Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lewis Turco's brilliant Enkidu retelling

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 has also  championed a major early nineteenth-century American poet in Manoah Bodman. He has 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, available on Amazon, 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 IS. 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 US 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—not Arabs no more than they were Israelis—but the ancient Near Eastern monuments 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 IS 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 privileged role in accounts of 'world literature', and has in turn been translated by writers as various gifts and dispositions 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 was 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 providing a meditation 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 much 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:

Nimrod entered
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. Even though this is highly anachronistic, as rhyme only entered the Western tradition in the High Middle Ages-the Greeks and Latin’s, 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 clanging, as too much of it might:

Enkidu stopped,
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 sot 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 was Putnam, and that this was 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 liked 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
Lilitu told
Enkidu the tale
of the city’s founding:
“In the second age
Isildur carried
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 hiss
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 he literary trove in its own resplendent right.

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