Language’s Power: time travel

In my previous post, Language’s Power: across the universe, I mentioned the power of language to create and transmit images across time and space, a pas de deux between writer and reader. How far back can we travel through time? One of the many inspiring things I encountered in 2016 was some poetry that had its beginnings in the 21st century BCE: a new and utterly gripping translation by Andrew George of the Epic of Gilgamesh along with fragments of other Akkadian and Sumerian poems. What a flood of fascinating images! Interestingly, the ones that have stuck with me are the ones that I can’t resolve because they are are so unfamiliar; as when, in the Old Babylonian poem In those days, in those far-off days, the goddess Inanna takes an uprooted willow from the banks of the Euphrates to plant in her garden:

‘I, the woman, did not plant the tree with my hand, I planted it with my foot.
I, Inanna, did not water the tree with my hand, I watered it with my foot.’

I’m fascinated with this image of the goddess of beauty, love, lust, wisdom and war carefully planting and caring for a tree with her foot rather than her hand. Why? Like Andrea Moro’s lizards not stopping to dream from the previous post, this image was so unexpected that I’m still happily turning it over in my mind months after having encountered it.

Another inscrutable image comes from later in this same poem, after Inanna’s willow tree has matured and been converted into lumber for her ‘pure throne’ and ‘pure bed’ and the roots have been made into playthings for the king, Gilgamesh/Bilgames, that then fall into the netherworld. Bilgames’ servant, Enkidu, goes in search of the king’s toys and remains trapped in the land of the dead. His spirit temporarily returns and gives the king an account of how things are organized in the afterlife in a wonderfully rhythmic and repetitive series of questions and answers:

‘Did you see the man with one son?’
‘I saw him.’
‘How does he fare?’
‘For the peg built into his wall he bitterly laments.’
‘Did you see the man with two sons?’
‘I saw him.’
‘How does he fare?’
‘Seated on two bricks he eats a bread-loaf.’

I can get to the second image with ease but the first is like a little rock in my brain’s pockets – I keep foodling with it, trying to make sense of the peg in the wall and the lamenting man. I wonder what connections sparked to life in the neural networks of those young scribes who copied these poems as part of their lessons, being both readers and writers? Certainly the ‘peg built into his wall’ had some specific sense to them so perhaps an Akkadian scribe would just have passed over it, carefully copying out the cuneiform and looking forward to arriving at the fate of the man with seven sons so that he could stop for a barley-beer break before plowing ahead with sad fates of eunuchs and barren women. I, however, remain standing in the bare, unfurnished room with a peg in the wall, staring in fascination at a solitary, weeping man and I’m (forgive the pun) dying to ask him: ‘so, what’s with the peg?’

Even if you have zero interest in ancient poetry from the fertile crescent, it’s still amazing that we have the possibility, through the diligent work of a vast network of people from the poets who composed and recited the original works to the scribes who recorded them more than four millennia ago to ancient kings who valued culture, like Ashurbanipal, to the archeologists who found and preserved them, to scholars like Andrew George who have deciphered and meticulously translated them. Of course, without interested listeners and readers, much of that work would not have been done at all or have been about as useless as ‘a crack in the floor…filled with dust’.
Are you a poet? Make your mark and send in your ‘clay tablet’– short works and epics equally welcome – IPM 2017 is now open for submissions.
Are you a reader who is ready to take part in the creative network, doing the essential task of responding to and playing with the poets’ images? Go to the upper right of this page and you can sign up for an e-mail subscription.

"Tinker" - copyright Matthew Broussard 2016

By bonniemcclellan

Mother, poet, american ex-pat from Texas living in Northern Italy.


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