Gilgamesh: carved in stone

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines

It’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down.

gilgameshIt’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down. The tale spread throughout the Middle East, and the version we have today has been reconstructed from Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian translations.

The discovery of the poem is a story in itself. Gilgamesh lay lost for thousands of years, until in 1839 a young Englishman, Austen Henry Laynard, unearthed the buried library of Nineveh. But it wasn’t until 1872, when George Smith announced that he had discovered among the tablets an account of the Old Testament flood, that the importance of the discovery was fully understood. Since then many more tablets have been found and reassembled, the pieces of which sometimes, due to various expeditions, ended up on different continents.

The cycle of poems centres on Gilgamesh, the (two-thirds god, one-third human) tyrannical ruler of the walled city of Uruk. At the poem’s opening, Gilgamesh has angered his subjects by insisting on his royal right to the first night with any Uruk bride. So to appease the people and distract the king, the gods create from clay a companion for Gilgamesh — a “strong man from the wastelands” who is named Enkidu. The two become friends, despite an initial squabble, and they set out on a series of adventures, encountering among other things heavenly seductions and cosmological battles.

But it is the death of Enkidu that arouses Gilgamesh’s latent humanity and leads to one of literature’s most despairing laments. Here’s a taste from Derrek Hines’s version: “This blorting thing I am; this broken hive swarmed with grief. Yet absurdly, dawn clatters up its ramshackle geometry to erect the city again; a butterfly limbers in its warmth”.

Which leads to the topic of translation. Today we are awash in an abundance of translated texts that would have been the envy of many earlier readers. The classics of every age and every culture — or at least those that have survived the hazards of time — are freely available in all kinds of versions. Successful translations of our time include Christopher Logues’s Iliad, Ted Hughes’s Ovid and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

For The Epic of Gilgamesh, translations range from productions of outstanding scholarship (such as Andrew George’s), to prose translations that privilege meaning over poetics (such as NK Sandar’s); all the way through to adaptations and reworkings of non-specialist enthusiasts, some of whom can also be very scholarly in their approach. Derrek Hines’s Gilgamesh falls into this last category.

Hines’s poetic adaptation uses all the conventions of contemporary free verse. At best his verse is studded with breathtaking pyrotechnics and resounds with genuine sentiment. Here’s an example from a section titled “The Humbaba Campaign” in which a soldier describes a battlefield:

… dying into grass; all those souls whistling
past our heads, homewards.

Beautiful. Or one of my favourite stanzas in which Enkidu is initiated by the “sacred harlot” Shamhat into the “civilised” ways of women:

After seven nights of love,
as a man might,
Enkidu lost his understanding of animal speech.
But it was a fair trade.

Working on the premise that every generation must translate the classics for itself, Hines has set out to “recapture for the modern reader some of the vigour and excitement the original audience must have felt”. Hines’s text is strewn with contemporary idioms and references to modern technology: he talks about “tram rails”, “X-rays”, and “submarines”. Manhattan becomes a metaphor for Uruk, and accordingly Hines talks about a “Niagra of fear” and describes a fight in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu “topple into each other like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings”.

In a 5000-year-old story, this sort of contemporising is no small matter. I can imagine an argument in which it makes perfect sense. No doubt it would rely on a postmodern view of time – something like Robert Bly’s idea that “after the industrial revolution all things happen at once” or similarly that the past is embedded in the present. But for more traditional readers like me, Hines’s anachronisms are distracting.

The Epic of Gilgamesh needs none of it. It speaks to the modern reader, not through high-tech metaphors but through its themes of friendship and love and the doomed search for immortality. From Uta-napishti (the Sumerian Noah), Gilgamesh learns the brutal lesson of time: that there is no permanence. It sounds simple but, as Hines’s narrator asks, “who can console us for dying?”

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines was first published in The Courier-Mail (9 Mar 2002): BAM 7.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2008

The editor of this volume, David Brooks, has included work from many poets who have not appeared before and his distinctive “take” on contemporary poetry (he has been an editor of the venerable journal, Southerly, since 2000) has resulted in a deeply satisfying collection. Brooks’s most recent poetry has been a poetry of experience, passion and momentary distillations into meaning or action, and one senses something of this in his selection.

Guest Editor: David BrooksGuest editor: David Brooks
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The sixth collection in our series is another reminder of the richness of contemporary poetry in Australia and the fact that this richness can only be adequately sampled by different editors who each bring their own perspectives to the scene. The editor of this volume, David Brooks, has included work from many poets who have not appeared before and his distinctive “take” on contemporary poetry (he has been an editor of the venerable journal, Southerly, since 2000) has resulted in a deeply satisfying collection.

This is not the place to launch into a full-scale description of Brooks’s writing, but it is worth noting that his high reputation as a writer of elegant short stories, his extensive academic/critical work, and a Miles Franklin shortlisted novel have, for a long while, obscured his status as a poet. His first book, The Cold Front, was published twenty-five years ago and the title of his second, Walking to Point Clear: Poems 1983-2002 reveals that, although his fiction and criticism might have been better known, he has never stopped being a poet.

Now, with the publication of his fourth book of poetry imminent, readers will be able to see the results of an extended commitment in better perspective. To summarise some of the results of this perspective, one can see that his early poetry was infused with the influence of contemporary US poets such as Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly. His third book, on the other hand, was filled with poems of energy and intensity, suggesting the presence of a figure more like Bruce Beaver. It would be fascinating to trace the consistencies that underlie such radically different sorts of poems but, for this anthology, it is worth focussing on a sense of poetry as intensely embedded in life itself. Brooks’s most recent poetry has been a poetry of experience, passion and momentary distillations into meaning or action, and one senses something of this in his selection.

One of the reasons for the high number of new poets may, of course, be the fact that Brooks has been able to include poems from sources not available to previous editors: as we flagged last year, this year we would begin to include on-line journals such as Jacket and Cordite in our catchment area. That was not an easy decision though many of our reservations (on-line journals often contain previously published work etc) may have been no more than the prejudices of essentially print-based editors.

Reading Brooks’s selection (and yielding momentarily to the cliché that the internet is especially good at doing the fleetingly present) one is reminded of poetry’s power to give us some kind of impression of life as it is in the process of being lived. There is a dangerous metaphor which hovers in the background here, but the word “capture” is far too simplistic to give any sense of the complex possibilities of what is happening when poetry sets out to engage the everyday.

It is amazing how many of these poems are filled with the sense of “Here I am” or “I am doing this” – in Jennifer Maiden’s case: “So, here / I am in bed with one silk sheet – / a Chinatown bargain – rippling its water / on my legs”. But the ways in which this kind of poetry engages with the world are almost endless in their variety: there is all the difference in the world between, say, Michael Aiken’s “Victoria Street, Darlinghurst” and Robert Kenny’s “An Australian Suburban Garden” – both, interestingly, appearing in on-line journals. In the former the poet, as recording eye, limits himself to what he can see and hear but the results are structured so that we see a picture of animals alive and dead framed by pictures of humans, all involved in motion. In Kenny’s poem, we are taken much closer to the way that the mind travels while the body stands (or, in this case, sits) still. And Kenny’s mind, being what it is, travels continuously to literary and artistic references. Although Kathryn Lomer’s complex double sestina, “The Fencer and His Mate” and Jan Owen’s “Boat Harbour Beach” are both portraits rather than slabs of reality, they are portraits of what can be seen from a specific vantage point: in the latter case, men seen while the poet is writing. The connection between writer and workmen is wryly stated: “all of us trying to move the earth”. The men, so acutely observed, are figures in a landscape and we sense that they are figures which just happen to impinge on the poet’s consciousness.

Tass Holmes’ “Mum’s Taxi”, Sarah Tiffen’s “Rain Event in the Whispering Country” record the experience of living, in the latter case with a good deal of rhapsody. In both these poems, as in Ross Clark’s “Full-Bucket Moon”, reality is not left entirely to its own devices when it comes to representing itself. Mythic structures hover in the background. The life of the family of “Mum’s Taxi” is lived “in a rain-shadow on the side of a recumbent woman-mountain” (I thought, the first time that I read this poem in its journal, that “Under the Mountain” might have been a better title) and both the Clark and the Tiffen almost dissolve in their own mythic structures.

Other poems are portraits. But even Brook Emery’s “In the Hollow of a Wave”, which is a complexly organised portrait of Bondi Beach, is attuned to the way in which life is lived: here the ever present waves represent the continuous unfolding of the phenomenal world. In John Kinsella”s “Imitation Spatiologue (Sublime)” the fury of being harassed by “the ski-boat fraternity” on their way to a lake spins out into complex analyses of the formation of the lake itself. On a lighter note, John Jenkins “Dad Says” is a kind of portrait of life lived in popular sayings. On one level it is a portrait of a language – a recording of a specific language – but it can just as well be described as a poem in which these tart clichés determine how we experience life. In Geoffrey Lehmann’s “Self-Portrait at 62” the author defines himself not by analysis but by letting us see what he does. Here the implied structures are not mythic but poetic and the poem concludes by redefining poetry:

Poetry is incidental. / I am my poem.