by Fitsum Ts — 15. September 2010 @ 09:30

  2. wow

    Comment by tsed tsfaya — 17. March 2013 @ 15:32

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