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Singing for InannaAncient and modern

Singing for Inanna offers an astounding glimpse into the world of ancient myth and how it remains omnipresent.

Review by Robbie Griffiths and Corinna Lotz

Jenny Lewis’ interpretation of the ancient Mesopotamian stories of Gilgamesh and the powerful goddess Inanna is teamed with verses by Adnan Al-Sayegh, one of the most notable contemporary Arab poets.

They evoke the continuity between ancient past and present, sweeping through thousands of years of human history, but reside firmly and acutely in the present.

In their contrasting songs, Lewis addresses the myth. Her Inanna/Ishtar is a ferocious, capricious being, whose “vastness swallows us whole”.  She conjures up Inanna’s moment of weakness when she falls in love with Gilgamesh

As if her body was...
    swung against
    the insides
    of a rung bell

Lewis relates the stories of Gilgamesh which has come down to us through cuneiform writing on clay tablets. The tales are epic, reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey, which inspired John Keats to compose his famous poem, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.


The 'Queen of the Night' Relief
Old Babylonian, 1800-1750 BC
From southern Iraq

British Museum: photo Babelstone

For Al-Sayegh the past merges with the present. He describes tourists furtively touching the breast of Inanna’s statue in the British Museum, then conjures her up as a genie to inspire his poem. She is a lost kindred spirit, who mysteriously materialises out of the cuneiform tablet where she normally dwells.  

Inanna joins him on Embankment Bridge...

listening to the murmurings of the
Tigris and the Thames –
two parallel histories that can neither meet nor part
and so leave us regretting what each has lost by the other’s absence.

Al-Sayegh draws on TS Eliot’s Wasteland, employing the haunting riff, which Eliot himself borrowed from Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser - Sweet Thames run softly until I end my song.

But instead of drowning in the sorrow of exile, the two strangers escape into a blissful dance of blossoms and green pages. For them, the long flowering of poetry through the ages and across countries provides a momentary escape from the reality of exile and loss. 

The poet’s own story is intertwined with those of other homeless souls, as we are wafted from ancient Sumer through to Shakespeare’s times but always return to the present. The sensitive translation captures the poem’s swaying rhythms:

We are washed from depths to depths
passing river bank after river bank.

We didn’t know exile would go on so long,
that our journey would only bring loss!

Iraqi writer Sura Hussein, in her brilliant thesis comparing Al-Sayegh to the English war poet Wilfred Owen, notes how Al-Sayegh “insists on the use of the vocabularies of love, beauty and hopefulness side by side with the vocabularies of war”.

By personifying the weapons of war and even by turning bullets, and gaping holes back against/into themselves, he magically undermines the brutal power of weapons. 

Al-Sayegh’s  I Need You, even in English sounds like the way he sings his poems in Arabic. The repetition “Like the earth… Like the clouds… Like the sky…” transports you to the rooftops where this poem should be sung. He ends with an abrupt turn

… I have reached you …
(And I cannot reach…)

English readers have been waiting a long time for Uruk’s Anthem to be translated. This is the first book to provide a glimpse for us into one of the longest-ever poems to be written in Arabic.  We are incredibly fortunate to have these nine brilliant, yet devastating stanzas, the beginnings of a huge endeavour to translate the complete work.

Composed between 1984 to 1996 at the front during the Iraq/Iran war, and in detention, this 549-page epic chronicles the sorrows of war and destruction Al-Sayegh experienced during his years as a soldier and in prison. The ancient kingdom of Uruk becomes a powerful and often bitter symbol for Iraq and its people, a country “that has no shadows”,  that is tortured by wars and governments “that flay us with salt and revolutions”.

Once again past and present are woven together, myth and the harsh reality of life in Iraq. You feel as if he was already an exile, cut off from his own country, even before he was forced to flee:

but they destroyed us,
built a prison from our dried blood
and called it a homeland
then said: be grateful for your country

No sea for us to cover in boats
Oh you that sleep on the stones of the impossible revolution,
    no sand or saliva:
I saw my blood in the stamps stuck on by deportees…
Why are you wandering by yourself
Life is – the land that you seek

Adnan & Jenny
Adnan Al-Sayegh & Jenny Lewis

Lewis initiated the Writing Mesopotamia project at the British Museum earlier this year and brought Al-Sayegh together with American poet and former soldier Brian Turner for an extraordinary encounter in Oxford last August.

This book is indeed a revelation. It affords admission to experiences of impossible loss, pain, unfulfilled and fulfilled longing, defiance and redemption. A perfect present.

20 December 2014

Singing for Inanna by Jenny Lewis and Adnan Al-Sayegh in Arabic and English, with a cover illustration by Suad Al-Attar and CD, is available from Mulfran Press at £10. Translations by Ruba Abughaida with the poets.

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