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Not Sumerian


ISSUE:  Summer 2006

 
They tried to stop her dying. The son with the money
tried—he shoveled it by the trainload
into her lungs. The daughter made herself
an expert in the illness, to erase it
on its own terms: still it stayed, it grew, and as you know
the eraser soon starts disappearing.
And Jerry, the husband . . . his response was simple
and direct—he would have substituted himself for her,
if he could, on that sheet where her dying was so fiercely present,
they were the ones who looked like ghosts. If he could;
but he couldn’t. There wasn’t a prayer,
or a pill, or a silver bowl of blood they could offer
from one of their own cut tongues, that slowed
the dark arrival. This might be the story

of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, the builder
of the ramparts of Uruk,
who journeyed far, and far again,
to seek out Utnapishtim whom the gods took to them
after the world’s deluge and taught eternal life: and this
might be how Gilgamesh, the Lord of Kullub, the knower
of mystery words,
alone of all men
entered the mountain Mashu and traveled in it
in the darkness many days, and still,
he wept before the gods for Enkidu his brother,
he wore the skins of beasts before them, and despair
was in his face and in his breast, and still, and still, and ever,
he and his could not forestall the tomb.
This might be
that enormous archetypal proto-quest exactly,

if my head today could hold such ancient grandeur, and
if Jerry’s face were not so small and pulverized a thing in the river
of psychic pain that washes through the hospital.
More manageable is a story out of the Little Ice Age,
at its coldest during a period known as the Maunder Minimum,
from 1645 to 1715. In one village
at the foot of Mont Blanc in the French Alps,
there was such great desperation that the Bishop of Geneva
—so the chronicles say—performed a rite of exorcism
to try to halt the advance of a glacier.
I think of them: that noble and silly and tiny man,
with his hand held up like a traffic cop’s;
and the ice coming on. The ice coming on
with the force of the planet behind it.

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