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An Ecological Take on Gilgamesh

The comments below on Gilgamesh as a story of ecological downfall were written for the online publication  AT LENGTH, for a special series of "Short Takes on Long Poems"

for more see:





Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 4

—14 Poets

For our latest feature, we’ve asked 50 poets to weigh in (briefly) on the long poems that interest them. To avoid spending too much time on the usual suspects, we suggested that most of our contributors focus on poems from the last 70 years.

This is the last of four installments. (You can see the others here, here and here.) Scroll down or click on the links to read:

Reginald Gibbons on Thomas McGrath
Darcie Dennigan on Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Carl Phillips on Jean Garrigue
Jane Hirshfield on Gilgamesh
Garrett Hongo on Charles Wright
Daisy Fried on Don Paterson
Debra Allbery on Larry Levis
Solmaz Sharif on June Jordan
Devin Johnston on Christopher Logue
Patrick Rosal on Thomas Lux
Karla Kelsey on Barbara Guest
Sebastian Agudelo on Derek Mahon
David Yezzi on Anthony Hecht
Peter Cooley on Louise Glück

Gilgamesh—“He who saw the deep.” We know  it as the world’s earliest epic, and we weep with its eponymous hero-king when his companion Enkidu dies. In this scene, death becomes for the first time conscious, recorded. That is the part I remembered most strongly, from having read the poem young. Reading it some good part of a lifetime later, the scene still unfastens innocence, rends love. But the epic reread raised also a different grief.

Let us consider this ur-tale, not for its poetry, but for its account of our human relationship to the other-than-human, within and outside the skin’s borders. At the start, Gilgamesh, King and oppressor of his city’s people, asserts his first night privilege over every marriage. The half-wild Enkidu–created by the gods to distract a hero whose power and lust have run amok–is lured into the realm of the human by a temple prostitute’s opened legs  When he and Gilgamesh meet, they battle, then become friends, and the distraction succeeds. Gilgamesh decides that the one test worthy of  their bond and their strength is to go into the primeval forest and slay its guardian, then cut down the sacred, tallest cedar. Thus begins a long and heedless destruction–of the wild, plant and creature equally, and of the sacred. But the ecos has its protective deity, whose curse strikes Enkidu dead.

Wild with grief and horror–it is a maggot’s emergence from a nostril that proves to Gilgamesh that his friend is not only motionless but emptied of self—Gilgamesh then sets off to find the secret knowledge that will undo all he’s seen, and make him immortal. Along the way, asking directions, he meets a barmaid. She counsels  him to accept death, return home, love his wife, raise his children, enjoy food and the warmth of sun and coolness of rain. Gilgamesh ignores her, finds and then loses the herb of immortality to a snake while he sleeps, as all humans must, and goes home to continue building an immense wall around his city.

The final image, to me, is no symbol of civilization’s beginning, nor even of a necessary individuation. This wall encircles the ur-choice toward ego-pride, separation, death-acceptance’s failure, life-acceptance’s failure. The wall  holds the self-protection that accompanies heroic distinction; its stones predict war, the natural’s wanton exploitation, and their own destruction. We call Gilgamesh the first epic. But how can  we know in what spirit its even-then ancient stories were carved into clay? To me, Gilgamesh seems the first taste of the tragic: a story of irremediable losses, born of hubris, pity, and terror, that enlarges our comprehension of the human.