Review of Lewis Turco’s The Hero Enkidu

by Miriam N. Kotzin

The Hero Enkidu
Lewis Turco, New York
Bordighera Press,
2015. 102 pp.

To say that Lewis Turco’s The Hero Enkidu is clever, is to understate its virtues both as a page-turner action story and as an accomplished poem. Enkidu is a companion to Gilgamesh, from the Ancient Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh, which, as Turco tells us is “the oldest long narrative poem in the world”—indeed, if there’s another more than 4,000 years old, we’ve yet to discover it.  Instead of being a sidekick to Gilgamesh, Enkidu is the hero, whose development and adventures are presented in Anglo Saxon prosody with metrical five-line “bob and wheels.”  It is a matter of amazement that this construction seems to vanish as the reader gets caught up in the story of Enkidu.

It doesn’t vanish, of course—even the presence of a sestina, with a bob and wheel following each of its stanzas— serves to foster character development or advance the plot.  The bob and wheel sometimes enjambs with the line above, sometimes with the line following, impelling the reader forward. Moreover, the poetry offers evocative descriptions, such as: “….The windowsill /Swallowed shadows.” or “northern light/Would glance from glaciers   laid like tiles/Upon the tundra.”

The epic begins before Enkidu speaks when he is “fully feral.”  He is transformed by Lilitu, but one night Enkidu wakes and finds his bed-companion, Lilitu, is missing, and he sets out to find her.  She had lured him and transformed him from his feral life, but now, anger transforms him to a beast-like creature:
                                        Enkidu raged
To think that Lilitu      had betrayed him.
The moon was full      in the night’s heavens
When Enkidu howled    beneath its beams.
He dropped again     to all four  feet
As he had erstwhile    done in the forest,
Before he became    a human male.

At last he found her    in a crypt of ghouls
Consorting with them   and drinking the blood
Of infants from bowls    made of skulls.
Enkidu entered    trembling with fury
And with disgust.    He called aloud
In the voice of a lion,   “Who are you
Who gather here     to engage in the rites
Of the gods of Evil?”

He gets his answer:  the Seven Spirits who “grind the earth/ like wheat.”  Enkidu gets rid of them:  “With one  mighty / Thrust Enkidu      brushed the spirits /Into the wind…”
 
The caesuras (pauses) in the following passage increase the drama of the dialogue. Lilitu’s speech is strong, and is followed by Enkidu’s silent turning away.   

She looked at him    with eyes of fire.
“I am not your kine,    Enkidu my love.
My soul is mine     as is my body.
I do with it as    I please; I go
Whereever I go     whenever I wish.
You have no rights     to me or mine.
Why did you banish   my Seven Spirits?”

Enkidu said nothing,   He merely turned
And hastened away.   He had to find
A place to stay   and be alone
To deal with such   immense betrayal.

Equally engaging is Canto VI, the goddess Ishtar’s proposal to Enkidu—and his refusal, which reads, in part:

What, then would be   my advantage?
You are a ruin   that gives no shelter
From the weather   to any man.
You are merely   a rear door
Without resistance     to blast or storm.
You are a palace     that dashes the heroes
Living in it     into shards and pieces,
A pitfall covered     with twigs and leaves
That will fail and trap     him who walks
Upon its surface.   You are a bottle
That leaks in the desert,     limestone that rots
And lets ramparts    crumble in ruins.
You are chalcedony   that does not guard;
A sandal that tears   and causes its wearer
To fall by the wayside.     How many husbands
Have you loved faithfully,    who has been your lord
And had the advantage?     Let me unfold
The endless roster     of your husbands,
And you will vouch     the truth of the list:

These invectives make “bitch on wheels” seem a quaint raised eyebrow of disapproval. Enkidu then lists Ishtar’s husbands and what befell them—e.g., transformed into a spider.  Her revenge follows.

With all its violent exploits, battles, the living dead “night walkers, ” and seductions and attempted seductions, this poem would be R rated were it to be made into a 3-D animated film, which it should be.  Imagine Lilitu transforming into an owl and flying away with her owl daughter out over the heads of the audience, or The Bull of Heaven incinerating the men, its flames leaping upward to the cinema’s ceiling.

The Epic of Enkidu is great fun to read.  In addition to the poem itself, this volume includes an informative introduction by Michael Palma and an Afterword by Turco, about 20 pages that begin with a discussion of prosody and then move to a fascinating literary memoir. Per Contra published The Prologue, Canto I, Nimrod and Lilitu and part of the Afterword, in the Winter of 2013, and a revision of Canto 5, The Forest of Humbaba, which incorporates a newly published translation of a tablet of Gilgamesh.  

Cosmology

by Lewis Turco

The scientists say that what is going on
Is still the Bang that first emerged from nothing,
Becoming shortly everything that's known.
Not ALL, however, for a little something

Must have been left over: our balloon
Swells with altitude in the summer air,
Seeming to grow larger, like the moon
Sailing though an evening soft and fair.

But what about our bursting universe?
What is the "air" in which it must expand?
Since "outer space" is, though it seems perverse,
Part of the cosmos, is something else more grand

Surrounding us? Something we must face
Beyond Creation? Outer-outer space?

Mnemosyne Meanders

by Lewis Turco

"In 2013, when an OED staff member sought to look at the source material for the dictionary's entry for ‘revirginize,’ for which a passage from Meanderings of Memory [by ‘Nightlark’] is quoted, the publication could not be located." Wikipedia entry.

Nightlark! How Mnemosyne meanders,
Mawkishly bewilders us, meanders
Across our bookish landscape like the ganders

Of Mother Goose whose doughty definitions
Enter O. E. D. with strange renditions —
Nightlark, how Mnemosyne meanders

From source to source across the generations.
What source, if any, caused these generations
Across our bookish landscape? Ganders!

Cullings! Frantic pedants made to pore
Through nonexistent tomes, forced to pour
Kegs of sweat while memory meanders

Hither, thither, yon…were these words born
From nowhere…or perhaps a book of porn?
Across the bookish landscape, like her ganders

Chasing Mother Goose, we sweat; our pants
Bellow from our collars to our pants —
Nightlark, how Mnemosyne meanders
Across the years like literaryganders!

Anatomy of a Passing Thought

by Lewis Turco

"PREHISTORIC HUMAN BRAIN FOUND PICKLED IN BOG!
A brain in near-perfect condition is found in a skull
of a person who was decapitated over 2,600 years ago."

They found a pickled human brain
In a buried human head
In a British bog in an ancient drain —
The man had long been dead:

More than two thousand years had gone
Since he'd endured beheading —
No mulling had begun to dawn
Since then…or perhaps his wedding.

His thoughts were mud at their very best,
His musings soaked in slime.
Did he enjoy eternal rest
Until the end of time?

Alas! A lack of luck took place
And he was resurrected —
He is reminded of his disgrace,
For science has perfected

The art of Doctor Frankenstein
And soon he will be furnished
With an android's body and a glass of wine.
His reputation burnished,

He once again will walk abroad
Amid these modern wonders,
Unless, of course, it's all a fraud
Or some technician blunders.

Ineluctable Blues

by Lewis Turco

"O ineluctable blues of the middle class!
Softly we sing, and the more forgetful hum."
— Donald Justice, from “Sonya Sits at the Piano, Practicing.”

Well, that's the way it is, that's how it was,
Yes, that's the way it is and how it was–
We heard the sun come up, we hear time buzz

Beside the bed and tell us to get up
And shower, go to work and just shut up
About it all, just pour yourself a cup

Of coffee, swallow it and head for work–
Get that black coffee down and off to work,
Try not to bitch, try not to be a jerk.

When you come home, who knows? She might be there
Waiting, maybe not. She might be there,
A hairnet holding back a hank of hair.

"O ineluctable blues of the middle class!"
Whatever that may mean. I'll take a class
In night-school if I get up off my ass

Some evening soon, to work on my B. A.,
Get a better job — or maybe a
"Position" somewhere, as they like to say.

Yeah, fat chance. I'd need a little luck —
I'd need to take a chance, but with my luck
I'd cross the street and get hit by a truck.

Guys like me don't march to a different drum.
Our song's the same old song, it's the same old drum.
"Softly we sing, and the more forgetful hum."