Two Ancient Sumerian Elegies in English – By Tikva Hecht

0
924

 

Author’s Note:

These elegies were originally written in Sumerian and are dated circa 1700 BC, making them among the oldest known written texts in the world. One mourns the loss of an estranged father. The other, of a beloved spouse.

As far as I know, mine are the first poetic renditions of these texts. My work is based on literal English translations done by the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL), a project of the University of Oxford (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/). Direct links to ETCSL translations: Nawirtum (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.5.5.3#) and Nannaya (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.5.5.2#).

Many words, phrases and sections of the elegies are lost to time or difficult to translate with confidence. Therefore, the scholarly translations are full of ellipses, question marks, alternative versions, etc., as they attempt to mark each unknown. This creates another layer of mourning in these poems—mourning for the poems’ own context, culture and language—on top of the stories of personal loss they both tell, which especially speaks to the confusion, disruption and stunted possibilities of loss. These absences and erasures make it impossible to ignore the distance between our time and the time when these poems were composed. However, the sense of loss this evokes is as timely and relatable as the sense of loss the poems’ speakers evoke through their longing for Nawirtum and Nannaya; what is incredible about the distance between us and these elegies, is how close we still are to each other. 

In approaching these poems, I wanted to strengthen this sense of presenceness, but while also preserving the meta-longing embedded in these works by history. My solution was to give a voice to the ellipses, question marks, etc., for example, by replacing a gap in the text with a reference to erasure or absence or by incorporating multiple manuscript versions where these were found.

I hope that my choices do justice to the elegiac nature of translation, as well as to the memory of Nawirtum and Nannaya.  

*

An Elegy on the Death of Nawirtum

The day has a bad taste
                                -what else to say?
for the young, for the young lucky woman
                                                        -what else?
a bad taste
               -something else, misplaced
                                (perhaps it was about luck).

Look, the hatchling examines the end of the nest, oversteps;
          a net waits, scheming with possibility.
Look, her mother, too, is snared by—what else? Her mother,
          who had many children (her womb must snare her)
and in the fields the cattle make horrible noises
          loud and wild                   Erased, someone suggests, she was
          like an ancient vessel                 the cows loud and wild
an ancient vessel or           No, she never said
          I am not well           No, she was not nursed,
did not—what else? Did not—               Well, now,
          to a divine place
like a resting place
something belonging to others
          is hurled
          flanked by erasures.

Look, how the city hides, perhaps under fog.
          Absence follows the city.
Over the crowds of the city
          a cry falls, indistinguishable
          and, perhaps, something else—
          a lament, indistinguishable
          as a war-cry without a history.

The crowds are chased by pity for this woman.
          Her life has ended.
They are anguished,
          maybe because she is arranged now
          as one would set down an artistic piece
          of particular value.
Look yourself, won’t you weep?
Women weep without clarity.
Poets and storytellers
          hoard sweet and unclaimed words;
          these ferment in their pockets
to lament, then to moan.

Because absence has been returned
           they utter it as a song for her.
Because she extracted from her small emptiness
           nothing to direct them, her absence
           a stone and then more absence,
           they do not know what is lost.

Because the hold of her love could not keep time’s long attention
           and weeping cannot lose time’s attention now.

Because the god of the spring-floods has no happiness
           from his erasures,
and those who serve in his name
           no entry to his home,
though they offer a sacrifice in the name of her loneliness
           it is not accepted.

Because absence ends at his side, her husband
becomes the cry of the city, laments for her,
for her mother, whose muscles bore a daughter to light
           and who watched in the dark as this daughter
           paled for her.

He hands out grief, share by share—what else to call it?—
            each possesses some quiet, led into absence for her.
Before her, they are their simplest selves.
Their bodies are rancid and torn.

(Look, how many come to grieve:)
Workers and relatives and their—but who knows
           who these are and who can make out
           what they say?
They empty together
           do not stand long.
Old babysitters share unfinished stories, must run.
Some, like angry men, throw stones at nothing,
           at sickness, what might be sickness.
The elected lights of the city
are hazy, make no dent in the sky.

And then the man she loved,
           left in his city, in Nibru, the city of absence,
Lu-digira, the man she loved and left
           in his city, in Nibru, the city of his absence,
he approaches her with his suffering
           embedded in him in absence,
           approaches her where at large
           there sits life.

Others hold his hands.
           Inside they are chaos, what might be chaos.
Whatever else he is
           is not nourished.
His breath might be tumid.
He moans, perhaps, like the cattle.
He has nothing to clothe him.

He wears something borrowed.
He weeps for her these words:

             Where is absence?
                                     I would call on you—
             Where? A goddess of healing, a minor goddess?
                         Her alluring defensive spirits?
                                                                  I would call—
             Where is the absence, the erasure, the gracious words?
                                                                                       I would call on you—
             Where are my spent weapons, my well-fashioned quiver?
                                                                                       I would call on you—
             Where is the material to kindle the absent face?
                                                                        I would, I would call on you—
             Where is my absence, my needed brilliance?
                                                                       I would, on you—
             Where are my sweet songs?
                                                   I call on you—

Where are my absent weapons,
             my valuable quiver which kindles the spirit?
                                                                 I call on you—
Where are my turning, hand-waving, rascally questions?
                                                                 I call—

May your way of life not be forgotten,
your name be called on,
the guilt of your house be erased,
              and your sin distilled.

May your husband stay well
              in valor and when old
              may he be looked to.

May your children have a chance.
May they find no adversaries to their promises.

May your household not be stagnant,
               may its future be ample.

May the god of the sun and truth
               strain from the netherworld
               light, absence and clear water
               and bring these to you.

May a mother god stand by you,
lift you in her arms.

Concerning the bitter storm that has been turned against you,
may it go back to the horizon.

May a cruel word slice against any demon
                  who has brought his hand against you.

Concerning the kind young woman who lies in her splendor like a bull,

bitter is the lament.


 

An Elegy on the Death of Nannaya

I

A father sends a message to his son
                   to some place far –

the son at that time, having distanced himself,
                   is far.

The father, a man of the city, is ill.

He, precious brilliance found in a far away mountain,
                  what might be a mountain, takes ill.

He, attractive in a chasm, who made words pleasing,
                  suffers from an illness.

He, who stands tall and was power,
                  suffers from such an illness.

He, who gossiped with gods and decorated the gatherings of men,
                   has taken ill.

He, who was a man of truth and feared well,
                   is ill.

He who is ill does not eat and languishes into what?

He closes his mouth, he eats no food. He lies without strength, hungry.

According to the dictation of what may be imagined:
the warrior, a wanderer, one who might be a wanderer,
                 holds still both feet.

From what may be, his silence ails;
                 he is consumed with wailing for his children.

Heart beating, beating, overcome by wailing,
this scholar dies in Nibru a violent death.

The matter reaches the son who is traveling still further.
Like a son who does not depend closely on his father,
he received perhaps the message, but had not returned it.

Now, look who sheds tears, lowers himself over the dust
                  and sings for his father—

It is Lu-diĝira, whose inflamed heart becomes the words of a lament:

O my father, who has died a violent death.
O Nannaya, my Nannaya, chased by unkind schemes,
                 carried by unkind arms into the netherworld.
Your wife’s husband is a thing passed by. She is,
                 as she will always be, a widow;
she wheels what might be about you
                 like a dust storm before a canyon.
She used to treat you like a child in her care—now she is without reason.
She seems only to breathe, as if about to give birth.
She turns the forgotten, moans to what end like a cow,
forgets her lament and turns out tears.
She covers up a canyon, taking to what end
what is just what may be imagined,
something lost and the one who gathers
                  what may be gathered, twice over
worn, touches you and the heart is a chasm.

The one who, is it possible,
                  rises, is it possible,
                        forgets at daybreak, is it possible,
                               from among the forgotten who dwell in forgetting.

II

The caring priestess of a healing god throws silence
                  from weathered images.

Like a mourning god, what may be a god, she is silent,

Her shouts, what may be shouts, forgotten and evil.

In the belly of her temple, what may be a temple, she—what? Forgets
what is lost, the speck of a loss, and has made what may be made.

The widespread people imagine grain and silence.
The confusion of many battles imagines
                    a divine priestess devoted to the scribe of god’s breath.

She tears apart, what?
                                 A canyon for you.
                                 A chasm for you.
                     Her own, what may be her own, weathered images
and many fragments
                     are lost.

III

Your sons who were treated, who may have been treated,
                    like princes,
what do they, is it possible,
                    eat or imagine,
what do they, is it possible,
                    drink or forget?

They—aren’t they your sons?—imagine honey and ghee.

They load the table with what may be oil for you.

They cry from compassion for him.

Their mourning, what may be mourning, for him is of
                      love and wholly innocent.

They bend like over-ripe grain.

The fledglings return their silence, raise long-stretching silence
over the women wed to your sons, who have said:

‘Where, where is he now?’
                     Your weathered image has fallen.

In their forgetting, they have silenced what may be silenced
                     for you.

On the laps of the household sit nothing
                     for you.

Your weathered sounds, sweet and forgotten, rest;
                     silence has been worn like nothing.
The imagined lament for you a canyon
                     that does not—may it not—cease.

IV

O my father, may your heart be at rest.
O Nannaya, may your breath be pleased.

The lords and authorities are worn away,
                    those who have escaped the hand of death
                    are weathered.
The hand of death worn away in their possibilities:

Death is the favor of the gods, no question,
                    the place where fate is decreed nothing.

V

May your offspring imagine your knee.

May your daughters have space for you
                    in their secrets.

VI

The elders of your city have set up what may be set up
                    in mourning, what may be mourning, for you.

The young women of your city have no explanations for you.

The slave at the grindstone, no explanation,
                    he sheds what may be tears for you.

The house where he is placed, or what may be placed, offers no explanation.

He has nothing and silver, has acquired grain,
                   nothing, and a stretch of possessions.

May your eldest son imagine for you
                   your silence on firm foundations.

VI

As for the one who ended you, who,
                   wore away at you like one who forgets the heart,
your unsaid who plotted malice against you:
true, perhaps true, execution belongs to the king, the shepherd, your god;
true—what is true?—counsel belongs to the god of the sun
                   and the fate of the dead.

May that man be a man accursed, death imagined
and imagined in his bones.
May the names of his children end in nothing.
May their possessions rest on nothing like birds in flight.

VII

May the unheard of your land be imagined.
May you be brought your preference between silence and words;
                    may this make you content.

O Nannaya, may your breath be pleased,
                    may your heart be at rest.

The god of the sun, the master of the netherworld,
after rubbing the dark threadbare, will judge your case.

May the god of the moon, wisdom and creation decree your fate
                     on the day of sleep.

The god of the noonday sun, the authority of the underworld,
                     offers no explanation before it.
May his imagination utter your name and may he find you fresh food to eat.

May you be silenced by a woman of the underworld,
                     and may she have pity on you.

May your household come with fresh water and wet the libation stone.

May the lord of the good tree, a lord of the underworld,
                    imagine your house without loss.

May the strongest demigod imagine health for you.

May the minor god who watches the gates of the underworld
                    and the king who ascends to heaven on the back of an eagle
                    be your helpers.

May the god of the underworld pray for you.

May your god say Enough.
                    May he forget your fate.

May the god of your city imagine compassion on you.
May he unbind you from wrath and sin.
May he misplace the guilt of your household,
silence the evil planned against you, imaginable or in fragments.

May your descendants be happy without explanation.
May space follow their blessings.
May the protective gods and goddesses surround their secrets.
May they be listed as ones who will be privileged, is it possible—
May your daughters be liked by the gods.
May your wife stay at her best,
                    and your children age with children of their own.
May excess and joy, is it possible,
                    surrounding them day in, day out,
and your holy stock never be without good beer.

May the invocation, or say if you like incantation, of your house
be forever the incantation, or say if you will invocation, of your god.


 

About the Author

Tikva Hecht’s writing can be found in Grain Magazine, The Lehrhaus, The Jewish Literary Journal, CV2, and Canadian Literature, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from UC, Riverside, an MA in philosophy from The New School for Social Research, and a BA in Judaic studies from Yeshiva University. One of her great pleasures in life is running creative writing workshops for students of all ages in both formal and informal settings. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada and is a member of the marketing team at Aleph Beta.