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Newsday, 17 October 2004

GILGAMESH: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell. Free Press, 290 pp.,


In 1916, Rainer Maria Rilke read a couple of editions of The Epic of Gilgamesh, a work first written down in Assyria (what is now Iraq) about 5,000 years ago and unearthed and translated only in the late 19th century. In letters to friends, the poet describes reading Gilgamesh with the fervor that comes when certain circuits in the brain are firing from an influx of imaginative power. "I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced," he wrote. Even the lacunae in the text -- the gaps where words or lines were destroyed by time - added to Rilke's impression of "a truly colossal happening and being and fearing."

To a great poet, the text might appear sublime. But to mere me, reading Gilgamesh in translation a couple of times, the text always seemed as flat and cryptic as the cuneiform tablets on which it was originally written. It felt somewhat like a super-hero comic book into which had strayed bits of the Old Testament.

The title character, an alpha male by any definition, is two-thirds divine. Out in the boondocks, there is a rather Sasquatch-like fellow named Enkidu, whom Gilgamesh fights and then befriends. In time, they go off to kill a couple of monstrous creatures. When Enkidu dies, his friend is overwhelmed; his bitterness pours forth in lines that recall Job's less patient moments. The biblical resonances become even more pronounced when Gilgamesh descends to the place of the dead; there, he meets the man who built a boat to preserve his family from a flood that once destroyed the world.

The parallels to Orpheus and Noah were interesting, but only in a rather abstract way. Each encounter with Gilgamesh over the years left that impression of distance and disconnection I associate with reading the myths gathered by anthropologists from distant tribes. The names of the divinities are unfamiliar, their motives obscure. It is difficult to read a mythical text as literature when the gods are not even dead to us, let alone living within the depths of our memory.

There, perhaps, the poet has an advantage. His depths are deeper; the echoes are richer, with the quality of a living voice.

In rendering Gilgamesh into a new English version, Stephen Mitchell has not translated the work; he does not read Akkadian, the Mesopotamian language in which it was written. Rather, he has filtered the cuneiform- for-cuneiform translations prepared by Assyriologists through an improvised verse style that Mitchell says was modeled on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina."

The effect is remarkable: a rendition that, while taking no great liberties with the text, somehow makes it available as a work of literature, rather than as a set of fragments from a vanished cosmology. The gods and monsters are strange, but also feel human and familiar. The lines of verse move swiftly, gracefully, yet never indulge in any misbegotten effort to sound poetic; the diction is simple and clean, evoking the sense of a time when the world was new and first being named. Reading this Gilgamesh gave me a sense, for the first time, of understanding Rilke's devotion to the poem.

The passage in which wild man Enkidu is seduced at the riverside by Shamhat, a priestess of Ishtar, becomes genuinely erotic and moving in Mitchell's version -- rather than just a reminder that the temples of Ishtar were what in modern terms would be called brothels. "She used her love-arts, she took his breath/with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him/what a woman is." When Enkidu tries to go back to the animals, they flee him: "His knees trembled, he could no longer run/like an animal, as he had before./He turned back to Shamhat, and as he walked/he knew that his mind had somehow grown larger,/he knew things that an animal can't know."

So far as I can tell, Mitchell's version sticks closely to the narrative, characters and imagery in the original text, at least as available in highly literal (if almost unreadable) translations. Mitchell has judiciously trimmed back a certain amount of repetition -- while keeping enough of it to remind the reader that Gilgamesh originally must have been chanted or sung. The other major structural change is that he omits the somewhat puzzling and incomplete 12th tablet. The volume ends with an extensive set of end notes, providing references to the literal renderings of the Akkadian text prepared by scholars.

Mitchell also provides a long introduction, a commentary on the poem that offers an unfortunate lesson in the virtue of learning to quit while you are ahead. He treats the battle of Gilgamesh and Enkidu with the monster Humbaba (sort of the equivalent of Grendel in Beowulf) as an occasion for allegory, or at least for carving off a large, ripe chunk of Contemporary Significance.

Gilgamesh is "an antihero, a superman (a superpower, one might say) who doesn't know the difference between strength and arrogance. By pre-emptively attacking a monster, he brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing journey, a quest that results in wisdom by proving its own futility."

So, OK, if Gilga-Bush defeats Saddam Humbaba, but Enkidu dies as a result of this battle, does that mean Tony Blair's days are numbered? And who is Shamhat, the temple prostitute, again?

Toward the close of the introduction, Mitchell allegorizes once more, in a different key - finding that the ancient poem provides the benefits of New Age psychotherapy: "When the mind gives up on its quest for control, order and meaning, it finds that it has come home, to reality, where it has always been. What it has -- what it is -- in this very moment is everything it ever wanted."

Like, whatever. Ignore the infomercial and just read the poem.