In the late 1970s, a journey of the heart tugged American-born Louisa Calio to Africa to reunite with a young man she’d met and loved several years prior in the US. The two friends shared a connection to Eritrea. He was born in Asmara, considered the “Rome” not only of Eritrea, but of Italy’s total African empire. His was a city built by Sicilians and, as WWII began, more than half of its residents were Italians. Now a different war was ravaging his country. Colonized first by Italy, then by Great Britain, and finally ceded to Ethiopia, Eritrea was then 17 years into a war for independence. Louisa, an Italian-American with Sicilian roots, felt profound empathy for the plight of the refugees fleeing the bombs pummeling their country, just as she still felt a profound pull to her beloved.
In January, 1978, she boarded a plane for Khartoum, where her beloved had gone to assist those displaced Eritreans flooding into Sudanese refugee camps. She was 28. She was traveling alone. She was in love.
In her latest book, this acclaimed prize-winning poet whisks us with her on her transformative journey, snagging us as swiftly as a silk scarf whipped into the desert wind. From her late night arrival at the Khartoum airport and a heart-stopping encounter with the customs and immigration officer who declares her visa invalid, to her flashback to the beginning of her relationship, to her final, reflective, farewell snake dance at the Blue Nile, Calio chronicles the details of her African adventure in 80 pages of lushly rendered poems.
My first glimpse into this extraordinary volume was the poem “Mystery of the Sexes” (pp. 33-34), which opened to me as a gift as I thumbed toward the book’s opening pages. In it, Calio has managed to rival “The Song of Songs,” perhaps the world’s oldest and most famous love poem–one that sprang long ago from that same mother continent.
“I had come to the place in the long view of history,” Calio tells us in her prologue, “where one seeks to better know her own soul and the causes of her story.” She seeks, she finds, and she is never stingy with her intimate thoughts, her intimate feelings, her intimacy itself. Layer by layer, veil by veil, Calio reveals what it is to be the only woman in pants wandering/wondering across a landscape where women are still veiled. Some conceal their essence, “black madonnas” covered head to toe who flee Calio’s approach “like a flock of ravens” since only men may extend her a greeting. Some are more Westernized, casually covered in colorful sheer pastels, draped as though they were decorative scarves. And some wear no veils at all, for it is a time of growing women’s voices in this desert and Calio can feel “the feminine” rising.
The comparison, and the attraction, of opposites figure heavily in Calio’s latest work– colonizer and colonized, white and black, water and desert–as she navigates a distant culture seeking to reconcile these polarities. From the title on, water imagery flows throughout Calio’s depiction of her quest, a theme running like undercurrent sweeping us along. She has come to the juncture of the Two Niles as an archaeologist seeking her ancient truths, the veiled parts of her history. Her journey is ultimately one of reconciliation and enlightenment.
Had Calio written Journey to the Heart Waters as prose, as a memoir, or as an autobiography disguised as a novel, I doubt her story would have as great an impact. Louisa Calio is a master of her craft. The rhythm, the power, the visuals and the viscerals of her spare, evocative words are simply stunning.
Journey to the Heart Waters is available at: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Journey+to+the+Heart+Waters+book