Houses of the Living, Houses of the Dead

Issue NineIssue Nine Poetry

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by Jenny Blackford


 

After the Old Babylonian sculptured plaque in the British Museum

 

 

 

I
Claw-footed goddess strong as death,
Ereshkigal stands naked-proud astride twin lions.

Great owls flank her, left and right, taller than mountains.

The long mothwings that graze her hips
are all the clothes she’ll ever need.
Four thousand years ago, the unknown sculptor shaped

Ereshkigal’s long raptor-taloned feet and rounded breasts

perfect in each smooth plane and spiky claw.

With hands and tools he worshipped her:

queen of ancient night,

queen of life and death.

 

The echoing museum hall is full

of weapon-wielding kings and gods
and four-winged human-headed beasts

all so stern behind dark-curling beards.
Fierce Ishtar’s quiet sister doesn’t care.
Her silent kingdom’s greater far than anything

warriors ever fought for,

gained, or protected.

They are all lost.
Night covers them.

Ereshkigal still rules the night.
II

 

Lights dim, bells nag us from the halls.
Temple servants herd us into the chilly dark.

The pub across Great Russell Street’s stood here

since Lilith taught Eve how to brew beer.

Ereshkigal smiles her ancient smile.
The tables are so close that I could touch
the woman at the nearby table’s thigh, or nudge

her workmate’s foot with mine.
They’re not in their first youth.
They talk promotions, office politics,

nothing too personal. But for all that,
his eyes are soft with love.

The woman looks away and looks again.
Her indulgent smile comes and goes.
With his soft eyes he worships her
just as, long ago, that unknown artist
adored his goddess-queen.

 

 

III

 

 

The waiter at the Turkish restaurant

has an Assyrian face. I slurp the octopus

he brings, minced fine in oil,

and gulp the Anatolian red.

How many thousand years

have they been treading grapes round there?

 

Unwittingly we terrify the diners next to us

with exhibition talk of shunga from Japan,

the octopus that nibbles at the fisherwoman’s

delicious genitals.

 

A different haircut, an artfully-curled beard –

our straight-nosed waiter might be driving a chariot

on a bas-relief three thousand years ago,

escorting tribute from a conquered nation:

sheep, goats, slaves by the hundreds,

lions for the king to hunt, two precious monkeys,

one lone giraffe.

Even the enigmatic bulls with curving wings,

protectors of palace and people,

have the same face

under their beards.

 

Much as those plump tribute sheep

were sacrificed millennia ago,

serious-faced men char skewered lamb

on gas-fired altars.

The smoke smells sweet enough to satisfy

the hunger of the gods.

We gorge ourselves.

Kemal Ataturk stares approving

from his mosaic wall.

Eat up! he seems to say. Enjoy!

You’ll be a long time dead.

 

 

IV

 

Ereshkigal still rules the night.
Her ancient power tugs
our bodies’ hidden strings.
She will have us, in the end,
in love and death.

She will have us

all.