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Gilgamesh Retold Jenny Lewis. Carcanet ISBN: 9781784106140 £12.99. Paperback. . (Available also as an audiobook (Audible). ISBN 9781784108779 £14.99).
It would hard to underestimate the importance of The Epic of Gilgameshand not to be in awe of the scholarship that has established something approaching a standard text since archaeologists discovered it on a set of twelve clay tablets in 1853. The most comprehensive version is written in the ancient semitic language Akkadian. It predates the earliest books of the Old Testament and is several centuries older than Homer. However, this text is itself based on earlier versions written in Sumerian that go back beyond the second millennium BC. Moreover, scholars are constantly discovering new clay tablets with further fragments of the story, which are often based on significantly different versions arising from an extensive oral tradition. Thus, there is no absolutely canonical version of The Epic of Gilgamesh as there is, say, for the Iliad or the earliest biblical texts. In her Afterword, Lewis explains the ways in which she has attempted to engage with this body of material and, as is implied in her title, Gilgamesh Retold, has written a ‘response’ rather than a strict ‘translation’.
Nevertheless, those readers familiar with the tale from other editions will recognize its broad outline. Moreover, in a variety of verse forms, Lewis has written a poem that is engaging, brisk and reader-friendly. It is likely that many an assiduous student of literature has found it pretty hard going to make much headway through some of the more academic translations that are like the ruins of an ancient city, where at every turn one is interrupted by footnotes, lacunae, conjectures. This is not in any way to underestimate their importance, but they are not always the easiest of reads. Of necessity, Lewis, like the earliest interpreters of this legend, has had to adapt and reconstruct it, while remaining true to its spirit.
In the Prologue, Lewis presents the bare bones of the story in that emphatic alliterative metre that is familiar to us from Anglo-Saxon verse, which is itself the original source of poetry in our own language:
He sensed secrets guarded by gods wandered wide told a tale dreaded death longed for light found and lost his first love.
Once the reader is drawn in, the pace does not slacken as we follow the adventures of Gilgamesh, a great but flawed king, and his companion Enkidu. The narrative itself is gripping, but what is truly remarkable is how universal its themes are and how relevant they are to us today. Much of Western literature can be traced back to these themes: the responsibilities of power, self-aggrandisement and hubris, personal growth gained through suffering, the relations between the sexes, nature and civilisation. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest recognizable great work of literature and one which has informed much that has come after it via the influence of the Greeks and Hebrews.
Gilgamesh, whose legend is based on the life of an historical king, is first presented as a man who is privy to great knowledge but one who is wilful and abuses his power:
A hurricane moved / the mind of Gilgamesh Tornado of tantrums / he shattered the city Even his mother / veiled her face Even the gods / were goaded to gall.
In order to guide him along a path leading to wisdom, the Goddess Arura creates Enkidu, ‘a wild man from spit and mud.’ It will be Enkidu’s task ‘to tame him.’ Enkidu is first seen as a force of nature and in total harmony with it:
Out of the silence / out of the sunlight Out of the shadows / that carpet the forest Stepped a man, beautiful / strong like an eagle Stepped a man, godlike / lithe as a lion.
It is particularly fascinating that a legend going back to the growth of cities and the birth of civilisation is already informed by a dichotomy that we have not yet resolved: the separation of civilised man from nature and, by extension, our responsibility towards it. Before too long, however, Enkidu is drawn into the city, where it will be his destiny to become Gilgamesh’s loyal friend and companion..
Not the least of the pleasures to be savoured in Lewis’s text is her skill in handling a range of different verse forms. In the second section ‘He Saw You in Dreams’, where the seductress, Shamhat, tells Enkidu that the king is waiting for him, she employs a capacious eight-lined rhymed stanza. In the second section, ‘Enkidu’s Decision’, she uses terza rima, a verse form associated with Dante and his own great epic of self-discovery:
Come to Uruk now and you will see A world of wonder that will make you stare At every turn; a hive a tapestry Alive with colours; in the temple square Exorcists, dancers, eunuchs, priestesses Mix with more humble souls who travel there To offer sacrifice to the goddess …
In Section four ‘Enkidu and Gilgamesh’, ‘the wild man’ sets off for Uruk, an episode which is narrated in stately blank verse allowing Lewis plenty of scope to exercise her powers of description. Enkidu is immediately outraged by Gilgamesh’s abuse of power, exemplified by his sexual exploitation of a young bride. This is again a theme of the utmost contemporary significance. After a titanic struggle, in which the king acknowledges that Enkidu is his equal in strength, they treat each other as brothers.. The tension between civilisation and the world of nature is further developed when Gilgamesh takes Enkidu, against his better judgment, on a quest to seek out and kill the ogre Humbaba:
He hears each leaf detach itself and fall And every raindrop tremble on its twig And every fawn open its new born-born eyes Across the sixty leagues of wilderness.
The battle with Humbaba in the Cedar Grove is an atmospheric set piece whose full effect is best heard on the audio version. An impressionistic soundscape for various voices, it is analogous, perhaps, to some of the passages in Logue’s adaptations of Homer, but has an affinity also with the magic forests of medieval romance and the encounters with ogres which so frequently take place there. Ironically, the ogre Humbaba, who, in the end, is defeated, seems remarkably civil. It would seem at this point that Enkidu has severed his bond with nature. Hereafter, there are further acts of hubris for which a price has to be paid: the death of Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s subsequent grief. It is at this the point that Gilgamesh embarks on a quest by which he will achieve wisdom through suffering:
Gilgamesh cried / not just for Enkidu Cried for himself / for having to follow Follow his friend / into the underworld Never again / to see the light of the sun.
It is lines such as these that led Rainer Maria Rilke, an early admirer of the epic, to refer to it as ‘the epic of the fear of death’. A foundational text, The Epic of Gilgamesh has now, in both its printed and audio versions, been made more accessible than ever before to the general reader.. For this, both Lewis and her publisher deserve our thanks. Along with the themes outlined above, it contains the story of Uta-napishtim and the flood on which the biblical narrative is based. Moreover, this forerunner of both Noah and Deucalion laments, like Tithonus, another classical archetype, the curse of immortality. By any standard, Jenny Lewis’s Gilgamesh Retold is essential reading, not only for her magisterial synthesis of ancient myth, but for her impressive variety of metrical forms which in itself mirrors the evolution of literary traditions from the Dark Ages to the post-modern.
A welcome invitation from my friend, the Egyptian novelist and academic, Dr. Bahaa Abdelmegid, led to my first visit to Egypt, a new poem, a chance to follow up my father’s story and the opportunity to read my poetry at the 50th Jubilee of the Cairo International Book Fair and Festival which ran from 23rd January to 5th February 2019.
Bahaa, who teaches at Ain Shams University in Cairo (his PhD was on the poetry of Seamus Heaney and he has written extensively on English Literature including on James Joyce and Sylvia Plath) arranged for me and Adnan al-Sayegh to go to the pyramids at Giza. This was especially exciting as I have a photo of my father on a camel in front of the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background. It was taken in August 1918 when my father, aged 20, was presumably on his way home from India, from where he had been invalided out of the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War in 1917. I showed the photo and read several poems from Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet, 2014) including my poem, ‘Father’, at our reading on Sunday 3 February – much to the audience’s delight.
I had written a new poem for the festival – A Love Letter to Egypt – which was translated into Arabic by Ruba Abughaida and edited by Adnan – my first new poem since finishing my latest book, Gilgamesh Retold (Carcanet, 2018) and the start of my next book (hopefully). At an earlier event, I‘d had the chance to discuss poetry and translation with the hugely engaged and attentive audience who requested more such events in the future.
The trip concluded with a magical evening in downtown Cairo (The City that Never Sleeps) with Bahaa and Adnan and several poets and friends that we bumped into as the evening progressed. Standing by the Nile in the moonlight I reflected on how poetry has changed and enriched my life beyond measure – and was grateful.
I’ll be launching Gilgamesh Retold at the WOODSTOCK POETRY FESTIVAL, 7.30pm, Sunday 11 November. Tickets £5 to include a complimentary glass of wine and chance to read in the open mic (please book in advance). Do join me! More details about the fabulous festival and ways to book here – Woodstock Poetry Festival
Meet Jenny Lewis in person at the tenth and final BookBlast 10×10 Tour talk at Waterstones, Manchester, Deansgate @waterstonesMCR 6.30 p.m. Thursday 8 November. Theme: Claiming the Great Tradition: Women Recalibrate the Classics. In conversation with Michael Schmidt @Carcanet, chair, and poet & translator, Jane Draycott. Book Tickets
Follow this link for the full Bookblast interview online.
BY JAMIE McKENDRICK, JENNIE CARR AND MAYA CATHERINE POPA
On FRIDAY 6th JULY, from 6.30-8.30pm
At the Quaker Meeting House, St. Giles, Oxford;
Tickets at the door – £4
Doors open at 6.15pm. Refreshments available.
For details please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jamie McKendrick has published six books of poetry, including The Marble Fly (O.U.P. 1997) which won the Forward Prize and, most recently, Out There (Faber, 2012) which won the Hawthornden Prize. A selected poems, Sky Nails, was published by Faber in 2001, and a new Selected Poems was published in 2016. Clutag Five Poems Series published his pamphlet Repairwork earlier this year. His translations from Italian have won the Oxford-Weidenfeld prize and the John Florio prize. Penguin Modern Classics have published his translations of five books by Giorgio Bassani and his translation of The Heron is due in 2018.
Jennie Carr has lived in the south and north of England and for a time in New Zealand. Her poems have appeared in various journals including Poetry News, The Cannon’s Mouth, Brittlestar, The Frogmore Papers and Oxford Poetry and in the anthology The Book of Love and Loss (Belgrave Press 2014). She won first prize for poetry in the 2016 Brittlestar writing competition. In 2018 she won the Littoral Press nature collection competition with her collection A Tilt in the Year.
Maya Catherine Popa is a writer and teacher in NYC. She is the recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Editor Prize and winner of the Hippocrates and Gregory O’Donoghue Prizes. Her chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled was a PBS summer choice in 2017. Her second chapbook, You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave, was published in March 2018. Her poems have appeared in PN Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Poetry London, and elsewhere. She teaches English Literature and directs the Creative Writing Program at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City.