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.

The Apprentice Pillar

by Sarah Kennedy

The legend of course involves great desire,
pursuit, a gift from God, predictable,
final violence.  The stone swirls in ropes

around the straight and narrow ridges, stretched
to the crown: a private space more lavish
for worship than even the house’s best

room, the master mason sure of his skill
until that pause, his hand open in air
without a sign, his cold breath ghosting in

the dust.  His gargoyles and green men grin down
at him, sitting in the gap of absent
inspiration, and when his patron gives

him the pattern of a Continental
design, the Virgin, maybe some saint, dives
to his ear to whisper a pilgrimage

to Rome to see the original work.
So off he goes to do God’s will, as all
good quest tales demand, and leaves a young man

in charge, a simple boy, an innocent,
and as in good myths of the artistic
heart, the apprentice is visited by

a dream voice that murmurs the mystery
of invention and he feels the spirit
guide his tools across the pure, hard surface.

A curled dragon emerges from the earth
and gnaws the roots of the winding vines and
the boughs of a sacred Ash leaf out and

the trunk holds floor and roof in one perfect
syntax of creation.  William St. Clair
is pleased because he owns the whole place, and

the mason returns just then, no longer
master but an ordinary human
servant in awe of obvious divine

intervention.  The account might end here,
in a pretty reversal of fortune,
but the older man, bitten by envy,

heaves a nearby mallet into the head
of the startled apprentice, a “rash and
and cruel” murder.  Both faces still stare from

corners of the polluted, deadly spot,
though a swift “reconciliation” saves
the family’s tainted honor.  But wait, it’s

not over yet—now the tourists, unnerved
by a silly novel but all savvy
enough to know there’s no real comeuppance

kindling for them (age of science, after
all, come on), bow in the graveyard, searching
for clues to Jesus’s descendants.  It’s

a sexy story—Mary Magdalene
running off pregnant, a line of godly
kids.  Maybe they’ll chip a little piece off,

there, or there, a tangible narrative
fragment, an excusable souvenir
of their travels in an empty pocket,

the pillar fading into the setting
as blood once faded into the pavers,
now sealed inside the renovated church.

beloved 5

by Donald Kuspit

love rises like a phoenix
                                     from the ashes of absence,
spreading its wings
                           in renewed surprise,
riding the wind
                   to the rapturous heights,
where the sun
                 in your smile never sets,
darkness ousted
                   by luminous passion,
the fire burning
                        undimmed by distance.
fly with me beyond words,
                                 the ashes of memory,
fly beyond sun and moon
                               to the mythical stars,
where we will form
                          our own constellation,
haunting the infinite
                             with our intimacy,
the phoenix no longer
                             in need of death to live.

beloved 6

by Donald Kuspit

let us imagine
                       that we’re unimaginable,
mirages meeting
                           in myth,
uplifted by enigma
                             into the night sky
of memory,
                  then our love will be boundless
because fleshless,
                         then we will be constellations
as luminous as gods.
                             no longer in need of fate
to meet,
            we will last as long as they do.
we will forget
                         the fickleness of feeling,
we will no longer
                         need theories
to rationalize our trust,
                                    our senses
will speak the truth
                             of our togetherness
even when our bodies
                                    are separate.
intimacy will suspend death
                                          when our love
is consummated
                        in our unconscious.

beloved 7

by Donald Kuspit

agree to disagree
                     that mind unfold
its wings,
              carrying us beyond the eye
to the sun
          inside the shadow,
the halo of your hair
                         radiating
through the darkest
                       of our thoughts,
you and i       
         at odds in mind
yet merged in ancient
                             light,
mythically illimitable
                          and loving,
our minds finally meeting
                             in wonder
at its wisdom.
                  suffering banished
by a smile,
               its luminosity
restoring innocence,
                        memories at last
at peace,
             cinders of consciousness
in the hadean
              unconscious. 

beloved 8

by Donald Kuspit

discreet as dew
                   on newborn feelings,
you soothe me
                 into silence,
refreshing meaning.
                           your calm
is my clarity,
                  the rambling words
cleared away,
                 the underbrush
of nuance
             unnecessary,
the boldness
                of meaning
uncompromised
                 by the unconscious.
steadfast in mind,
                          dispassionate
with certainty,
                   you abide,
glistening with light,
                          preserved
in crystal conviction.
                              wordless
at last,
            i can wonder again,
see the morning star,
                             you outlasting
the end.

The Sign of Steel

by Salgado Maranhão. Translated by Alexis Levitin.

                                for Jean Claude Elias

the scar suggests
the struggle and the slash

in the drama of the gods,
the darting of a fine-honed blade.

(one almost disbelieves,
denying what is written,

the promissory note
underscoring pain)

the scar speaks
fingerprints of steel

the blade, the ball of lead,
and what remains unsaid.

Zip Street Blues

by Salgado Maranhão. Translated by Alexis Levitin.

the rage of diesel horses
rolls
to the trotting of
the tendoned days.

strays smashed to tin
beneath  the press of tires
                                       –and beastly human beings.

(all in transit
some not yet intransigent
others already late
accompanying their bodies to the wake.)

and the afternoon roars: rust
and the breeze burns: soot.

Moviement

by Salgado Maranhão. Translated by Alexis Levitin.

now it’s another landscape
written
         on the plasma
and in the mist
                      flowing
between one’s fingers
like eager birds
                      slipping through
the wind.
now it is another scaffold
of pieces playing chess
with chance:
the city and its clouded corneas.

mornings AR-15
afternoons AK-47
delinquents among rats
and big-shots’ shit.

the city in all its to-do
gulping down hot-dogmas,
sucking mint drops of death.

Letter to Daniel G. Hoffman

by John Ridland

Dear Dan,

There are dead poets I would never dare
               to write a letter to:
“Dear Mr. Frost?” “Dear Mr. Eliot?”
               But your last book,
optimistically titled: next to last 
               words, seems to invite reply.
I’ll try no critical reading, even appreciation,
               poem by poem. That would be
fun if you were still around––not that you’re not
               around still, with this book
atop the pile of thirteen others, plus
               eight prose, and plus
some edited others: you were one hell of a
               productive poet!
Now writing you a letter seems familiar,
               since we conversed
only in letters, after one brief hello,
               introduced by Natalie Anderson
of Swarthmore College, where you
               had taught, and I a student
you could have taught if decades had not
               held us apart. So what
can I now have to say? I hope you’re happy
               in the good name
Fame’s giving you. And your next to last words
               are messages to us
from where you are––the Future Present Tense
                  where we will all
be sentenced in the same last paragraph.
               [This may continue.]
                                                Briefly your friend,
                                                                                   John Ridland