by Miriam N. Kotzin
The Hero Enkidu
Lewis Turco, New York
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:
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.