Here is Gilgamesh, king of Uruk:
two-thirds divine, a mummy's boy,
zeppelin ego, cock like a trip-hammer,
and solid chrome, no-prisoners arrogance.
Pulls women like beer rings.
Grunts when puzzled.
A bully. A jock. Perfecto. But in love? -
a moon-calf and worse, thoughtful.
Next, a one-off:
clay and lightning entangled by the gods
to create a strong-man from the wastelands
to curb Gilgamesh -- named Enkidu.
Sour electric fear, desert mirage at your throat,
strong enough to hold back the night,
so handsome he robs the world of horizon -
for no one's gaze lifts beyond him.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu stand
astride the threshold of history at Sumer.
Five thousand years,
five thousand years are gathered aside
so we enter the view from Uruk's palace:
Euphrates' airy, fish-woven halls,
a sleep of reed beds, the eclat of date palms,
wind-glossed corn. And in the distance
desert -- the sun's loose gunpowder.
Green rolls up
and rasps along it like a tongue
Here and there,
jostling with the fast-forward business
on the quays, spiralling above the potter's wheel,
buoyed by the clatter of cafe gossip:
up-drafts of ideas, thermals of invention.
For the cut of every thought here
is new for our race, and tart with novelty.
Then look: footprints of the mind's bird
in its take-off scramble across wet clay tablets.
It was also time
when, just as the lemon tree's greenroom
sweats with auditions for tomorrow's sun,
the world swelled with potential heroes.
Have there been two such
as Gilgamesh and Enkidu
who released our first imagination
to map the new interior spaces we still
scribble on the backs of envelopes, of lives?
They strode into deeds like furnaces
to flash off the husk of their humanity,
and emerged, purified of time.
Now like a burning-glass Enkidu's wildness
is focusing the people's discontent
into dust devils of rumour
that scour through the city.
The Trapper is sent out,
ordered to hire a temple prostitute,
'a garment of Ishtar'; lead her into the desert
to civilise Enkidu -- net him
to quell Gilgamesh.
Shamhat of the April Gate
What do we know of sacred harlots?
What's sacred that sweeps through our lives?
Enter Shamhat, who can be bought like a beer
from the stall outside the temple gate.
Take her then as the whole, hired
month of April, of the gods' Now;
not as equivalence but the month,
harlot as might be April;
Shamhat as might be a modern woman
slouched over a back-street bistro table
her breasts too small to shadow yet,
and in her bruises almost overdressed;
skinny enough to dilute
the whisky-neon dawn.
A cup of sleet, a grubby
against the ache of breaching
in her sex:
the month's raw, self-greasing tubers
forcing up into shoots
the sap's hot green ether.
And the drag-chute of Spring's afterbirth
nicked on the wind's thorn.
Cruel, cruellest and . . .
a rag of love-things in free fall
in her heart that shouldn't be here,
like a man
--like this one, the Trapper,
who draws her as the moon the slake-tide,
through the desert
to water Enkidu's lime-dry throat.
All the men who crutched her belly on bedsteads,
gorged her, ground her hips above the grave's
mattress, stand with her now.
'I am Shamhat.' She fingers Enkidu's tangled hair.
(A pro: her flashgun smile will develop
to red-eye, his lust-eye.)
You have seen a cottage by the sea,
white, lap-built against the spray,
paused in the lilt of dunes
like a skiff with feathered oars,
its darkness waiting for summer.
Then the shucking of winter shutters;
the abrupt gush and gulp of light
quenching a thirsting interior
like un-boarding an old fountain:
thus Enkidu's soul at Shamhat's touch.
And his sadness, suddenly aware of what he is,
a fumble of doubts and longings.
'I am Shamhat.
Part my gown and the keys at my girdle
that undo whore, undo mother, saint,
to reveal the eternal carcass tipped in the beauty
of the dunghill or the star-breeding towers in Orion.'
To Enkidu, who has known
no other woman, she is beautiful.
From the ruined face
the gentle voice, like a buddleia
flowering through a derelict factory's window.
His fingers, calloused by freedom,
struggle like netted birds
with the breathy sea-cotton of her layers
(O my first woman!):
the wonder and nuzzle of breasts,
the notch that baits men
as iron filings are drawn to fur a magnet.
Finally Shamhat gasped a full-throated
praise of male hydraulics,
entering her like the stiff shaduf
that lifts night's constellations off the river's face,
spilling wet star-seed into the splayed canals.
After seven nights of love,
as a man might,
Enkidu lost his understanding of animal speech.
But it was a fair trade.
a hem (a garter?) now her thigh
into the nevermore of dusk's entropy;
and she looks back over her shoulder,
up through the lush flip-book
of her farewells.
A line of crushed light remains above the horizon
as if the shutters on a jeweller's window
had jammed an inch shy of closing;
to allow Enkidu and Shamhat
to materialise before Uruk's gate.
Street urchins gawk; donkeys absorb.
A town guide peels from the shadows,
approaches, and falls back in awe.
Enkidu has come to strip Gilgamesh
of his right to taste the bride before the husband.
The foundry of his anger quakes and glows.
They push through the streets without torches;
Shamhat, three paces behind,
lights his way.
Enkidu is troubled, his anger flawed.
Doubt tears at certainty --
a risk the self-righteous must take --
for what he expects
he might not find.
But her? Watch her. She is changing,
uncloaking from a chrysalis of desert calico
that shimmers and wings to silk in her slipstream
a hundred feet into air
borrowed from Heaven.
The volume of her presence
soars beyond the audible;
she reveals herself like a female Odysseus
transfixing the suitors;
bursts from Penelope's weaving,
and with her swarm
the hungry threads of power.
She is no longer the 'garment of Ishtar'
but its very owner, striding down
the cat-walk of Uruk's high street
in the designer gowns of Paradise,
Ishtar's high priestess, Goddess incarnate;
so briefly glimpsed in passing,
the grace of her,
like snow touching warm ground.
Hip to hip, Shamhat and light,
part the darkness; of the two
she is the more radiant.
Enkidu sees none of this;
broods and stomps on.
Soft-mouthed as a gundog
dark retrieves these few sounds:
a clatter of supper plates,
the dry thresh, like a woman's stockings,
of palm fronds,
the rustle of moonlight, rinsing itself
up to its wrists in the river.
Across town, Gilgamesh
sets off to split a bride's veil
while the groom groans white with shame.
His right? Divine right, power right.
In reverse order.
Around him in the swelter-light
smuts off reed torches cling
to the sweating skin of his young bucks,
the town's jeunesse doree,
nervy as water splattered on hot oil;
too drunk for honour, but hoping
for woman-scraps from his table.
He has corrupted their worth
with his vanity, yet
they mime his airs, ape his swagger,
try on his used breath
to live second-hand,
always in fear of that whetted anger,
half-drawn in his pride's sheath.
To him they are means.
Gilgamesh squats on Uruk's soul.
A messenger stands before the king,
his mouth working like a boated trout,
or a seer fresh out of prophecy.
Silence, a bolt, rigid in the throat.
Empty cups of faces turn to Gilgamesh.
Instantly everything is known --
the news clamps jump-cables to them
and throws a switch -- a current arcs and spits
between Gilgamesh here,
and Enkidu at the April Gate,
galvanising the town.
Talk dries in the cafes,
as when the soldiers of an occupation
enter a restaurant, and a coded silence
becomes speech. Where silence is language,
meaning is everywhere.
The people let fear think for them;
fear steals their thought and makes bold.
They watch Gilgamesh pass,
and chant under their breath,
like football fans from the terraces:
Dead. End. Cul-de-sac.
Dead. End. Cul-de-sac.
Still, as the heroes stumble into their roles,
there is someone, as always, disconnected --
someone whistling as he repairs a pot --
unmindful of the great events at his elbow
like the ploughman oblivious in Brueghel's
Fall of Icarus.
It is done; they accelerate towards each other
welded to Destiny's tram rails: two black cores
hungry for the other's light.
Juggernauts too wide for the narrow streets
they spew tall coxcombs of sparks
as they grind against the buildings.
They meet in the square, and stop.
Haste scissors off their clothes:
Enkidu's furs, drop and crouch;
the king's double silks (light blue, indigo,
like the two breezes off opposed seas
which ruffle the sheep's fleece on Hellespont)
faint to the ground --
both men now qualities of moonlight.
Sudden jostling in the crowd:
the fight is hijacked by the expectations
of spectacle -- paparazzi:
flashbulbs sun the moon aside
carving a tableau, a stark iconography
of function without emotion.
The contestants are burnished gold-leaf,
wetted crimson in the glare;
heraldic beasts on a carousel,
huge, stupid with encoded exhibition.
They topple into each other
like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings;
their hearts trapped in the elevators,
their minds locked in the blueprints
of testosterone flush and muscle.
Fierce, so saturated, dense with power, they are become
a gravity: voices and light bend nearing them.
They drain cities of energy from each other
and draw on more: distant Lakish dims,
Ur browns out . . .
Until, from behind the crowd, Shamhat speaks.
Only the wrestlers hear her voice,
200 cubic miles of summer storm, compressed,
compressed: -- it begins as
a wet finger rubbed around the rim of a wine glass;
increases to a whisper, gears up to a rumble
circling a bronze chamber in their heads --
faster -- until the words burst in their skulls:
THE GODS ORDAIN FRIENDSHIP.
Anger is reversed so violently
they are motion sick with the change
and the challenge of foreignness,
as when, in the uncertainty of abroad,
you find you are a question,
not the answer you thought yourself to be.
Backwards from the clinch, dream-escaping;
smile into eyes . . .
The crowd murmurs, restive with discontent.
A formula has been betrayed. The fight ends
not in justice as they expected:
Shamhat imposed the epiphany of recognition,
which is greater than justice and love.
But it is not resolution.
Gilgamesh takes one heady step, two;
living for the first time
for someone else.
Gilgamesh's Hymn to Morning
See, dawn breathes into . . . the flaws:
rumour behind bitumen,
false-dawn cock crow, current surge . . .
Dark's unstable touch-paper splutters
and launches the invention of
SUN -- gold vaporised at dew point
flash-plating the river's laid steel.
'O, great spinnaker of morning,
bellied by a wind
taller than the meadows of Orion,
that pulls into its cavitation thought --
the spindrift off the impossible --
the first draw of worked, imaginable space
that roils and oils and charms mind
into a downright love of it.
For is thought not the greatest mystery,
and imagination a metaphor
for its beauty and wonder?
'Come, my brother --
a broad jest of sunlight
clowns on the sills of day
just as we entertain the gods,
our doings like oar-prints
filling with the provinces of Heaven.
And all is written: Fate already chalked
on the lofting floor, the theorems of grace,
the tracings of wind's plumed assumption.
Lift your arms and sail.
evaporates from the water-clock;
noon, on the slack-clutched river
where light lists a degree, furls and crumples
like a xebec shrugging its sails off the wind.
This is honey time, Enkidu,
and we stand braced on the walls of Uruk
as at the kerb of dreams.
Let us tread them like gods,
for, my friend, such days are gifts,
victories over the immense indifference.
We will inhale this, our life's dawn
evaporating off a god's brow; grasp time by its scruff;
brave the entry-only land of the hero,
and not return: for once we've stepped into it,
the people never allow the hero
to be a part of them again.
There we are to capture for thought,
unmarked, stateless spaces in the mind,
and leave them outside the walls for mankind.'
Heroes. Consider, reader: heroes.
The whole idea waiting to abuse itself.
The modernist in us undercutting
everything to be said here,
with that taste for the corruption of the ideal,
the soured, smug edge of bankrupt irony
defending us from belief, that 'safety in derision'.
We can be ironical with the matter of the issue,
but not its spirit. That
The Humbaba Campaign
(A soldier's diary)
The councillors were dead against the madness --
a thousand miles to Lebanon for cedar
and squander the toff's precious Hooray Henrys
against Humbaba's troops . . .
But our lord Gilgamesh strutted and harangued:
fear's banquet, etc.
A dark voice, tar brushed over rust.
We clocked there was something rotten.
The while he was glancing at pretty-boy Enkidu.
You could see that edged glint in their eyes.
They got off on it,
egging each other on, dicks on the table.
Cedar for the temple doors, my ass.
It's glory's hard-on for those two,
and no mind for us. Bastards.
We were at ease in ranks for all this,
with no idea who Humbaba was; but the corporal
turned pale as blanco: 'He's the worst,
worse than watching your children burn alive
and surviving it. If we live after this show
we'll carry a hell even death won't ease.
He's a wizard, a quantum entanglement magus,
set by Enlil, Fate Maker,
to guard the Sacred Cedars in Lebanon.,
So, we figured, no snatch for medals in this caper.
A month now, desert-yomping in full kit.
Scorpion wind in the face, crotch rot, boils.
Not helped by our great King, who wakes each morning
from dreams like multiple car crashes --
a bloody Cassandra weeping catastrophe,
until Enkidu talks him round.
In the valley of the Bekaa under Mt Lebanon.
Easy soldiering with the ladies willing,
their legs spread wide as a peal of bells;
plenty of grub, and the zig of split-stone fences
snaking through terraced orchards,
apple and Eve ready.
Good, rolling chariot country.
The foothills. Our yeomanry
got stuck into Humbaba's lot this morning.
We watched them shake out
into order of battle, advancing at a stroll
up the meadow towards the forest
as they dressed to the right,
like a list of names justifying into columns
for the face of a war memorial.
Three hundred yards beyond return
the telegram-maker of enemy fire
scythed out from the tree-line,
and the ranks started to crumple.
Men dying into grass;
all those souls whistling past our heads,
We supported the chariots today --
soft-shelled tanks on a leash,
desperate to harden with speed,
but forced to slow into single file though the woods,
Everyone screwed up to pitch; the recruits
like twists of green gunpowder.
From the flank we watched the ambush's fusillade
sieve most of them to Hell
Excerpted from Gilgamesh by Derrek Hines. Copyright © 2004 by Derrek Hines. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.