SOME BABYLONIAN PIECES
The following poems are taken from a work in progress tentatively titled Babylonian Pieces. It is comprised of a mixture of original poems, translations, half-translations and speculations, all derived from a kind of Babylonian aesthetic. The purpose – such as a writer should speak of such things – is not to present a historical Babylon but instead a Babylon of the human imagination. Babylon is, in this sense, the setting; the themes are various. The form of the poem is inspired by the King James Bible, which is the actual encounter with Babylon that I have in mind; our Babylon is generally filtered through a monotheistic veil, and that veil is thus part of the aesthetic too. The ‘period’ of the poetry is, very loosely, that of the Book of Daniel, namely a fictional Neo-Babylonian era. It is the time of Nebuchadnezzar II.
The first poem, ‘Waking in Babylon’ is inspired by a number of documents of Hebrew, Phoenician, and other captives, particularly of the Neo-Babylonian period. ‘The Mother’s Song’ is in many ways an ekphrasis, being written in response to a small figurine of a mother holding a child in Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum. The ‘Nightmare’ is based on the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar as depicted in The Book of Daniel, and the imagery from various Neo-Babylonian poems on demons, witches, and visions. ‘The Lover’s Song’ is rather self-explanatory. The ‘Ode to Ea’ is addressed to the god of fresh water, and one of the primary gods (Enki, in Sumerian), who was known as the wisest and trickiest. Utanapishti and Enkidu may be known from The Epic of Gilgamesh: the former is the Noah figure who survived the flood and the only human being to achieve immortality; the latter is Gilgamesh’s companion, the wild man ‘civilised’ by the courtesan Shamhat. ‘Dwelling’ refers to the disappearance of the statue of Marduk – the city god of Babylon and head of the Babylonian pantheon – to Edom. This is an event that happened much earlier than the Neo-Babylonian period, but it is instructive for Babylonian theology, as well as our own. It is about absent gods.
James Dowthwaite teaches English literature at the University of Jena. His first book, Ezra Pound and 20th Century Theories of Language: Faith with the Word, came out with Routledge in 2019. His poetry has appeared in Acumen, Allegro, Nightingale & Sparrow, The French Literary Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, and elsewhere and is forthcoming in The Dawntreader. Originally from the UK, he lives with his family in Heidelberg.
WAKING IN BABYLON (SONG OF THE PHOENICIAN PRISONER)
Ah Baal, look at it; the palm trees in the light wind, bowing,
the city of blue jewels, set in their gold, the sun on them;
the sun god has blessed them, and I am so far from Tyre.
We are used to travelling – such things I have seen, like the port of Carthage in the dawn,
or the end of the land off to the west, before the sea follows the sun downwards.
I have seen the slim bodies of the Egyptians, and their regalia,
and though I have seen brutalities, committed some, there is nothing to compare to this:
the evil is glorious, look at it, at peace in the blue morning light.
This city is the desert and the jewels of the east, blue and gold,
half clay, half lapis lazuli; here heaven and earth have met;
here even the river submits to the King of Sumer and Akkad.
And though I know they clothe their savagery, what savagery it is that can make
xxxxxsuch high temples.
This river is not the sea; but look how it caresses their city, as if Babylon were here first
xxxxxand the land second.
Their boats are thin and weak, but look at what they bring; all of Tyre could be bought
These are bastards, and barbarians, and yet their gods have blessed them
xxxxxwith the finest arts.
Curse them that add envy to hatred; curse them that make us hate the gods
xxxxxthat go with them.
THE MOTHER’S SONG
It is half joy and half worry that I hold to my breasts; and more than half of me
xxxxxthat rests there.
I must strain my neck; I must hold the world in my thighs.
And stare into the middle distance, with my skin hardened to enmity against the cold,
xxxxxagainst the heat.
My nakedness is his protection; my body is heaven to him.
My son’s clay is my clay; his bones are my bones and his heart is of me.
His head rests in the curve of my hand; his body lies in the curvature of my arms.
And though my heart rage with all the fear of the darkness, all the wildness of the lands
xxxxxover the plains, I must still my hands.
They cannot shake when he sleeps; at last he has found his first peace.
That is love which sets the heart to trembling; that is love which stills my restless hands.
Now is not the time of inheritance, but the time of rest, so that life may gather in him.
For the little one sleeps in Marduk’s grace. May he always repose there, and may Nabu
xxxxxprotect the child.
Where is Belteshazzar? I have not slept.
Great things have come in the night and have held my sleep from me.
I have seen great black angels, flightless, their backs bent over, furroughing the grey earth
I have seen the dark ones struggling to move, limping along like shadows underneath
xxxxxa sword-driven sky.
They are great insects, the angels, their wings snapped off by a loathsome child and they haunt the land,
xxxxxrefusing to hand over their ghosts.
Their bodies are sickly, like those of the burned, and they wander with a settling blindness.
More tissue than being, they are caught between disintegration and willing.
Nowhere is the city; nowhere are the holy gates of Babylon, nor the gardens of Amytis,
xxxxxnor does the music of Sumer sound out.
And Enlil drives the wind there, hard and harsh and intermittent.
The lord of the wind drives from the north east, cold and bitter, resentful,
xxxxxthough not wrath.
The whole earth suffers under Enlil’s dispassion.
And the angels flit in the wind like the stalks of grain when the seeds have long blown off.
I walk this landscape, one of the bent angels; and ghosts howl in the wind.
There is no map of this place, and this is not the hell of the far side of the waters.
It seems to me a witch’s place; it is a place where the wizards set their thrones.
Where are you Belteshazzar? Tell me the dream and the interpretation thereof.
THE LOVER’S SONG
Let us meet by the bridge, where the ships meet.
Let us meet where the travellers come with their wares and messages, and I will tell you
Let us meet in the evening, where the coolnesses settle on the trees and on the water.
There we shall be in the faint light, where only our hands and words will find shapes,
There in the dimness, where we can cast off the things of the day and stand singly.
My love, be with me in the twilight, love me in the faintness, where no god can reach us.
We will be closed to the entreaties of the quick and we shall forget the dead,
xxxxxbeing half dead ourselves in the half light.
With only the night before us, only the night, we might forget the day;
We can stop counting the hours and throw them into the evening river.
And we shall take ourselves into the shadows, into the plentiful shadows, which grow
xxxxxlike wheat of fertile plains.
There in the shadows the gods shall not see us, nor your father, and the shadows
xxxxxshall veil us.
There the night, even if only for a night, shall not denude us
and we can deny the crises of the day, even if only for the time of twelve kisses.
Let us capture the small hours and bury them in the vastness of the night,
Or release them into the cooling air, where they can fly off like little birds or form thin
xxxxxclouds and disappear.
Do not fear the gods, those doom-mongers who know nothing of love, and come find me in
I will wait by the bridge, watching the water, worshipping the coming dark.
ODE TO EA
Because water, unlike more obsequious materials, say stone or earth, does not give
xxxxxitself up so easily to archaeologists
– a fish in a rock is so far removed from its element that we struggle to imagine it breathing,
and because water so resembles prayer
– even when we press our hands together, it still finds a way to slip through our fingers.
And because water memory has now been discredited,
Ea, you can use it to shuffle off immortality and resemble decomposition.
And last but not least, because its surfaces resemble our mirrors,
we drown in reaching for the solidity of our reflections,
so whatever secrets you preserve by dissembling are safe,
whatever game you are playing, we will lose.
Unlike the secrets of men, those of the gods cannot be whispered;
it is pointless speaking quietly, when they have such fine hearing.
One must proclaim and await punishment.
One must be loud and hope for some shyness.
One must be brave and hope for cowardice
and that the spies in the corner are half distracted.
Do you know why they let me live?
Why I saw the waters turning like a god in labour?
Why I heard the Annunaki gods lamenting?
Why I saw the waters break the bodies of my loved ones?
All of them dead to history.
I know they talk of privilege, that to be eternal is to live in Shamash’s raiment,
to walk with Ishtar in the grove or dream cities with the other gods.
But they have no interest in me.
It was not because of my talents or my goodness;
there is no prize nor privilege, no golden reward
for some action or bravery, and I could never master their language.
It was not that there were great plans for my descendants,
nor that I had some great task to do,
or that I might sing their praises.
It was not that I am the son of a great people,
nor that I knew the secrets of the landscape, could build great walls, knew how
xxxxxto farm well,
nor was it that I knew any secrets of value.
You are too young to appreciate such things,
You are too much in fear of virility, too much in love with sleep.
It was simply that the gods, to be everlasting, needed a witness.
THE LOVESONG OF ENKIDU, OR CIVILISATION
You fucked me and I found myself a man.
When I stretched my hands out to greet them, the animals ran in all directions:
the wild deer saw me and fled, and the rabbits lowered their ears to me
and the mountain lions retreated before the padding of my feet on the rocks.
Seven days we fucked and I was dazed in the sad aftermath,
feeling the loss of some animal restraint and a faint understanding.
When first you bared yourself, I was strong and I could run with the hoof-footed ones.
Then you came to me in that soft dress and stood amongst the wild grasses, swaying.
You let it fall, sliding off your hips.
Now I cannot say if you swayed or if it was the wind, as the wild grass, your dress,
xxxxxyour hips, and the sounds of the gazelles caught in their fleeing all fall into the first
xxxxxhour of my being.
I cannot say where it began, the waking.
Was it feeling my hand on your behind,
knowing that the end of my fingers was the edge of my being and the curve of your buttock
xxxxxthe edge of yours,
knowing that our movement was one and two, yours and mine, whole and apart?
Or was it the feel of your tongue on my tongue, speaking that felt language, strangely soft
xxxxxin all that wild passion?
Or was it the pressing, when your breasts pressed against my chest, making it my chest,
when your stomach pressed on mine, making it mine,
and when your fingers held my neck, pulling you up towards me?
So we fucked and fucking fell
and falling moved in ways mysterious to sure-footed animals
and so I knew myself as myself, aware of the ends of my skin,
before losing them again in your tongue.
And when it was over I woke with sadness for whatever we lose when we love,
whatever we gain when we catch ourselves meandering the mountain path of feeling.
Since then I have woken a hundred times,
facing your closed eyes and your nose heaving with small air in the cool morning.
You have separated me, my love;
there is no going back to the wild grasses.
You are the partition wall between death and the wild breezes, the painted face
xxxxxand the scuffed knees and hard skin of evening;
you have cast a veil over the world,
and when I cry out, it is caught in my mouth.
Like the swift pieces of the Royal Game of Ur, he has gone.
The Sun Calf has moved upon the board and the trees mourn his quick going.
The temple is quiet and the soft winds echo.
The temple maidens have left their stations; the brides of Marduk have left
Taken in the long wingspan of the year, the gods come and go;
and we are like the seeds lifted in their whirlwinds, and like the seeds which fall
xxxxxas the winds pass on.
We are like the seeds of the wheatsheaf, like the portions of grain, brought by Shamash
xxxxxand laid low by rains and flooding; we are like the heads of wheat
xxxxxcaught in the breeze of a god passing.
The gods are restless, and we stand alone by the altars.
Only, there might be hope in the Equinox; he may come back if we are better.
Here, finally, are two links on the Epic of Gilgamesh that might also be of interest:
Michael Schmidt: Gilgamesh, The Life of a Poem