My Sister’s Last Gift

by Joe Benevento

Memories seem more fragile and so
authentic in black and white.  The photo
from 1957 Barbara framed for me
captures our Grandpa Frank's last
birthday: he sits all sides surrounded
rich only in grandchildren.
Among the fifteen present, the five
Beneventos born by then— Barbara, a favorite
at four on grandpa's lap— me, off to one side
crying, holding some little object I can't
now identify, hoisted up to camera range
by my smiling oldest sister Rose Anne.

Barbara herself never gave me the gift;
it was among the Christmas presents
in a padded envelope she still hadn't mailed
in February, that shortest month
when she died.

To receive a gift photo featuring
a man you never had time
to know, from a sister you will lack
for the rest of your loss-fueled life:
small wonder I'm caught a baby
crying forever in its small, dark
frame.

School Year

by Joe Benevento

When a child, I understood the season
of dying coinciding with the start
of school. I recall one early September
Sunday night when it became cold enough
for my mother to place blankets on us
after we were already in our beds,
as if to snug us away from escape
from the next morning's ordering bells.
At sixty, I prefer order so well
I profess it for a living at a U.
Summer so soon gone hardly bothers me.
Instead the beach, flowers, songbirds, short nights
almost annoy me: I embrace the start
of another ending with each class I teach.

Nudes

by Stephen Gibson

Richard Avedon

The real shocker is the celebrity and not the nude.
Natassja Kinski with the boa constrictor is a pose.
Warhol and that band is anyone without clothes
until you see that it’s Warhol there, and that goes
for Christy Turlington who’s just a model from Vogue
until you know, or Ginsberg giving Orlovsky tongue,
or the young Nureyev in Paris, so alive, and hung.

 

Diane Arbus, Germaine Greer

Believe that this woman tasted her menstrual blood.
Or believed that western society existed to suppress
women and knew the means: to separate their sex
from them, leaving them fearful to be understood,
and, without men, nothing—The Female Eunuch
from too much protein in urine in the preeclampsia
diagnosis, to Greer’s portrait in Australia on a stamp.

 

Annie Leibovitz

Celebrity feeds upon everything and itself is food
and is never exhausted and is never satisfied,
finds pregnant Demi, ready to drop, in the nude
perfect for this occasion and only for this time;
if repeated (other naked Johns with Yokos), deified
in the original (thou shalt have one, not a multitude):
our burden, to know their future: her divorce, how he died.

 

Man Ray

The Classicism of solarized women posed as caryatids
holding up the temple; the Postmodernist droplets
dropped onto thighs before there was Photoshop;
the Surrealism of a nude woman becoming a cello
with F-holes, tail spike, belly, bridge, and pegbox;
Europe’s exuberance after the Great War: batting eyelids,
fucking doggy-style, kewpie doll mouth sucking cock.

 

Edward Weston

The erotic is nowhere to be found in these tableaux.
There is nothing to suggest they eat, fuck, are capable
of birth, will die, be put into the ground and decompose.
Settings change: Hopi reservation, West as memorial
to some vanished myth that no one really has to know
(fake as a Wyeth Saturday Evening Post Thanksgiving table).
He did better showing erotic resemblances in vegetables.

 

Cindy Sherman

Disarticulated doll parts, like L.A.’s Black Dahlia
separated by several feet of grass in a vacant lot
(Elizabeth Short discarded like a mannequin in what
would become one of Hollywood’s musts for film noir);
female doll heads, at a hacked plastic female torso, watch
a tampon string at bottom, a cock with cock ring at top:
clearly, women objectified (and some men’s darker desire).

 

R. Crumb

Someone in my generation would’ve drawn Snatch Comics
if he hadn’t already, not only because of the weed shit
and LSD and free-love shit, but simply to see Crumb’s us
with our heads disappearing up a woman’s ass at a bus stop
(telling us to hurry because the bus is coming), or to catch
a hooker off-guard (saying “Excuse me” as we jiggle her clit)—
anything to keep away the jungle and napalm and the ditch.

Island

by Ernest Hilbert

1.

Coffee did little to wake us since we arrived
On the volcano. We only wanted to sleep.
A clear summer morning smeared and bruised

As we tore the tiny car along narrow
Mountain passes over a frothing, fanged coast.
At tight shadowed curves, headlamps lit warnings

Painted on the streaked mineral walls,
Some word the locals use that we didn’t know.
We spun down a tightly wound switchback

To a small white village tucked among boulders.

 

2.

The villagers scarcely noticed us.
One slowly swept dust from the porch of a red house
That seemed like it might slough into the water.

Another watched from a high window,
But it may have been a retreating flash
Of sun. Our sandals crunched down on shards,

Smashed aquatic armor of blue crabs.
We located a thin steep trail hacked out
Of stone over the water. We took it.

It worried its slender way along the caldera.

 

3.

At trail’s end, we came upon a jagged spit
Over the submerged rim where heavy green
Water went black and the bottom dropped

Quickly down into the bottomless throat.
Another couple, just dried, dressed themselves there.
We waved, and they greeted us in return.

The man gestured vaguely to the island
And said something we didn’t understand.
They lingered for a while, as we undressed,

Awkwardly. We leapt from the jagged sill.

 

4.

Under, we saw enormous ancient chains
Blur faintly link by link into the murk.
We swam, as thin light receded further, toward

The ferocious rocky mass that shot up
Like the top of a tower from small waves.
We floated around to the far side of the island,

Craned our necks, breathed, and treaded water,
Shocked to find a temple carved in its side.
A wet black chain snaked up the sheer face.

I hauled my air-chilled body to the ledge.

 

5.

Then I coaxed you, as you floated, unsure,
In the darkening water, until you pulled
Yourself up as well, took my hand. We appraised

The fierce faces of what felt like gods,
Or their champions, worn by endless rains.
We peered deeper in, listened, but heard nothing.

How long had it been here? Did anyone
Still visit, or was it something lived with
So long it was forgotten, once hidden from view?

The sun rapidly embered out on the edge.

 

6.

Then it pitched darker, and it was night
Sooner than we expected. Neither
Of us had the strength, or nerve,

To reenter the water and swim back.
We shivered and slowly dried in wind
That fluted through the massive gnarled figures.

We heard something, distinct from the waves
Splashing toward us around the island.
We looked out into the older dark as it neared.

We gripped our knees to our chests, and waited. 

What I Did Not See Driving from Swansea

by Sarah Kennedy

Not the grave of Henry Vaughan, tombed
              by the yew at the top of that

tourists’ churchyard,
                                      not the sheela
              on her half shell of museum

plinth in Llandrindod Wells.
                                            And not
              the ruined round foundation wall

of the tower at Dolforwyn
              (where I stumbled over lovers

in the grass—a mirror to my
              burning, illicit face [record

heat—my trespass]).
                                      Not Dinas Bran,
              where, from the top, the suicide

bridge that cuts through Llangollen was
              visible as highlighter marked

on the map-sized town.
                                            Nor was it
the “largest mill wheel in Wales,”
                                                          nor

the badger that slunk from the path,
              my car’s headlamps, one midnight.
                                                                 No.

Just you—
                      smile across a room or
              a body moving over mine—

though my mind’s eye held you even
              as I watched the kites—
                                            they could not

be missed, wheeling outside my room—
              even as I studied the door

that opened and opened itself—
              though nothing (that I could see) came

through, and no one had stopped off there,
              at that roadside hotel, but me.

One Way of Looking at Grace

by Elizabeth J. Coleman

For 150 million years birds saw
their reflections only in the sea,

but now the last typewriter repair
shop in New York is going out

of business, and monk parrots
nest in Sheepshead bay.  Still

that fire escape casts a lovely shadow,
the way the wheel of a slow-moving

bicycle seems to slow time,
gorillas stay up all night to groom
their dead, and a woman in Ohio

who’d been laid off gave every building
in her town a new coat  of paint. 

What’s your name?  I asked
the woman at the post office
who takes my packages
and tells me about her cruises
to the Bahamas with her mother
and sister, and how much they love
the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Grace, she said, I thought you knew.

Sergeant John Ordway’s Journal, Last Entry

by R. T. Smith

Captain Lewis now dead by some assassin’s
hand, all the clouds blow ashen and black,
but I remember storming snow, wild artichokes,
prickley pear and how the lark woodpecker flew,
the black horn antelope and dog stew delicious
in the bleak times.  Gass, Shannon, the Fields
brothers all cussing some Mandan weather
god, our Captain Clark by turns taciturn or
shaken with laughter.  The undiscovered
country opened for us, but not without labor,
fevers worse than this, mutiny in the wilderness,
our need to learn quickly how to forgive.
We found time daily to praise our Maker.
Ghost weed grew on the shore, feathered
native men danced, and the keel boat foundered.
Venison or thin broth, I doled the rations daily.
Cruzet’s fiddle by the round fire warmed us
after the maps were almost lost.  The bird girl
saved us often.  Bratton, Labiche, York –
every soul equal at work and celebration.
Nightly I dreamed of my beloved betrothed
Gracy Walker and wished the ordeal over,
yet it was a thrill, despite the rattling snakes,
silver-tip bears like monsters.  Looking back,
I am satisfied I saw enough for one mortal,
man, especially the devilish mosquitoes.
Red sky at morning, currents like a whirling
dervish – the trials of Odysseus with no goddess
close at hand.  We survived by Clark’s dead
reckoning and chance, which Captain Lewis
insisted was just another word for providence.
Once was enough for me, cold faces of compass
and pocket watch – what’s time but a shiftier
form of distance?  There was no passageway
by water.  We had to settle for survival, science
and wonder.  Finally home, I married, savored
after lovemaking the taste of my wife’ shoulder.
Four years hence she was lost while with child.
Since then, phantoms and voices in the mist.
What best do I remember from the journey?

Taste of fresh meat after hunger, and high over
the swollen river a sky salt-white with herons.
Maybe they were angels going where Gracy
now abides and I hope to be bound very soon,
if our Maker will allow me this one last mercy.

Summoning Japan

by Elaine Terranova

Instruction, what I sought. Not from the beginning as would require study, reading, deep thought, the string of something you follow until it’s exhausted, but no, only scatter shot. Knowing by looking around corners. Stepping like a spy along the emperor’s Hall of Nightingales. Steps even barefoot he can hear as he sleeps.

             armed guards assemble
             in the dark antechamber…
             a lost kitten’s tread

And after the cancer was cut out of my breast, after treatment, equally intrusive, this I wanted, to be far, far away.

Shin meaning new, Shinjuku. The grid of high buildings. The American hotel with its Japanese breakfasts. Windows where light breaks. Where I watch the subway riders at evening spew out from underground like erupting lava. 

To think, all these people live here, here, where I’d never have seen them if I hadn’t come.
             leaving the airport
             Tokyo Road traffic jam—
             at my back, Fuji

On the bus that has transported me, traffic never lessening, I study the white lace antimacassars which protect the passenger seats. For cleanliness, as well, the driver wears white gloves. As do taxi drivers, I will learn, and even operators of department store elevators, the latter, pretty young women, whose beanies and Brownie-style uniforms are a smiting red.

And I find myself twenty-one hours later than the east coast of America. I’m only three hours off, plus a day, which is lost forever.

In Tokyo, I will venture onto the subway platforms where guards shoehorn you in at rush hour. Each ku or neighborhood has its own pattern of tones that rings when you arrive, a lovely reception, like a programmed wind chime.

I will stop at Harajuku, the “in” neighborhood. Clothing verging on the pornographic, cut-out nipples and crotches. Omotesando, wide Parisian boulevard, that intoxicating name. Takeshita-dori, smoky alley leading to a flea market. I wander off to a nearby garden.
             overpowering
             to walk beside the full moon,
             fenced-in jasmine’s scent

Another day’s outing. Fantastic kimonos hang in glass cases in Oeno Park museum, robin’s egg or raspberry, embroidered with birds and flowers. Grand, not a size for women. Later I’ll see like ones in the kabuki worn by players of mighty men, under their angry, cross-eyed stares. Kabuki players, it is said, act with the pupils of their eyes.

On the tour I take, Mayumi is our guide: My (pointing to herself), you (pointing to her charges), me (back to herself). She can give statistics on how many Japanese have western-style toilets. Facts: how Japanese wives control the family finances, how much allowance they allot to their businessmen husbands to drink and entertain themselves each month.

Our bus takes us to a shrine. 
             in my photo
             the stillness of stone lanterns—
             passersby in mid-step

I watch. I see what to do. First, purify yourself with holy water: Using the long-handled wooden spoon, cleanse left hand, right hand, pour water in left palm to rinse the mouth. Gather around the incense burner, which is like a black, cast iron head on the ground. Bend, waft fumes, which are pleasant if a bit overwhelming, from its orifices toward the part of your body which needs divine aid. I draw them to my chest and cough, cough out my natural breath as I breathe in sweet smoke.
             a sip of holy water…
             lost in the smoke of incense
             unanswered wishes

After, you can take a paper fortune—you’re allowed to throw it back and try again—or leave a paper prayer.

All around, unfamiliar trees that bear the familiar odor of camphor.

Instruction now on how to enter the wooden pavilion: First, take off shoes. Don’t step with them onto the clean wooden platform or people will come with a mop immediately to wipe away your footprint. Approach. Bow twice. Clap hands to get the attention of the kami (god of the river, mountain, agricultural crop) who protects the premises. Make your request: Health, once more, health. Again bow twice, back away.

At a temple you don’t have to clap because the image or statue is already visible. It awaits you. You needn’t attract its attention as in a shrine to call it out.

Shrines on streets, in parks, on temple grounds. Cedar trees are good for building them.
             off a busy street
             red cloth strung along a line—
             clothes for the kami

The tour bus next day takes us to Nikko Toshu-go, the Shogun’s shrine, a five-story pagoda. Each Chinese tower on the second level, presided over by a guardian figure. The one on the left is saying ah, indicating birth. The one on the right, mmm or om, for death. Ah and om, which stand as well for the drum of birth and the bell of death and for the first and last letters of the sacred Sanskrit alphabet. The Hall of 36 Poets nearby is protected by mythical beasts, the tapir who eats nightmares and Ran, a phoenix-like bird with a lifespan of 360 years.

The Tokagawa Shogun’s crest is upside down because perfection will attract evil spirits.
             Nikko morning mist
             and you can barely make out
             bright-eyed snow monkeys

On a ferry to Hakone, Myumi tells us Lake Ashi is very deep. The bodies of the drowned never rise to the surface because of water pressure and the impenetrable hard mud.

Is it here that in a temple garden, a pine has taken on the shape of a treasure ship? It began as bonsai, which can last for centuries, but then was planted so it found feet in the earth and will die sooner.

Elsewhere, under clear-weather clouds, we enter gardens where even the dirt is swept.
             poor flowering pear
             shivers in a lacy shawl…
             fool of the false spring

So many sights. So many vehicles transporting us. Wooden houses, paper windows. Loose, fluid. All of it could collapse and be gone in the morning, beds, doors, walls. I come from more solid housings and furnishings. They wait to receive me, firm and in place even if it is a matter of doubt—will I sit or stand, might I change my mind?

But sometime I must return home. Folded within myself, the knowledge that I have come from my life, desiring new sky and moss, new mountain water to gaze at. Her waist smaller than mine has ever been, the pretty ocarina player in the park repeating over and over with great optimism Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini, who could heal me, or the vague smoke of the incense burner I wafted over my breast. A paper prayer I left. A paper fortune I took away.                                           

Canto V: The Forest of Humbaba

by Lewis Turco

Gilgamesh   
                 and Enkidu strode
Forth from the grand   
                                  gate of the city,
Enkidu leading    
                         the way from Erech
Toward the forest   
                             of fearsome Humbaba.
They marched many   
                                 leagues until
At last they approached    
                                        the verge of the woodland.
They stood and stared
                                 at the cedar forest,
stunned by the stature
                                    of the spiring boles.
Their eyes searched
                                for a trail through the trees,
for Humbaba’s track –- 
                                  “Here!” cried Enkidu,
“See where the ogre
                                has trampled his way
through the wood
                            toward his mountain
where the gods 
                        and goddesses dwell!”
                                                  Laughter
                                                 and revelry resounded
                                                       in the effulgent air,
                                                  echoed and rebounded
                                                       about the heroic pair!

The cedars grew
                           in groves and rows
casting shadows
                            cool and cloistered.
The forest floor
                        was thickly thorny,
ballukku trees
                        tangled with cedars
that fathered herds 
                                of cedar saplings.
The elder trees
                        seeped sap
that drizzled like rain
                                  and dried to scabs
until true rain
                        washed it away.
Throughout the wood
                                  birds called and cried,
till all was noise, 
                            cacophonies!
A cricket’s call
                        became a chorus,
a mourning dove
                           made subtle moan
until a turtle
                      replied in kind.
At the stork’s call
                            the forest rejoiced;
the francolin’s voice
                                 made the forest sing!
Monkey matrons
                            called their offspring
who replied 
                    with apelet shrieks,
drumming praise
                              before Humbaba.
The cedars’ shadow
                                fell on the King
Instilling terror,
                          Gripping his limbs
and enfeebling him.
                               Gilgamesh felt
Fear at the thought   
                                of the forthcoming fight.
He lay for a day   
                          and then another,
Prone on his pallet.   
                               He did not rise
Till twelve    
                days had passed,
And then he called   
                               His friend Enkidu,
“Comrade, you hate me   
                                      because in Erech
You were afraid   
                          of the coming combat,
Because you said, ‘friend,   
                                         let us not go
Down to the depths  
                                of the Forest of Cedars!’
My arms are weak now,   
                                      hands stricken
With palsy, Enkidu!”

                                  “Shall we be cowards?”   
 Enkidu replied.
                          “You shall surpass
All those who battle.   
                                 You are cunning
And shrewd in the fray.   
                                      Be brave and resist
Both trembling and weakness.   
                                                Have no fear
Of Death, nor terror   
                                 of what may come.
You have led the way   
                                   here from Erech
And have not flinched   
                                   in duty or friendship.
You have guarded me   
                                   and I will guard you.
Let it be so!”   
                     Enkidu said
unto his sovereign,
                               “Have no fear!
                                                           Let us raise
                             our pennants and banners high
                                       and sing boldly, in praise
                             of honor, our battle-cry!
                                     These are our city’s ways!”

Gilgamesh replied,
                                “Indeed, my friend.
“Why to we tremble 
                               here like weaklings,
We who strode 
                        over mountains?”

Entu the treeherd    
                             stood sentinel
At the sylvan    
                       entranceway.
Enkidu lifted    
                      his eyes and spoke
Unto the guardian   
                              who seemed
Himself a cedar:   
                           “Sentinel of the Forest,
For forty leagues   
                           I have admired
This timberland   
                          until I sighted
The towering cedar.   
                                The wood has no peer.
Six gar your height,   
                                two gar your breadth.
Your branches pivot   
                                 and interlock –
They were fashioned   
                                  in the city of Nippur!
If I had known   
                         that such was your grandeur
I might have sensed   
                                trouble no matter
Wherever we went!”   
                                Enkidu arose
And the heroes stood   
                                   staring abroad
At the height of the cedars,   
                                            scanned the avenue
Past Entu   
                  into the wood where
Humbaba dwelt.   
                           A path appeared,
Straight as a spear.   
                                Its passage was clear.
They could see in the distance   
                                                the Mount of the Cedar,
Home of Immortals,   
                                the shrine of Irnini,
The cedars’ pride,   
                              raised on the mountain.
The shade was fair,   
                                full of delight.
Bushes spread there   
                                  with the incense of cedar.

Enkidu said,    
                      “While I lay ill
I had a dream   
                        in which I saw
The two of us    
                       standing together
High on a peak   
                         and the peak crumbled
Beneath our feet.   
                             We were left standing
Alone in a desert.   
                             The mountain is
Evil Humbaba.   
                         We’ shall confront him
And throw down his carcass,   
                                               leaving his corpse
Abased at our feet   
                             upon the morrow.”

The morrow dawned   
                                 and they broke their fast,
Eating a morsel,   
                           then hollowed a pit
In the warm sunlight.   
                                    Enkidu stood
Above it and poured   
                                 a meal for the Mountain.
Then a chill wind blew,   
                                     the breath of Humbaba;
It passed over   
                        the King and caused
Him to cower and sway   
                                              like corn in a field.
Enkidu bent
                     to grasp and support
The King’s hips.   
                            The firmament roared,
Poured out lightning.   
                                  Earth resounded,
Quaking beneath them.   
                                      Smoke rose
Out of the mountain   
                                  dimming the day.
Flames flew   
                            from the throat of the cone
And molten stone   
                             flowed down its sides
As it gorged itself,   
                             the fires faded
And the hot brands   
                                turned to ash
                                                      as they fell glowing,
                                hastened by the breeze 
                                     like seeds of lightning flowing
                                into the forest of trees
                                     where fires began growing.

Gilgamesh took   
                          his great axe
And stepped forward,  
                                   the first to set
Foot upon   
                  the forest path,
And as he began   
                            to pass Entu,
The treeherd reached   
                                   down with his limbs
From above,   
                             grasped the King,
And raised him into   
                                 a tangle of branches,
Holding him tightly.  
                                 The sudden attack
Took Gilgamesh   
                           unawares.
The King gasped   
                             and dropped his axe
From a great height.   
                                 It fell at the feet
Of Enkidu the Hero   
                                who, unthinking,
Picked it up   
                    and swung it mightily
Against the trunk   
                             of the cedar monster.

The sharp blade   
                           sliced through

The massive bole   
                            and Entu dropped
Gilgamesh   
                  before itself 
Fell to the earth.   
                           The King also
Plummeted, howling   
                                 with pain, upon
The forest floor, 
                          his bones broken.

Enkidu lifted   
                       his arms aloft
To Shamash,   
                       God of the Sun,
And cried aloud,   
                            “Lo, on that day
In Erech the City,   
                              before we left,
I heard you swear   
                              an oath to the King
That you would aid   
                                this great assault 
On the Forest of Cedars.”   

                                        Shamash hearkened
And raised mighty   
                               winds against
The ogre Humbaba,   
                                 a wind from the North,
A wind from the South —   
                                        yea, a tempest,
A wind of  Evil,    
                         from East and West –
Eight winds in all:   
                              a chill wind, 
A hot wind,   
                    a whirlwind spinning
Which seized Humbaba   
                                       before and behind,
That he might go   
                                neither forward nor backward.

Humbaba surrendered,   
                                      whereupon
He spoke to the King   
                                 but not to Enkidu,
“O Gilgamesh,   
                        I pray you stay
Your hand and be   
                              my master now,
And I will be   
                     your own vassal.
Disregard my threats   
                                   against you,
For I will lay down   
                               all weapons before you.”

Enkidu said   
                     to his twin and comrade,
“Pay no attention   
                             to these lying oaths
Humbaba spreads    
                             before us here.
You dare not accept   
                                 his specious offer.
Humbaba must not   
                                 remain alive.”
Before the King   
                         could quickly reply
Enkidu lifted   
                        his monstrous axe
And with one blow   
                                      cut off the head

Of the horrid ogre.  
                                       It rolled upon
                                                             the ground, one eye staring
                                                into the sky, the other
                                         open and balefully glaring
                                                into Earth the Mother
                                      with neither sight nor caring.

 
 
 
 
 


Note from Lewis Turco:
After my version of the epic appeared in book form a lost portion of the canto in my book titled “The Forest of Humbaba” was translated and published on-line in October of 2015 by Elizabeth Palermo, Associate Editor of Livescience in an essay titled “Lost ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ Verse Depicts Cacophonous Abode of Gods” (www.livescience.com/52372-new-tablet-gilgamesh-epic.html). I then turned the translation of the new material into Anglo-Saxon prosody and revised my Humbaba canto by inserting my new material. This required some revisions elsewhere in the text, which I also carried out. The version of “The Forest of Humbaba” included here is the revised version. Here is my rewritten version of Humbaba.