The Dune's Twisted Edge: Journeys in the Levant

The Dune's Twisted Edge: Journeys in the Levant

by Gabriel Levin
     
 

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“How to speak of the imaginative reach of a land habitually seen as a seedbed of faiths and heresies, confluences and ruptures . . . trouble spot and findspot, ruin and renewal, fault line and ragged clime, with a medley of people and languages once known with mingled affection and wariness as Levantine?” So begins poet Gabriel Levin in his journeys in

Overview

“How to speak of the imaginative reach of a land habitually seen as a seedbed of faiths and heresies, confluences and ruptures . . . trouble spot and findspot, ruin and renewal, fault line and ragged clime, with a medley of people and languages once known with mingled affection and wariness as Levantine?” So begins poet Gabriel Levin in his journeys in the Levant, the exotic land that stands at the crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, and northeast Africa. Part travelogue, part field guide, and part literary appreciation, The Dune’s Twisted Edge assembles six interlinked essays that explore the eastern seaboard of the Levant and its deserts, bringing to life this small but enigmatic part of the world.
 Striking out from his home in Jerusalem in search of a poetics of the Fertile Crescent, Levin probes the real and imaginative terrain of the Levant, a place that beckoned to him as a source of wonder and self-renewal. His footloose travels take him to the Jordan Valley; to Wadi Rumm south of Petra; to the semiarid Negev of modern-day Israel and its Bedouin villages; and, in his recounting of the origins of Arabic poetry, to the Empty Quarter of Arabia where the pre-Islamic poets once roamed. His meanderings lead to encounters with a host of literary presences: the wandering poet-prince Imru al-Qays, Byzantine empress Eudocia, British naturalist Henry Baker Tristram, Herman Melville making his way to the Dead Sea, and even New York avant-garde poet Frank O’Hara. When he is not confronting ghosts, Levin finds himself stumbling upon the traces of vanished civilizations. He discovers a ruined Umayyad palace on the outskirts of Jericho, the Greco-Roman hot springs near the Sea of Galilee, and Nabatean stick figures carved on stones in the sands of Jordan. Vividly evoking the landscape, cultures, and poetry of this ancient region, The Dune’s Twisted Edge celebrates the contested ground of the Middle East as a place of compound myths and identities.

Editorial Reviews

The National

“Levin weaves history into rich and immediate descriptions of place. . . . [An] elegant collection.”
Barnes and Noble Review

“The five essays that make up this book . . . excavate the historical and literary roots of contemporary Israeli culture, Jewish and especially Arab, in order to show that today’s entrenched divisions are not eternal. . . . It is reassuring to know that in a land of walls, a poet, at least, is able to cross borders freely.”
The Jerusalem Report

“Provocative, delightful and deeply rewarding. . . . The poet proves himself an inspired travel and nature writer as he describes his visits to remote desert canyons, ancient sacred hot springs and Bedouin encampments. . . . When Levin is puzzling over ancient Nabatean petrographs in the desert or chasing down an inscription attributed to the Empress Eudocia in the Hamat Gader baths near Tiberias, the reader is utterly engaged and even charmed.”
Adam Zagajewski

“Gabriel Levin’s book is a journey through time and through entrenched animosities of the Middle East. What’s astonishing and refreshing is his ability to combine the reporter’s perspective with a deep knowledge of poetry, including pre-Islamic Arab poems. A brilliant poet is at work here—a poet in the rugged landscape of conflict and pain.”

David Rosenberg

“Rarely does such a broad and deep range of poetic knowledge meet up with a masterly, exquisite writer of prose. Gabriel Levin’s exploration of many layers of the Holy Land and its ‘Levantine’ surroundings opens not only the Bible anew, but the origins of Western literature—from its ancient Greek modes to our uses of them in contemporary literary modes. Gabriel Levin is our major critic of how poetry today shapes up in the larger perspective of historical origins.”

Lawrence Joseph

“Positioning himself within an actual and metaphorical landscape as universal as human history, radically revisioning traditions in our inherited literature as deep as any, Gabriel Levin has given us in The Dune’s Twisted Edge what is unquestionably a masterpiece.”

Jonathan Wilson

“Gabriel Levin has written an extraordinarily beautiful book: erudite, informative, always engaging, at times lyrically charged and at others clear-eyed, resonant, nuanced. He is a true scholar-poet, and I can’t imagine a better guide to the intricacies and truancies of the Levant. He doesn't eschew politics, but rather incorporates all the difficulties of the region into a subtle conversation. His susurrant sentences hold more wisdom than all the wild gesticulating and yelling with which we have become so familiar. In the Levant, as he carefully observes, a common sparrow with feathers dusted red from perching on ledges of Nubian sandstone can appear rare and exotic. Levin negotiates the space between what is and what appears to be with dexterity and charm. The Dune’s Twisted Edge allows us to see through the dust of history, politics, literature, and art in a place where despite the high sun and arid desert it often feels as if nothing can be seen clearly at all.”

Booklist

“Readers who share Levin’s Romantic sensibilities and interest in the Levant will appreciate the lucidity of Levin’s musings and the nuance of his perspective.”
Eric Ormsby

 “Gabriel Levin offers a privileged glimpse into otherwise closed words, and he does this with brio, wit, and a gently ironic sensibility. Each essay in The Dune’s Twisted Edge is distinctive and memorable, but taken together they form a compelling pattern that arises from Levin’s strong affinity for landscape. This isn’t only because he is so good at evoking the varied terrains in which he moves, but also because of the central and abiding insight of the book: that landscape and language are mysteriously conjoined.”

author of Unseen Hand Adam Zagajewski

“Gabriel Levin’s book is a journey through time and through entrenched animosities of the Middle East. What’s astonishing and refreshing is his ability to combine the reporter’s perspective with a deep knowledge of poetry, including pre-Islamic Arab poems. A brilliant poet is at work here—a poet in the rugged landscape of conflict and pain.”
author of An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of David Rosenberg

“Rarely does such a broad and deep range of poetic knowledge meet up with a masterly, exquisite writer of prose. Gabriel Levin’s exploration of many layers of the Holy Land and its ‘Levantine’ surroundings opens not only the Bible anew, but the origins of Western literature—from its ancient Greek modes to our uses of them in contemporary literary modes. Gabriel Levin is our major critic of how poetry today shapes up in the larger perspective of historical origins.”
author of The Game Changed Lawrence Joseph

“Positioning himself within an actual and metaphorical landscape as universal as human history, radically revisioning traditions in our inherited literature as deep as any, Gabriel Levin has given us in The Dune’s Twisted Edge what is unquestionably a masterpiece.”
author of A Palestine Affair Jonathan Wilson

“Gabriel Levin has written an extraordinarily beautiful book: erudite, informative, always engaging, at times lyrically charged and at others clear-eyed, resonant, nuanced. He is a true scholar-poet, and I can’t imagine a better guide to the intricacies and truancies of the Levant. He doesn't eschew politics, but rather incorporates all the difficulties of the region into a subtle conversation. His susurrant sentences hold more wisdom than all the wild gesticulating and yelling with which we have become so familiar. In the Levant, as he carefully observes, a common sparrow with feathers dusted red from perching on ledges of Nubian sandstone can appear rare and exotic. Levin negotiates the space between what is and what appears to be with dexterity and charm. The Dune’s Twisted Edge allows us to see through the dust of history, politics, literature, and art in a place where despite the high sun and arid desert it often feels as if nothing can be seen clearly at all.”
author of Ghazali: The Revival of Islam Eric Ormsby

 “Gabriel Levin offers a privileged glimpse into otherwise closed words, and he does this with brio, wit, and a gently ironic sensibility. Each essay in The Dune’s Twisted Edge is distinctive and memorable, but taken together they form a compelling pattern that arises from Levin’s strong affinity for landscape. This isn’t only because he is so good at evoking the varied terrains in which he moves, but also because of the central and abiding insight of the book: that landscape and language are mysteriously conjoined.”
Haaretz

 “Levin [travels] equally through space and literature, tasting of each realm by turn, with not one iota of the dogmatism of those who would impose what can and cannot be experienced so as not to be considered ‘Orientalist.’ This is the importance of this book, which shows that the profound beauty of the sites met by the traveler throughout the Levant is not to be found in the object itself, but rather depends on the ability to see these sites as literary landmarks and as souvenirs of culture.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780226923673
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
11/30/2012
Pages:
216
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

THE DUNE'S TWISTED EDGE

Journeys in the Levant
By Gabriel Levin

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92368-0


Chapter One

Seeking a Poetics of the Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent sweeps across the eastern shoreline of the Mediterranean and down to Egypt, then stretches inland into the desert wastes of modern-day Iraq. That's a large enough area to host a conglomeration of myths and oral traditions, each with its own aesthetics. Here I would like to describe three literary models, three ancient paradigmatic forms—the katabasis, the qasida, and the arabesque—that appear to have emerged from specific topologies or ground conditions of a region that has served as a conduit between the East and the West for thousands of years.

But why a poetics in the first place? Do we really need yet another literary model? Might it not be best to simply "go on your nerve," as Frank O'Hara wrote in "Personism: A Manifesto"? "If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run." O'Hara was constantly looking for ways to outwit his own habits of thought; his spontaneity, his own "kinetic discharges" and indeterminacies, not only were a part of the poetics of his time and place but may have originated, albeit unknowingly, in one of the models I will be discussing here. But I am getting ahead of myself. Why a poetics then? Or rather, why seek a poetics? It is the pursuit here that counts, and in effect the three topographical models I will be introducing share a common rule: they are all on the move. It follows that the region's vast, shifting sands and the sort of nomadic existence it fostered would leave an imprint on its poetry. To inscribe is to possess and be possessed by the land. Perhaps this is what D. H. Lawrence meant in speaking of Walt Whitman: "The soul living her life along the incarnate mystery of the open road." The mystery of the journey here encompasses both the ancientness of the three topologies in their Eastern dress as well as their relocated Western guise in our own times. We inscribe and are inscribed by traces of all three landforms in the sprawl of our own urban scapes, in our thoroughfares, tentacular suburbs, and straggle of strip malls—locus of the modern imagination.

Ever since the biblical injunction to Abraham, "Get thee out of thy country," caravans have crossed and recrossed the Fertile Crescent. Step out into the desert and you can still find traces of temporary habitation, way stations, watering holes, the rutted remains of the ancient spice trade route and the Roman King's Highway. The marvel is that so many people have tramped through these barren grounds. There were, to name a few, Canaanites and Hittites, Jebusites, Hebrews and Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Arabians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Persians, Greeks and Romans, Nabateans, Byzantines, Muslims, Franks and Ottomans, Mameluks, Circassians, and closer to our own times, Palestinians, Druze, Jews, Armenians, Germans, Italians, French, and British. These were nomads and farmers, seafarers and caravanners, slaves and freemen, merchants and mercenaries, colonists and zealots. Some drove their neighbors out, while others took on their dress and customs. All ensured that the flow of goods between Asia and Europe continued to run through their territory. Household gods were swapped on the sly like choice marbles, divine names reshuffled and duplicated in the heavens— at least until the Israelites trekked out of Sinai with the brainteaser I AM THAT I AM (Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh), or, in another rendition, I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.

Predating the Sinaic theophany by a millennia, however, are the Sumerian tales of the goddess Inanna, inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets. And it is specifically in "The Descent of Inanna" that we witness the very first description of a katabasis, or downward-spiraling voyage into the Great Below. Inanna's journey begins by the awakening of her auditory faculty, for the word ear in Sumerian also stands for wisdom: "From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below." What follows is a narrative of descent, bodily fragmentation, rescue, substitution, self-transformation (common to so many myths), and slow reascent: Inanna is stripped of her clothes and jewels as she passes through the seven gates of the underworld; struck by her envious sister Ereshkigal, ruler of the underworld, she is "turned into a corpse, / a piece of rotting meat, / and hung from a hook on the wall," until rescued and reanimated from the Great Below by her faithful servant, Ninshubur. There is an endearing scene after Inanna's husband, Dumuzi—otherwise known to us as the seasonal vegetation god Tammuz—has been sacrificed in her stead, and it is now his sister's turn to seek out her brother and raise him from the dead. Here is how Dumuzi's whereabouts are discovered:

    When Inanna saw the grief of Geshtinanna,
    She spoke to her gently:
    "Your brother's house is no more.
    Dumuzi has been carried away by the galla.
    I would take you to him,
    But I do not know the place."

    Then a fly appeared.
    The holy fly circled the air above Inanna's head and spoke:
    "If I tell you where Dumuzi is,
    What will you give me?"

    Inanna said:
    "If you tell me,
    I will let you frequent the beer-houses and taverns.
    I will let you dwell among the talk of the wise ones.
    I will let you dwell among the songs of the minstrels."

    The fly spoke:
    "Lift your eyes to the edges of the steppe,
    Lift your eyes to Arali.
    There you will find Geshtinanna's brother,
    There you will find the shepherd Dumuzi."

The common fly, the little fly brushed away several millennia later by Blake's "thoughtless hand," acquires newfound relevance in divulging its secret. Henceforth it too will play a part in the life of ancient society, privy, like the proverbial "fly on the wall," to the talk and song of taverns. This is a wonderfully telling detail, at once fantastical and partaking of a certain inner psychological truth. It recalls a similar juxtaposition in an early Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this version, known as Tablet 12, Gilgamesh, the shepherd-king of the city of Uruk and Inanna's earthly brother, is seen playing with a stick and ball, carried piggyback by the orphans of Uruk. When the orphans complain to the gods, the ball falls into the netherworld, and Enkidu, Gilgamesh's trusted companion, volunteers to retrieve it. So begins another great descent as Gilgamesh warns his friend of the dangers of his journey:

    If today you descend to the underworld,
    Let me give you advice, may you heed my advice,
    I will have a word with you, may you pay attention to it.
    Do not put on clean clothes,
    They would surely see it as the sign of a stranger.
    Do not anoint yourself with fine oil from a jar,
    They would surely encircle you when they smell it.
    Do not hurl your throw stick in the netherworld,
    Those killed by a throw stick would surely encircle you.
    Do not take up your staff in the netherworld,
    The ghosts would surely hover around you.
    Do not put shoes on your feet,
    The netherworld would surely raise a clamor.
    Do not kiss your wife you loved,
    Do not strike your son you hated,
    The pleas of the netherworld would surely seize you.
    The one who lies there, the one who lies there,
    The mother of the god Ninazu who lies there,
    Her radiant shoulders are not clothed,
    On her radiant bosom no linen garment is spread.
    She clatters her fingernails like a drum,
    She rips out her hair like leeks.

Enkidu ignores his friend's advice. Like a stubborn child, he does exactly what he was told not to do. He puts on clean clothes, he anoints himself, he hurls his throw stick, and so on. He fails, in other words, to blend in, safeguarding his soul for the re-ascent. With Enkidu trapped in the underworld, Gilgamesh now scurries from one god to another, begging their assistance in his effort to bring Enkidu back to the light of day.

The katabasis in both cuneiform texts plummets down and soars back up and out again as it plays its part—not altogether malevolent—in the protagonist's journey of self-transformation. The whimsy of such texts (tablets), the casual tone, and the very physicality of the netherworld with its seven gates suggest that the Sumerians and Akkadians had a real terrain in mind—geological fault lines such as the Syrian-African Rift that might yawn open at one's feet (as in the Gilgamesh tablet). These tales link both inner and outer realities. In our own times—post-Pound, post-Olson and Seferis, the great modern mythographers—such a journey will acquire a different, more blatantly intrapsychic coloration. Thus Seferis will write: "I woke with this marble head in my hands; / it exhausts my elbows and I don't know where to put it down. / It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream / so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again." And "harrowing Hell for a casket Proserpina keeps," Robert Duncan writes, in his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar":

    that must not
    be opened ... containing beauty?
    no! Melancholy coild like a serpent
    that is deadly sleep
    we are not permitted
    to succumb to.
    These are the old tasks.
    You've heard them before.

These are the old tasks, suggesting vigilance and continuity, but also the near depletion of the belated. In the wake of The Cantos, is ascent possible? Surely descent and fragmentation, but renewal? How are we to read canto CXVI, "I have brought the great ball of crystal; / who can lift it? / Can you enter the great acorn of light?" followed by the palinode, "But the beauty is not the madness / Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me, / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere"?

The constantly shifting terrain on which Pound stood—from the United States to London, France, Italy, St. Elizabeth (one could make a case for the madhouse being extraterritorial, a Poundian nodal point for the ingathering of cultural eclecticism), and finally to Venice—would in the end bottom out under the burden of memory, personal and collective: the crystal ball that shatters in the poet's downward journey through The Cantos and refuses to cohere.

* * *

A century earlier Herman Melville had traced a similar downward-spiraling journey, although in his case the descent was uniquely grounded in the East and inscribed in his journals, which depict a two-week sojourn in Ottoman Palestine in 1857. Melville was thirty-seven. In the span of twelve years (1845–57) he had written nine novels and a collection of short fiction. By all accounts he was suffering from exhaustion, chronic back pain and eyestrain, and despondency. The last was undoubtedly aggravated by the steady decline in his literary reputation. The voyage to Europe and the Middle East was financed by his father-in-law, who believed, along with his daughter, that travel might act as a tonic to Melville's declining spirits. Nathaniel Hawthorne hosted Melville in Liverpool on the outbound voyage, and recorded the visit in his journal. There he quoted Melville as saying that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated." Hawthorne also wrote, memorably, "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other."

Clarel, Melville's late novel-in-verse set in Jerusalem and its environs, would prove the acuteness of Hawthorne's analysis. But before getting to Clarel and Melville's katabasis, I would like to consider the journal entries from his sojourn, where he records the slow, winding descent on horseback to the Dead Sea as well as the zigzag ascent back to Jerusalem via Mar Saba and Bethlehem. These jottings will provide the topological groundwork for "The Wilderness," the second part of Clarel, which Melville set out to write in 1867, ten years after his journey to Palestine.

Where Kedron opens into the Plain of Jericho looks like Gate of Hell ... foam on beach & pebbles like slaver of mad dog— smarting bitter of the water,—carried the bitter in my mouth all day—bitterness of life—thought of all bitter things—Bitter is it to be poor & bitter, to be reviled, & Oh bitter are these waters of Death, thought I. Rainbow over Dead Sea—heaven, after all, has no malice against it.—Old boughs tossed up by water—relics of pick-nick—nought to eat but bitumen & ashes with desert [sic] of Sodom apples washed down with water of Dead Sea. Must bring your own provisions, as well, too, for mind as body—for all is barren. Drank of brook, but brackish.—Ascended among the mountains again—barren.

Here, then, are the ground conditions, recorded in a startling and startled shorthand, part literary romance and part testing ground for unmediated poetic speech. As to the former, Melville records in twelve compact pages his own bitter disappointment upon beholding the holy sites and the "diabolical landscapes" stripped of romantic embellishments. In its most ancient mythic manifestations, the katabasis is primarily a form of divestment, a whittling down of the self and dispelling of the false, which is precisely what occurs in Melville's journals as he is confronted time and again with the "mere refuse & rubbish of creation." And yet at the same time we witness on Melville's part an effort to reconstitute the self—he had written to Hawthorne in the early days of their friendship: "I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces"—by an effortful, tentative testing of poetic speech.

A week after visiting Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, while waiting in Joppa (modern-day Jaffa) for his ship to set sail for Beirut, Melville writes, "Wandering among the tombs—till I began to think myself one of the possessed with devels [sic]." His impressions are still fresh, but he crafts his words retrospectively: "In pursuance of my object, the saturation of my mind with the atmosphere of Jerusalem, offering myself up a passive subject, and no unwilling one, to its weird impressions, I always rose at dawn & walked without the walls." And elsewhere, in a section titled "Barrenness of Judea," "Whitish mildew pervading whole tracts of landscape—bleached—leprosy—encrustation of curses—old cheese—bones of rocks,—crunched, knawed [sic], & mumbled." Such hovering, seismic clauses will eventually reappear, slightly altered, in the grand design of Melville's 500-page, octosyllabic, 18,000-line philosophical novel-in-verse, "a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not ... eminently adapted for unpopularity." But I would propose that it is precisely in the journals that we may recognize the encoding of an original approach to a language— scribbled down hastily, impulsively, vividly—of bewilderment. Melville, on the open road, is possessed by the land; perhaps it is in the nature of the katabasis to take hold and—in time—to release the individual for the upward journey. In ancient times the "taking hold" and release was enacted by demonic forces, while Melville would be released, or at least reprieved, by the power of his own words. Dennis Silk, the English-born Jerusalemite and poet of the Levant par excellence, called this "dry souls working a language out, / making in limestone a mouth."

Working a language out in "mineral silence" (to quote another of Silk's phrases) and in limestone would then turn into the protracted making of Clarel, begun in 1867 and finished some ten years later. The labor involved in its composition—Melville's wife, Lizzie, would call Clarel his "dreadful incubus of a book"— may have been the result of drastically altered circumstances: not only was Melville far removed from the landscape that had momentarily galvanized his attention, but his own life had undergone profound changes, including the sale of Arrowhead, his estate in Massachusetts; his increased anonymity; his moving with his family to New York City; his employment as a customs inspector on the Hudson River piers; and, critically, the suicide of his son Malcolm the very year he set out to write his narrative of spiritual crisis. Clarel was at least in part, as Andrew Delbanco suggests, "a work of mourning," enacting the Orpheus-like descent and failed retrieval of his beloved son, transformed in the poem into the nebulous figure of Ruth, the object of Clarel's idealized love, who dies of grief after her father is murdered: "O blind, blind, barren universe! / Now am I like a bough torn down, / And I must wither, cloud or sun!— / Had I been near, this had not been."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE DUNE'S TWISTED EDGE by Gabriel Levin Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

 Gabriel Levin is the author of four books of poems, most recently To These Dark Steps, and has published several collections in translation. He lives in Jerusalem.

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