Some questions for Inanna & Dumuzi

One more voice note on Inanna’s story – for my mythology and literature class.

If you’d like to hear it in my halting voice:


“The Descent of Inanna”

The story of Inanna’s descent has correlates in other mythologies you may be more familiar with. The descent of Persephone to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s search for her. Also the death of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus’s effort to rescue her from the underworld. Both of those Greek myths, of course, that had elaborate cultic practices surrounding them.

Dumuzi has many correlates as well. He is what the Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer called “the dying-and-rising god.” Figures to whom Dumuzi bears at least a passing resemblance include the Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dionysus, the god of wine, associated with the grape stock. If you’ve seen a grapevine, you can cut the vine all the way back down to a stump in the earth, and in spring it will spring forth with new green, and soon grow so luxuriantly that it covers and buries your fence, your other plantings, your car, your driveway. I say this having watched the behavior of my neighbours’.

Dumuzi_aux_enfers
Dumuzi in the underworld, flanked by snakes & surrounded by galla demons, who bear implements for breaking & flaying him (British Museum).

Dumuzi’s most surprising cousin though is Jesus Christ. We just celebrated, or saw others celebrate, the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Consider that Christ comes among us with a proposal of new and renewed spiritual life; is put to death; and, in the early spring, He is, by divine power, brought back to life. One understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ is that He is a descendant of the dying-and-rising gods with which the Ancient Near East was full to overflowing.

If that sounds outlandish to you, like I’m just making too much of a coincidental resemblance, consider as well that Jesus Christ, in the three days between his death and his resurrection, journeys, according to Catholic theology, to Hell – a part of His story known as the Harrowing of Hell. He’s reputed while down there to have saved the souls of those who died righteous but could not journey to Heaven, being unbaptized. So – death, a hell journey, then rebirth in the spring. And the period Christ spends in the underworld, the Harrowing of Hell, is named for an agricultural implement: a harrow is used in the cultivation of a field.

The galla climbed the reed fence.
The first galla struck Dumuzi on the cheek with a piercing nail,
The second galla struck Dumuzi on the other cheek with the shepherd’s crook,
The third galla smashed the bottom of the churn,
The fourth galla threw the drinking cup down from its peg,
The fifth galla shattered the urn,
The sixth galla shattered the cup,
The seventh galla cried:

“Rise, Dumuzi!
Husband of Inanna, son of Sirtur, brother of Geshtinanna!
Rise from your false sleep!
Your ewes are seized! Your lambs are seized!
Your goats are seized! Your kids are seized! …

Galla beat Dumuzi
Dumuzi, attacked by the galla, beseeches the sun god, Utu (source unknown).

The galla seized Dumuzi.
They surrounded him.
They bound his hands. They bound his neck.

The churn was silent. No milk was poured.
The cup was shattered. Dumuzi was no more.
The sheepfold was given to the winds.

(He’s broken up like wheat getting threshed. Reading it, I feel the way I think Christians are meant to on Good Friday about the Crucifixion. Oh and “Easter” appears to come from “Ishtar” – Inanna’s successor in the Fertile Crescent.)

Turning to the poem itself. One question here is why. Why does Inanna “open her ear” to the Great Below? Why does she decide to leave everything she knows and is queen of behind, to journey to this place that is hostile to her, inimical to her? She gives an explanation to Neti the gatekeeper to be passed on to her sister. Oh, I’m here to observe the funeral rites for your husband, the Bull of Heaven. I don’t think that goes too far as an explanation. It may or may not be true. It could be a feint, a dodge. It could be legit, but even if it’s a reason that she’s headed there, it’s not the reason that she’s headed there.

How might we read into the deeper layers of the myth, to learn what motivates this harrowing journey into the unknown and the unformed? One hint may be in the first three lines

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her ear to the Great Below.

“Ear” in Sumerian also means “wisdom.” The ear is the seat of wisdom. How does the poem change if we read “wisdom” where “ear” is printed?

From the Great Above she opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her wisdom to the Great Below.

I think it’s also important that she adorns herself, or protects herself, or prepares herself, by donning seven of the me, which in this poem are garments; remembering that the me are the powers of civilization. Can we infer more about what her motive is, what her mission is, from these acts of preparation? And I’ll leave it to you, what other moments in this poem can we look to for hints, clues, cues, keys, to what is going on for Inanna, beyond her stated reason for this road trip.

Having just read you the intensely repetitive opening three lines, I’m brought back to the question, What is up with all the repetition? What is it here for? A listener’s just not trusted to get it the first time? or even the second time? or is there some meaning or purpose behind all of these reiterations? Remember, these poems, which we read on the page in a literature classroom, were not originally intended for silent solitary reading and literary appreciation. These were poems that didn’t just say something, but did something. These were liturgies, hymns but in story form, meant to make contact with the divine figures whose stories they were relating.

British_Museum_Queen_of_the_Night
“Queen of the Night” (British Museum). Terracotta. It’s uncertain whether she represents Ereshkigal, Inanna, or Lilitu (Lilith). The object in her right hand resembles, to my eye, the “measuring rod and line” (for dividing land into plots) Inanna brings to the underworld.

So there’s a religious purpose to them, a spiritual purpose. Having such a purpose, the work needs and wants to affect, you could say alter, the consciousness, the form of awareness, of the listener, the participant in the rite. As you encounter the repetitions, take them in, read them out loud to yourself, and see how they sound in your ear, see how they resonate in your body as you articulate the sounds. There’s not a lot of new meaning in a repeated line, the words don’t change much. But something may happen on a non-verbal, physiological plane, important to the effect of the poem.

The poem probably wants for us to identify with Inanna, so that we’re not just reading about her journey to the underworld, but participating in her journey to the underworld. We in a sense become Inanna. The whole time I’ve been recording this voice note there has been a doe and her fawn in my backyard, munching away at the flowers on my blackcurrant bush. What that has to do with Inanna, I don’t know, but it seems like it signifies.

All right, so, Inanna’s motivation, and the role of the repetition in inducing states of mind or consciousness in a reader or participants in the poem. The last thing I want to draw your attention to is the minor characters in the poem – the figures of the galatur, and the kurgarra, and the galla demons.

We get certain details about them that set them at a distance or a remove from ordinary human social interaction. The galla have no mothers or fathers, or brothers or sisters or children, they eat no food, they take no drink, they accept no libations. They do not participate in the usual give-and-take between the human realm and the divine realm. And the kurgarra and the galatur, what details do we have about them? They are created from gunk scraped from underneath the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters, Enki.

Created with GIMP
A fly, from CP’s Dumuzi (Gaspereau 2020).

What do we make of that? What is the gunk under the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters? Why would that be good raw material for these mysterious creatures? They are creatures neither male nor female, so they don’t participate in the usual Sumerian gender binary, and that seems to give them unusual powers. They can enter the underworld “like flies,” and they have a capacity for – empathy? deceit? both? – depending on how genuine you think their commiseration with Ereshkigal is. But they get the job done, and they get it done well. They play her: they play the Queen of the Underworld, which is not a safe game to play, or an easy game to win.

Last thing I’ll note then, is that these two are like flies, and they are essential to the rescue of Inanna. An actual fly is crucial to the rescue, or the discovery, the recovery of Dumuzi. So what’s up with the little pesky buglike creatures, showing up at these crucial moments in this sequence? What do you associate a fly with, and what’s a fly got to do with a fertility myth?

Inanna and Dumuzi get it on

Another voice note for my Mythology and Literature class, on the goddess Inanna’s choice of a mate, and the meaning of their meeting. Lightly edited, like the last one. If you’d rather listen than read, here you are:


“The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”

A thought first more generally about what myth is, what our relationship to myth is.

It’s tempting to think of myth as something other people in other times have done and made, in order to give order and structure to their world. We might think that, given now to a scientific worldview, to empirical procedures for understanding how human beings work, how human societies work, how the cosmos at large works, on the greatest possible scale of stars and galaxies, the minutest possible scale of subatomic particles, that we’re no longer doing mythology – that mythology is something that we can see from the outside, from a remove, and gaze upon with interest, maybe some amusement, maybe a bit of condescension or admiration or nostalgia, depending on our disposition.

I want to suggest to you a different perspective though. That perspective begins from the notion that it’s only other people’s myths that look like myths. Your own myths don’t look like myths to you, they look like axioms. Let me note for you a couple of things that are very much part of our worldview, and that, if we see them from bit of a remove, may look more myth-like than we have been given to think.

The past. The future. Neither the past nor the future has any objective existence. Nowhere will you find the past, not even the instant that just passed. Nowhere will you find and be able to present the future; it does not exist anywhere. The past and the future are constructs of human mind. Our belief in them is so foundational that most of the rest of our beliefs depend upon them to even make sense at all.

I submit to you, the past and future, along a linear timeline as we conceive of them, are mythic, in that they are foundational, and they are collaborative constructs – nobody can make a myth on their own – collaborative constructs of our cultural imagination. And one mark that it’s myth is that we recoil from the suggestion that it’s “just a myth.”

So, if a myth is a world-arranging story, and the figures in the myths we’re looking at are animate, they’re characters, how then do we think about this reading for today, “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”? It’s more than just a boy and a girl meeting, flirting, fighting, and then getting it on. That’s just the surface.

We can ask what it is in the world of the Sumerians that this myth has the power to arrange, to put in order. Inanna is the goddess of love, of war, though I don’t think she’s prominent in that function here, of love and fecundity and increase. Also she has at her disposal the me, the gifts or powers of civilization. Dumuzi is the god of the vegetation, of the spring, of rebirth. He’s the classical dying-and-rising god; and in some contexts he was also the god of shepherds, a pastoral god, which explains his epithet, “the shepherd.” So what does it mean that the goddess of increase, herself, and the god of vegetation, himself, are getting it on?

Well, we can look at the terms in which their getting-it-on is expressed. You may have noticed the abundance of nature imagery, of agricultural metaphor. Fortunately this is just audio, so you can’t see me blushing as I read. Inanna is speaking:

My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.

So there’s the agricultural dimension.

As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva,
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?

It’s all thoroughly subsumed to this agricultural metaphor, of the sexual act as an act of well, farming, of planting seed that will then grow. The word “semen” is from the Latin word for “seed,” by the way. A little further on, we’re hearing from the narrator again:

At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side.
Gardens flourished luxuriantly.

Dumuzi and Inanna - cropped
Lovers embracing. Clay plaque, Mesopotamia, Isin-Larsa-Old Babylonian period, ca. 2000-1600 BCE. Baked clay. Basel, Erlenmeyer Collection.

Almost as if their sexual union either causes new abundance and growth in the natural world, or is one in the same as the abundance of spring, new growth, in the natural world – the world of nature that surrounds them, and the agricultural world, the fields that sustain the cities of Mesopotamia, the fields in which the natural world has been domesticated, put to human use. The fruit of their union is the whole of the green earth.

Putting natural increase in terms of sexual union allows human beings to participate in natural and cosmic processes, and not just to participate in them, but in fact to influence them. The world-arranging story that is a myth has a place in it for the human teller of the story. And in fact one thing to watch for as we encounter the myths of a number of different cultures over this course is, what kind of place does the myth give to the human participants? Are human beings made focal and central, or are they one presence co-equal among many? The Haida term for human being, according to Robert Bringhurst, the translator of Ghandl, whom we’ll be reading some weeks from now, is “ordinary surface bird.” Puncturing perhaps human pretensions to a special role in the cosmos.

A passage from a book called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, on ceremonial observances around Inanna and Dumuzi’s marriage, I think sheds further light on the role this myth played in the cultural life of at least one of the Sumerian city-states. This is about the city of Isin:

[The City] celebrated yearly the marriage of the goddess Inanna to the god Dumuzi or Tammuz…. Since the goddess is an incarnation of the fertility of nature, and her husband, the shepherd-god Dumuzi, incarnates the creative powers of spring, it is understandable that this annual union of god and goddess signifies and is the reawakening of nature in spring.

Notice that dual verb – it signifies the reawakening of nature in spring, it also is the reawakening of nature in spring. The author, Thorkild Jacobsen, continues:

In the marriage of these deities the fertility and the creative powers of nature themselves become manifest. But why, we may ask, should human servants of the gods, the human ruler and – so it seems – a priestess, transcend their human status, take on the identity of the deities Dumuzi and Inanna, and go through their marriage? For this is what took place in the rites.

You got that? Every year, early spring, the king of the city takes on the role of Dumuzi, the high priestess of the temple takes on the role of Inanna, and in a ritual I believe most of whose details are lost to us, they, in those roles as god and goddess, consummated the marriage that ensured the return of natural abundance in spring.

Why does it make sense to them to do this? Jacobsen speculates:

The answer to that question lies back … in a remote prehistoric age when the gods were not yet anthropomorphic rulers of states and cities but were still directly the phenomena of nature. In those days man’s attitude was not merely one of passive obedience; it called for active intervention, as it does among many [quote unquote] primitives today. It is one of the tenets of mythopoetic logic that similarity and identity merge: “to be like” is as good as “to be.” Therefore, by being like, by enacting the role of, a force in nature, a god, man could in the cult enter into and clothe himself with the identity of these powers, with the identity of the gods, and through his own actions … cause the powers involved to act as he would have them act. By identifying himself with Dumuzi, the king is Dumuzi; and similarly the priestess is Inanna – our texts clearly state this. Their marriage is the marriage of the creative powers of spring. Thus through a willed act of man is achieved a divine union wherein is the all-pervading, life-giving re-creative potency upon which depends, as our texts tell us, “the life of all lands.” (198–99)

Okay, that’s a lot. All that is to say, the sexy bits are not just to make readers or listeners hot and bothered. They have a profound cosmological function: they make human beings participants in the generative powers of nature and the cosmos.


The image atop, left to right, like in a news photo, where protestors are:

Inanna, winged, with arrows for shoulders
Utu, sun god, he comes bladed out of the hill
Enki, god of the fresh waters, his shoulders running with fish
Isimud, Enki’s vizier, two-faced

Pound read myth as if it were the morning paper (Don Revell). Remember papers? The colour in it, Inanna’s joy, is from a pot I left on the hot stove & it cooked dry.

Dumuzi redux

Updating the pages on this blog. That’s meant writing a new account of Dumuzi, which comes out next spring.


Dumuzi, my second book of poems, will be published in 2020 by Gaspereau Press.

It began two decades ago on Gabriola Island, BC, in a summer cottage I had rented for cheap in the off-season to finish my first book. I woke one rainy morning from a dream in which I was a child standing in the wings of a great stage. Onstage was a market and the market was the world. My parents held my hands at the entry – one on each side. Then they were gone. Everywhere I went in the rush of it, the stalls receding to the horizon, throngs of people, clouds blowing by overhead, I could feel them with me, holding it up, making sure it went on.

Twenty years! And more titles, forms, angles of approach than I can remember. It sprawled, got visual, spun off other projects, danced tarantella to a verbal-visual polyrhythmic syncopation. It busted every damn frame I gave it.

Now it’s real simple, 40 spare lyrics enacting my struggle to have faith in being.

At Leaf

A son of my
first mind, was
at leaf, wind on
raw skin, fist
of one thirst
upthrust.
                       Roars
snowmelt where
hemlocks over-
hanging shiver
motherlove.
                              Sur-
round of what
no one had
made, made
of what no
surround
had.

That’s the first, and the title poem comes next

Dumuzi

Let no state be
enemy. Wet, dry, agon.
Work an inmost first
flower mutedly.

Wind blows light about
the life (hemlocks) from
which art is not apart

nor of a part. What a
rock thought to do
was rain and it
rained.

Deer come
out of th
hill.

Dumuzi – a Sumerian god of the vegetation, fertility, ongoing spring. The poems invoke his deathless earth energy for aid. There’s very little about Dumuzi in the poems, so I give this by way of a note at the back

Out of Sumer, Dumuzi, fertility god, crushed king. His other’s Inanna, she of increase, who’s been down in their underworld for fun and profit; why for real’s a hard story to tell. On her way up & out, guided by hyperathletic postal demons, she’s told one’s got to take her place, divine rule of bloodless metamorphosis sez flies, and who’s her eye land on but her arrogant lovely benighted D. Take this one says and game afoot. Flees. Caught. Ta’en in chains. His butter churn’s broke & that empty windy sheepfold. Sumerian cuneiform same glyph for sheepfold & vulva; both have place in the formless field of his shining care. Little later they find his body in a roadside cessfield outside the city. Lover Inanna mourns. Mother Sirtur she mourns him oh she do. Their story’s very not yet over.

A more conventional accounting of their story here.

Making Dumuzi, I started making visual poems on the photocopier. This one spoke to Dumuzi’s trip to hell, in the clasp of annoying little demons called galla

crossing-bar-detail-fig1.jpg
Crossing the Bar

I know it’s crude, but I’m fond of it as an early effort.

For a long time, I was trying to work in the story of Dumuzi and Inanna in handwritten fragments. One form they took is these aasemic panels (what’s that? read here)

1. And their life

A bunch of these were published in Asymptote but they got dropped from the book.

It wasn’t easy to strip the book down. I wanted mess multiplicity & sprawl – a whole as unrehearsed as a vacant lot gone to weeds in an ugly corner of New Jersey, yet shapely also, each note in its suited place, like a late Baroque symphony.

It’s what comes of taking Spring and All as your, not model, your own insight.

Several times, thought I had it. No press agreed; the book was not getting picked up. So, I surrendered my intention for it, scaled it back. And I like it in this new form – as a lance not a labyrinth – though I mourn the book that could have been.


The image up top, a Sumerian cylinder seal impression, depicting Dumuzi imprisoned in the underworld, the Kur. He’s surrounded by galla, demons of that place.

Dumuzi, the meta-poem

Realized last night that the table of contents to Dumuzi, the book I’ve been at work on since, I don’t know, late in the Sumerian era, is itself somewhat a poem. So here, in the spirit of self-composting, and also to celebrate my having once more called the damn thing done, and for reals this time, no really, it is.


DUMUZI

At Leaf
Dumuzi
His Spaces
(T)error
White Teeth
O [Sumer],
A Loud Water
A Map in the Brush
Atonement
Pastoral
I stroll w/ him
Lascaux
Orchard
And a boy
Agora
K so fire
Rain in nature
Terror of the tall trees
I thought I
Blue Mountains Walking
Fast
Clay to eat
Thou
Dawns
A thorn of
Spring Snow
They find
Moriah
Imago
The Friend
In Rain
Deal is
A Path Down It
“Spring Snow” (detail)
Mind, Eurydice
At Anchor
Omnia Quae Sunt, Lumina Sunt
Shouts heard
“… of the tall trees” (detail)
Galla fat and thin
Pest
Q.E.D.
At Moor
(C)lear
Nooo
A Room
Weeds
An inner governor
Rest Stop
Head Is All Ought
Crossing the bar
They are fences
Red Ink
Sez flies
In Ruin
Root Mind Sight
Hands bound
Eorðgrap
One Night Pound
No room for
One leans down
A Stone
Terro(i)r
Through the Morning
Is You Is or Is You Ain’t
And their life is orchard.
Eyes not scornful
Union Square
Yarrow

paperwhites, for Elise


Not strong on narrative, okay, but there’s a sort of arc in it, a greeny rainbow.

Coupla updates

Friends. Just updated a couple parts of this blog, thought I’d let you know.

New words about my two current projects, Overject and SCROhere.

A portfolio of my adventures in visual poetry here.

The latter turned into a narrative essay of sorts. Writing it, I learned a few things about what I think I’m up to. Cool when that happens. Please enjoy –

C.

 

Beasties, animated, to be

Whereas it’s been long since a post. Whereas we’re all about repurposing here. And whereas I resist going back to work on a panel proposal. Herewith, the juicy bits from a grant proposal, wherein The Poet Asks for $$ to Learn to Flash Adobe.


I’ll begin with a passage I’ve translated from an untitled Old English poem found in the Exeter Book –

5.

Moving among the company,
everywhere always, house throughout,
greeting her lord, she pours his cup first;
in greatness gives and keeps counsel,
they make a house, two
of one mind.

A selection process, adapted from poets Ronald Johnson and Jen Bervin and now in general use among restless poets everywhere, yields a visual pattern to work with:

90V SI 5 image 1

The selected text also generates, with some recombinations, a verbal poem –

SI 5 (90V) - text 2

– but I’ll focus here on my work with the selection marks, for that is where my practice, though first inspired by visual artist Tom Phillips, largely departs from other practices I know of. It’s here too that my practice points towards terrain I’d like funding to explore.

Elaboration of the selection marks goes through several stages, like so,

90V SI 5 image 2

and so,

90V SI 5 image 3

and so,

90V SI 5 image 4

and so,

90V SI 5 image 6

to produce an image

90V SI 5 image 8

somewhere in a dream terrain where Salvador Dali and Jim Henson commune with Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The images are an exploration of pareidolia, the mind’s tendency to make faces at the drop of a hat. They exhume natural and biological forms latent in the alphabet (“A” – ox; “N” – water; “O” – eye). They tap into the animism residual in the process of silent solitary reading (see David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous). And they undertake a fitful and pata­physical, i.e., seriously unserious, investigation of the mystical dimensions of the material text (see bpNichol, “Probable Systems 14: Re-Discovery of the 22 Letter Alphabet”).

Their main shortcoming, as I look at them now in Dumuzi (recently finished) and Overject (presently underway), is that they have had to sit still.

I want in my next project to animate them – to put the demonic, angelic, and zoological forms that arise through the illumination process into motion. Even more, I want to animate the illumination process itself, obviating the need for clumsy accounts like the one just finished. I envision digital publication and performance events, the latter more akin to video installations in gallery spaces than to conventional poetry readings.


Demons and angels weightless shadows across wall, floor, ceiling. Let’s see if I can stand to learn the program though. It’s that or start the search for – my collaborator.

A bit more on inscription

My handwriting has always been execrable. Cramped, crabbed, sotted, befuggled. Never mattered how hard I tried – after the first few sentences, the forms collapsed into a grapheme porridge pretty much only I could read, and even I only mostly.

I always thought it was impatience – hand not keeping up with thought. I was just too smart for my own embodiment! is how my thinking went. My a’s lost their stems and decayed into c’s, my f’s forgot their cross strokes and masqueraded as long l’s, my p’s omitted to close their loops, all were just too keen to get on to, well, to whatever came next.

I open my journal at random for an example and come upon notes for the course that gave birth to this blog.

Journal scrap

Translation:

Egypt/n Book of the Dead

Mesopotamian afterlife

y is hell underground? b/c that’s where rot is

the ecological imperative – to make also highest the lowest on the foodchain – the microbes + maggots that discompose the corpse

Ex: invent a verbal decay process and enact it

Ex: build a poem out of recycled objects / objs in yr recycling bin. (e.g. collage of beer bottle labels; contrap/n of cut coop plastic)


Around the new year I revisited Dumuzi to overhaul and conclude him and made a discovery. In certain brief and to me potent inscriptions I found I wanted to drop my descender hard and strike my cross stroke fast.

Journal scrap 2

Something, in those moments, that had been chained felt freed, an energy. The stroke could go as long hard far high fast wide as it wanted. As I wanted. As it in me wanted out of me. And what else happened was the rest of my hand began to clarify. The above is hardly beautiful but you don’t need my translation of it.

As if, in letting those flights of energy forth, the rest of my script could quiet down, take time to make the mark in the time given to make the mark. I felt I had felt Olson’s projective for the first time at the nerve ends – as matter in, of, motion.

I tried it out more general. And Dumuzi got altered lots by it – rather shockingly naked journal pages, and junk mail scraps inscribed with myth bits in a hand that feels a bit cuneiform a bit calligraphy a bit graffiti.At Uruk

But my thought here isn’t to rehash that. It’s first to acknowledge just how bloody hard it is to work with handwriting – the deep habit our script is in us. And second, just quick, to give a few pics of how I’ve worked since with script, my scriptural breakthrough.


These are from Overject, a translation project I’ve recently brought back into the shop for smashdown and overhaul. The source text is a really rather minor poem from The Exeter Book, a miscellany of Old English poetry with a few real knockouts – “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Ruin” – and a lot of stuff not much translated.

The one I’m working with is often called “Maxims” or “Gnomic Verses” but I’ve called it “Proverbs.” There’s something about its mix of sententious piety and anxious disjunction that strikes me as prematurely postmodern.

Overject, from Proverbia Disjecta, tries to release the anxious poem from the pious poem by means of wayward translation methods.


The first method is diplomatic transcription. Usually that means going from manuscript to typescript, getting as best you can the peculiar individual features of inscription into the uniformity of typesetting. Like drugging clowns to dress them in army fatigues!

My approach is different. I translate the handwriting of the Exeter scribe into my own handwriting. Here’s the scribe’s version:

88vTakes me three passes to get to my version. On the first, I do the script I told you of, let all the energy into ascenders, descenders, cross strokes they want. And damn but don’t it feel nice to.

88V dip transcrip pass 1

You’ll notice, three lines from the bottom, leftmost character, I’ve translated the scribe’s sleepiness. Not by translating some error directly, no slavish copying here, but by allowing my momentary inattention, my slip of a modern “w” where I should have writ the rune ƿ (wynn, “joy”), to stand and be overwrit, just as the scribe has done elsewhere (e for æ, say) when he’s drifted off.

How subtle this translation process gets. Best to go slow, not to assume anything, the least stroke might paralyze you.


Second pass is to set, roughly, the outlines of the characters.

88V dip transcrip pass 2

Third fills them in. This is the fussy part. If at the start it’s quick expressive sweeps of the pen – I toss the sheet and start over if I’ve got too in my head (the Sharpie is a perfect compass) – at the end it’s meticulous distribution of microns of ink, glasses off, eyes a couple inches from the receptive surface (and still I eff it up in six places).

88V dip transcrip pass 3

Not an improvement, nor deprovement, from dear anon’s, nor proof of no sort, but a difference. But a difference that makes a difference? Amn’t sure yet. I think it’s a base text, ground for sthg. more to grow upon, not sure what, annotation, emendation, error compounded upon error … well, stay tuned, if you wish.

Trust yr boredom

Well isn’t that interesting. I said I’d post some stuff about my adventures in erasure and now I find I just don’t feel like it. I tell my students over and over – trust your boredom – it’s some of the best guidance you’re going to get. Bored with a line? Cut it. Bored with a poem? Throw it away.

A sour and maybe cranky wakefulness but wakeful just the same. Could I ask of them something I won’t of myself?

face 2The deal I made with me when I started this blog was – write when I feel a wish to and write what I feel a wish to and not otherwise. Lots of duties and such elsewhere. Here I’ll see if what I’ve heard about whim is so, its fructiveness and sufficiency. So far it’s borne out well. Some fallow periods, some heavy fertile swells, an amiable rhythm.

So, having erased erasure, what do I mean to write about? I sat down without knowing. That’s the scary or even terrifying thing about trusting your boredom wholeheartedly. It might tell you what not without telling you what to.

face 3One thing I do, when in this place, and I mean to offer this to my students wherever you are, is just shine an inquisitive light over all the terrain of my mind open at that time, and see what gleams back, even tinily. That might be the place where whatever the counter to boredom is, is waiting.

Here what shone back in mind was an image of a red rock cliff in an essay I’d run my eyes over a few minutes earlier, looking for something on erasure I might want to use.

My thought was a propensity for seeing faces where they ain’t, and then my thought was, that’s where I want to go, that’s where the living interest is, the way inert matter makes faces at us, or the way we make it into faces.

face 1

Project onto it a sentience it doesn’t have, if you’re the sort of materialist most people today are, or acknowledge the sentience we intuit it to have, if you’re the sort of postmodern animist I’m coming to give myself permission to be.

Gleaming in mind, I think, because I spent some of yesterday, and today, turning a portion of Dumuzi into a chapbook ms, title Junk Inanna Down, which will go off to a contest tomorrow. The final image, built out of junk mail, is this

10. Eyes

Those eyes move me some. They’re a mother’s looking down at an infant in her arms. They’re Kuanyin coming to poor lowered noble Ezra in that Pisan tent. They’re the trademark stamp on the Bank of America logo blown up about 1600%. Sacred just bitch-slapped profane, ’bout time. Her earrings are the rest of the same logo disassembled. Her headdress is one of those scan codes you see on the front of an envelope a machine reads to shunt its news unwanted to you more speedily.

This one’s for Don, with love.