Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)
In his evocative memoir artist Eldon Katter made me want to learn to sketch with a pen as well as with words. Katter is able to do both and has been doing so beautifully for the last 50 years or so. He had the foresight to chronicle his time in Ethiopia and his subsequent travels with short poems and line drawings, both his own drawings, and those of his students. Individually they are interesting, and together, the drawings paired with the poems, they are wonderful.
Katter was in the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to go to Ethiopia, and had the good fortune to be assigned to the Teacher Training School in Harar, Ethiopia, along with 19 other Volunteers, “doubling the teaching staff and student enrollment.”
I say good fortune to be posted to Harar, because Harar is endlessly fascinating. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the only walled city in Ethiopia, and now a World Heritage Site. Katter chronicles the unique character of Harar and its people through his poems, his art, and excerpts from his letters home.
He beautifully captures the daunting experience of teaching art to “. . . 525 students, all with names I’ve never heard before.” In his poetry sketches he replicates the experiences of those first Volunteers, pioneers all. He was an experienced teacher when he arrived, a clear benefit.
As thestudents’ first art teacher, supplies were meager to say the least, but he had the wits to focus on drawing with found materials with his students. Part of his gift as a teacher and a chronicler is his receptiveness is to what is new and what is simple. In Simple Pleasures, he observes “the almost unnoticed/Graceful pose of a praying mantis/On my typewriter carriage . . .. A dark valley without electricity/Illuminated by a lightning storm.”
And he has a sense of humor.
He even finds a way to make poems out of two iconic supplies issued by the Peace Corps to Volunteers (at least in those early days), The Book Locker and The Medical Kit.
There is a lot that resonates in Poetry Sketches and at least one entry invoked envy in me. I don’t think many subsequent Volunteers received an engraved invitation from His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, but Katter did:
By command of His Imperial Majesty
Haile Selassie I
Emperor of Ethiopia
The Minister of the Imperial Court
Has the honor to request the attendance of
Mr. Eldon Katter
To a dinner at the Messerate Palace on
Saturday, October 13, 1962
8 o’clock p.m.
I did wonder if Katter arrived in Ethiopia with appropriate black tie attire, but in getting to know him through his sketches, knew he would have figured it out. He goes on to describe the three-hour dinner that included French wine choices and Italian pastries. It’s just as well that by the time I arrived in Ethiopia, Volunteers weren’t being offered “French wine choices.” I wouldn’t have known what to choose, although I feel confident I could have handled the Italian pastries.
There’s more of course. He marries the love of his life Adrienne, also one of those lucky 20 Volunteers in Harar and, as they work and travel around the world in the years that follow, he chronicles their journeys through poetry and art.
The final poem, “An Octogenarian’s Claim” lists and celebrates the simple pleasures of making the most of what matters most:
With dignity at eighty
I’m good enough.
I’m a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.
Reviewer Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67) is primarily a fiction writer, but is currently working on a book about the lack of justice in the multiple criminal justice systems in the United States, based on her 25-year friendship with James Colvin, who has been incarcerated for nearly 50 years.