Gilgamesh’s snake and other poems: Book Review

Gilgamesh’s snake and other poems. By Ghareeb Iskander. Translated from the Arabic by John Glenday and Ghareeb Iskander. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016. Pp. 103. ISBN: 9780815610717 (paperback).

Ghareeb Iskander, an Iraqi poet living in London, has published collections of his own poems in Arabic and has translated works from Arabic to English and English to Arabic. John Glenday, co-translator of this work, is an award-winning Scottish poet with notable works such as Undark, Grain, and The Golden Mean. This book is a bilingual Arabic-English edition; some parts of it have been previously published in the United Kingdom. Glenday’s translation along with the author’s has added an aesthetic touch to the English version.

A brief background on the Gilgamesh Epic might be helpful in understanding the poems in this book. The Giilgamesh Epic is one of the most important literary works of the Middle East. It is named after the hero of the story, Gilgamesh, who was the king of the city of Uruk. The epic, which was forgotten for quite some time, is about his journey, adventures with his best friend, and seeking immortality after his friend’s death. The epic came to light after the re-discovery of the cuneiform tablets in the British Museum’s collection in the early 1870s. According to Ziolkowski,[1] Western culture sees in this epic a reflection of spiritual values such love and friendship. Other artists and writers have adapted this ancient epic to express love and loss in postwar periods, or to bring awareness to issues such as sexism, feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights.

Iskander’s focus, however, is on contemporary Iraq and what it has gone through in the last decades, using Gilgamesh’s iconic figure:

A series of rooms filled to overflowing with rags taken from the dead,

That’s why my country is—

The music of misery and destruction.

Once upon a time, it wouldn’t have been recognized.

Many factions: both old and new

Thieves

Pimps

Wheeler-dealers

Gun-runners

Slave traders

Sloganmongers. (p. 11)

….

He walks the streets of Uruk,

Meets strangers

Who look like him,

Their names like his name,

But they are strangers.

Strangers

In this unrecognizable land. (p. 29)

 

Other poems of this book are reflections of pain and loss. In “The book of silence,” the author uses Gilgamesh’s pain at the loss of his friend:

The seas we raced across

Toward a destination

Or hope.

Friendship undone, just like our lives,

Our endless cold nights,

Tales of longing,

Stories of the departed

Who never return.

Strangers to both

Home and exile. (p. 39)

 

“The book of oblivion” touches love and oblivion at the same time:

Soul, I don’t crave your flame,

Nor do I lust after your flame, my body,

I only long for those rare times

When we talked of love

Or even death,

When we talked of your going away,

Smelling the blossoms of our first kiss,

The brilliance that has faded like a dream

And the hopes that withered afterwards. (p. 71)

 

“The book of tears” is about women, love, loss, and sorrow:

Woman, who are you to keep the dawn at bay?

Who are you to say there is no place

For fear, or fate in all this dark

Where the light vanishes utterly

And that great mountain. The darkness, weighs down on my heart? (p. 85)

….

The two of us and the spell—

That’s an equation I always dreamed of,

So why was I so afraid as you drew near

Woman

Who thinks fire

Is a form of resurrection

Just as the body

When it stands consumed

Like a flame-scorched butterfly

As ever

To protect itself by fleeing

From the fire of soul

To the fire of body! (pp. 95, 97)

 

The collection ends with a single poem in “Labyrinth,” telling the reader that “…perhaps you’ll find nothing worth the telling, in this poem.” On the other hand, it also calls the reader of the book to not stop and to live life with hope, even in moments of sorrow, pain, or “cold,” as the poet calls it:

Don’t stop

Don’t stop

At life’s center.

Finish it,

This orphaned day.

Draw close

To the maze.

And lay your hands on it;

Touch it.

You may see embers glowing

Beneath the appearance of cold,

Or you may find tears.

Or perhaps you’ll find nothing

Worth the telling, in this poem. (p. 103)

 

In general, this book extracts both the mythical and mystical natures of the Gilgamesh Epic and transforms them into modern poetry. It is a unique book of poetry because the author has also participated in the translation of the poems. Iskander shapes the translation by applying modern poetics and non-linguistic characteristics of the original poems, knowing the culture and history behind them. Glenday’s literary translation then completes this professional translation. Their translation work together brings a harmony in rhyme, without losing the original meaning and intention of the poet, from Arabic into its English version. It is an appropriate source for any library with a literary collection focused on poetry, Middle East studies, and Middle Eastern literature.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour
Chapman University

[1] T. Ziolkowski, Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).