The Washington Post
Gilgameshby Derrek Hines
Gilgamesh, the semi-divine ruler of Uruk, is a larger-than-life bully and abuser of his people.
In his thrillingly contemporary retelling of the world’s oldest epic, award-winning poet Derrek Hines brings us as close as we may ever come to re-creating the power it had over its original listeners more than four thousand years ago in the ancient Near East.
Gilgamesh, the semi-divine ruler of Uruk, is a larger-than-life bully and abuser of his people. In order to tame the arrogant king, the gods create the wild and handsome Enkidu. But after Enkidu and Gilgamesh become fast friends, they defy the gods in a series of outsized adventures that brings Gilgamesh face to face with both loss and death itself. Hines energizes this timeless tale with vivid and electrifyingly modern images, from the goddess Ishtar cracking the sound barrier, to a battlefield nightmare of spectral snipers and exploding hand grenades, to the CAT-scan image of a dying friend. The themes of love and friendship, grief, despair, and hope had their first great expression in this story, and this dazzling new interpretation brings us into its thrall again.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
“A brilliant version of an ancient tale; replete with humour, pathos, drama, and much more." –The Telegraph
"Derrek Hines makes Gilgamesh exciting." –The Guardian
"Hines's distinctive mode–part surreal, part cinematic–combines the concentration of lyric poetry with the narrative compulsion and fluency of an adventure story." –Times Literary Supplement
"Hines's energetic metaphors and nimble wit revivify the thrill of a very old tale."
“An evocative lyric journey through the Mesopotamian story, glittering with Hines’ own fresh images.” —The Financial Times
“A sparkling poetic vision.” —The Oxford Times
“Impressive, consistent . . . packed with good things.” —Christopher Logue
“I read this version with great interest and admiration. It has real energy and drive with some splendidly interesting images. I was held throughout.” —Ian Hamilton
“A superb achievement. The cinematic swoops, that terrific, loss-haunted elegy, absolutely packed with reverberating phrases. . . . It is not only a rendering of the poem but a brilliant, vital contemporary commentary on it.” —Paul Newman, editor, Abraxis
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Read an Excerpt
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 wetting sandpaper.
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 two-cigarette mantra 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 eases 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;
space enough 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.
'Listen: noon 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 inhales dawns.
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
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Derrek Hines was born and raised in Canada and read Ancient Near Eastern Studies at university. He has won prizes in, among others, the National Poetry Competition and the Arvon Foundation International Competition, and has published two books of poetry. He lives on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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