The Hero Enkidu: An Epic by Lewis Turco, New York: Bordighera Press (www.BordigheraPress.org), VIA Folios 107, 2015, 101 pp. ISBN 978-1-59954-098-6. trade paperback.
MUSINGS OF A CRAFTY IF SELF-CRITICAL ACADEMIC
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10, 2015
LEWIS TURCO’S BRILLIANT ENKIDU RETELLING
By Nicholas Birns
Lewis Turco is one of the great undiscovered treasures of American poetry, though those who really follow the scene know his work well, both as poet and as critic. In that latter role, he has not only provided cogent commentary on major poets and on the mode of poetry itself (and I say that being a less ‘formalistic' reader myself than Turco is, but granting and celebrating his percipience), but he has also rediscovered and championed a major early nineteenth-century American poet in Manoah Bodman. He taught at SUNY Oswego for many years and has been a vigorous and constructive participant on the poetry scene. Though I know full well that Turco was born in 1934, that he was already mature and established by the time I started reading him in the early 1980s, it astonishes me to think of him as over eighty, as his work is not only still buoyantly being produced but vitally contemporary, offering perspectives on imagination just not available elsewhere.
Turco's latest book, The Hero Enkidu: An Epic, is particularly timely, as we are all thinking about Mesopotamian civilization in the light of the atrocities toward archaeological remains in Iraq and Syria of the terrorist group calling itself ISIS. Or at least we all should be. Sadly, many of the same people who celebrated the movie The Monuments Men, about the heroic attempts of a special detachment of the U.S. Army to save European art treasures both from Nazism and general wartime destruction, do not seem to give a darn about these ancient Near Eastern antiquities. Not only are they so remote from most of us, erected by people whose languages are no longer spoken or known—they were not Arabs any more than they were Israelis —but they were built by people often described as villains in the Bible, and under the aegis of harsh-ruling kings whose combination of rigid authority and appreciation of artistic skill and craft brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism. This is true of the history of Western art works, often born of hierarchy and privilege. But in the Middle Eastern context it is far more obvious that ‘we’ cared about Palmyra more than ‘we’ did about Hatra or Nimrud simply because Palmyra, architecturally, shows Greco-Roman influence and was influential on neoclassical architecture, is the proof of this shameful bias. Western concern about Palmyra may have—knock on wood—stopped the ISIS from utterly destroying it. But we should have spoken up just as much for Hatra and Nimrud.
This Western bias against the ancient Near East has extended even to the most prominent document of Mesopotamian civilization, the poem called Gilgamesh. As the recent scholarship of David Damrosch and Wai-Chee Dimock, has shown, Gilgamesh has assumed a privileged role in accounts of 'world literature' and has in turn been translated by writers of various gifts and dispositions such as David Ferry, John Gardner/John Meier, Herbert Mason, and, most recently, Stuart Kendall. As Michael Palma reminds us in his splendid introduction to Turco’s book, the Gilgamesh poem has also inspired a para-literature of epic, fantastic, and historically minded retellings.
One might see Turco’s focus on Enkidu, the best friend, homosocial soulmate, and sidekick of our hero Gilgamesh, as simply another instance of the various postmodern retellings of canonical stories from the vantage point of subordinate or alternate points-of-view. But Turco is turning to Enkidu for a different reason: to make sense of the tremendous distance between us and the poem, or the cultural origins of the poem, as figured not only by ‘our’ indifference towards the terrorist atrocities in Iraq and Syria but the way it is acceptable to be an intellectual in the humanities and have near-complete ignorance of ancient Mesopotamia; for instance, a literate reader of one of the translations mentioned above said to me, in deprecation of his ultimate abilities to assess the translator’s achievement, that he did not know the original Sanskrit! As if Sumerian were Sanskrit, a language that it has as little relation to as it does to Sindarin!
Turco uses Enkidu as a prism through which to relate to the poem: as Enkidu's earthiness, primal rage, and unbridled bundle of emotions are closer to us psychologically than Gilgamesh’s heroism, always imbricated with themes of piety to both his gods and his city, barriers that do not hinder our view of Enkidu, wild, unfettered, in Turco's words “hairy and naked” and thus unacculturated in Mesopotamian civilization. With this psychological proximity, Turco gives us verbal proximity: by making the bold, but infinitely successful, decision to approach the material through the verse forms of Anglo-Saxon and alliterative Middle English poetry.
Turco is not just making a a comment on the comparable ‘state’ of civilization between the two cultures, but also a musing on the possibility that Gilgamesh might have had, in Mesopotamian culture, a similar role to what which Beowulf might have had in Anglo-Saxon culture. (We can never know, as both works were rediscovered much later, after many of the other elements of the literary corpus of those cultures had been lost). Though we actually are as much at sea concerning the original date, author, or cultural purpose of Beowulf as we are of Gilgamesh, we have linguistic connections to Beowulf we do not to Gilgamesh, and even more to the Middle English alliterative corpus such as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Turco’s verse maximizes these connections, especially in his deft use of alliteration:
the fertile forest
And found the traps
that he had dug
Had all been filled
with soil and scrub;...
Turco even uses rhyme at times, though this is highly anachronistic, as rhyme only entered the Western tradition in the High Middle Ages—the Greeks and Latins, as I discuss in chapter 4o of my recent book Barbarian Memory, did not use rhyme—it is our primary mode of poetic coherence. Since Turco only uses rhyme sparingly and tactically, it does not make the verse mawkish or stringy, as too much of it might:
To stare, astonished,
at this wonder,
then stood in sorrow,
in agony and woe
to see this man aglow
with manliness as though
he were godlike crown to toe.
This is disciplined and restrained, and coexists happily with the alliteration, blank verse, and Turco’s own elegant attempt to simulate the distich-structure of the Mesopotamian originals (as the text was first written in Sumerian then 'adapted' into Akkadian). The very end of the poem also rhymes in ways both apt and gratifying. My favorite mode, though, is the alliteration, which can capture ingenuous cultural truths in a sly apothegm, as when the gods Anu and Inanna are called "sky sovereigns”: simple, supple, and stark. In something i read by him in the 1980s, Turco pointed out that his middle name is Putnam, and that this is the same surname as that of George Puttenham, the great Elizabethan anatomist of metaphor. Turco's deft and seamless handling of figuration would have warmed the heart of his Elizabethan forebear.
There are some aspects of Turco’s poem I could have done without—I did not like the intrusion of Biblical personages based on, but not themselves present in, Mesopotamian myths and histories, although this objection is merely “Johnsonian” on my part and not meant to be taken as universal cavil. On the other hand I rather like the intrusion of Tolkienian references, based on Tolkien’s use of “Erech”—the Hebrew rendering of “Gilgamesh's home city and the version, rather than “Uruk” employed by Turco—to the resting-place of the Faithful Stone brought to Gondor by the Númenoranean exiles, themselves fleeing from a flood much like the Gilgamesh story's Utnapishtim.
On their trek to Erech
Enkidu the tale
of the city’s founding:
“In the second age
Out of the ruins
of golden Númenor
A great globe
made of stone.
Upon the stone
he etched an oath
And caused the great
King of the Mountains
To place his hand
upon the rock
And swear that he
would bear fealty,
To Isildur’s lineage
and to Erech when
Its temple and walls
were raised upon
The crown of the hill.
I myself explore this connection in my essay on Tolkien and Mesopotamia in Jason Fisher’s Tolkien and the Study of His Sources. Turco uses the Tolkien allusion to explore how the Gilgamesh story contains both history and prehistory, both the human and the supernatural. Turco’s moving poem shows how literature can be a bridge between the immortality Gilgamesh vainly seeks and the frail mortality that envelops even the ferocious Enkidu:
When he saw its walls
He also saw
that they were his
for they would last
Walls can in fact be destroyed, as we have seen all too vividly recently, but the stone tablets of the Gilgamesh story miraculously made it into the permanent record, and Turco has given us a thoughtful, innovative, and perceptive expansion on it, a contribution to the literary trove in its own resplendent right.
Turco's New Take on Oldest Extant Epic
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is five millenia old. Such an antiquity doesn't seem likely to speak to readers today, in any measure. But it is a story examining the nature of friendship, the nature of loss, and the troubling question of human mortality. It is therefore as relevant to modern readers as it was in the beginning, when it existed first as an oral tale, and then when writing came along, as cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets.
Gilgamesh has heretofore been the hero, the epic's central figure.The story's emphasis has of course been on the semi-divine king, over the centuries in various renderings.
What Lewis Turco does infuses the old tale with warm new energy by placing the emphasis on Enkidu, the wholly mortal and vulnerable companion to the king. In the course of the tale, Enkidu grows: from the innocent playmate of the animals, through experience, to become a seasoned and trusted warrior and leader. When Gilgamesh is set on destroying the ogre Humbaba, Enkidu advises him against it, but takes the dangerous lead position when they undertake the enterprise. The elders advise Gilgamesh:
be in the van
And you will be safe
Shamash has sworn.
Using the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form, Turco gives the tale the feel of antiquity, but a fresh antiquity, not that of Homer or the Bible. The story races along—it never lags--and that speed is due in part to the hemistich line pattern. Much of the delight of the rest is due to the splendid diction, the exacting choices, of a peerless poet.
And forth they marched
together, the heroes
And their warrior army
to find the spot
Where Humbaba dwelt
in the Cedar Forest
had been born ...
Ruth F. Harrison
Another tour de force-- in service of a great cause.
I speak with a forked tongue: one fork is that of a person immersed in Medieval literature, hence very much interested in the epic tradition; one fork is that of a person so sophomoric she had never been able to hear or see "Enkidu" without singing "inky dinky parlay voo" all day long. But thanks to Lew Turco's masterly poem Enkidu has been rescued from his thousands of years as merely an epic sidekick in the first epic poem ever written. Thank you, Lew. Another tour de force -- in service of a great cause. Oh, and great fun to read!
COMMENTARY FROM CORRESPONDENTS
The mailman dropped off The Hero Enkidu about an hour ago, and I’m already deep into the Afterword, which is fascinating! But first I read the Prologue to Tim Murphy, who called from North Dakota just about when the mailman arrived and I had just opened the package. When I finished reading he said, “Oh God! I have to order that!” And I replied, “Yes, you do.” I’ve just now e-mailed him the announcement you sent out in May, with information from Bordighera Press, and the quotes from the cover. I told Tim it’s so good that it reminds me of his translation of Beowulf, which is very high praise.
It seems impossible, but it’s even better than I remember, faster, stronger, more daring in its music, somehow reckless but perfect. Tomorrow I’m going to pass it around during the Powow River Poets’ workshop, but in the afternoon I’m going to read from it during the Open Mic that will follow the readings by Rick Mullin and Anton Yakovlev. Those guys are both wonderful, so we’ll have a fairly large audience, with guests coming up from Boston and NYC and down from NH. I’m excited over introducing it to the group! The Intro by Palma is excellent, by the way.
Alfred sends you his congratulations and best wishes: I read him the Prologue over lunch, and told him something about the legend itself.
I forgive you—just barely—for wreaking havoc on Walt Whitman. Tim Murphy did away with him some years ago in our screened-in porch, which has been known ever since as The Walt Whitman Memorial Porch. Tim says I had to mop up Walt’s blood after his savage discussion of several poems proved that poor Walt deserved to die. I am, I must confess, unconvinced by the evidence, and am still profoundly moved by many passages in Leaves of Grass. But we’ll let that issue rest, along with Walt, and I’ll close with this instead: Kudos to you, mio caro fratello, for achieving this magnificent project, and thank you for my copy with its priceless inscription!
Dear Mr. Turco,
I am fascinated that you fastened on heroic tetrameter with caesura mid-line as the form for your epic. Rhina has sent me a couple of emails and read some over the phone. I've wanted to translate the Gilgamesh since I was a kid, but now that is unnecessary. Congratulations! You manage the Gawain [and the Green Knight] meter far better than the poet did. Again, Congratulations.
I passed your book around to the 19 people present at our Powow River Poets Workshop this morning, and some of them asked to see it again and jot down information from it during lunch. Then during the Open Mic section of our very well-attended reading this afternoon (by Rick Mullin and Anton Yakovlev), I discussed it briefly, and read the Prologue and the opening pages of the first section.
Everyone enjoyed hearing it! Some people were surprised to learn that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story, and the source of much of what has come down to us as "biblical," and others were intrigued by the "bob & wheel."
Glad to see you're getting good reviews! And no surprise.
Thanks ever so much for the kindly signed copy of The Hero Enkidu. Beautiful cover, sterling innards! What an accomplishment, to liberate the Enkidu story from the longer surrounding epic that obscured it. The Anglo-Saxon verse line makes the poem all the more tempting to read out loud, and willread out loud very well. Here’s hoping Enkidu finds a host of readers. And it’s clear that nobody will try to do what you’ve done, for a long while. Heartfelt congratulations!
Joe (X.J.) Kennedy