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In twenty-first century poetry about the millennial wars in Iraq, the deities and heroes of ancient Mesopotamia are congregating. Dunya Mikhail’s “Inanna” imagines the eponymous Sumerian goddess decrying the sight of “antiquities / scattered / and broken / in the museum.”[1] Adnan Al-Sayegh’s Uruk’s Anthem catches another monitory glimpse:

I see lightning flicker

          under Ishtar’s eyelids.[2]

Jenny Lewis’s “Anthem for Gilgamesh” beseeches the legendary Babylonian king to return:

Oh Gilgamesh, come home!

Your people need you like the rain.

Oh Gilgamesh, come home—

I need your DNA beside me again. (Singing, n.p.)[3]

Invoking these figures from the literature of Mesopotamian antiquity—principally the three-thousand-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh—manipulates time in a number of ways.[4] The references remind the reader of the ancientness of the region’s written culture, a culture which, unlike stone monuments, cannot be erased. They create a wider perspective in which to comprehend human affairs: “As for man, [his days] are numbered,” Gilgamesh, gentle for once, tells his beloved Enkidu, the wild man; “whatever he may do, it is but wind” (Gilgamesh, trans. George, 19, brackets in original). They create something new from the ancient past: Nietzsche, distinguishing between “monumental,” “antiquarian,” and “critical” historiography, would have approvingly included these poets among the “enrichers and increasers of . . . inherited treasure.”[5] They also engage with what has been called “difficult heritage.”[6] Gilgamesh is, as well as a legendary leader “[s]urpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,” a violent and tyrannical imperialist—his mission to the Cedar Forest to kill the monster Humbaba has been described as an “eerie counterpoint to the recent [2003] American invasion of Iraq” (Gilgamesh, trans. George, 2; Gilgamesh, trans. Mitchell, 26). A reader could well conclude that war is ineradicable from human existence. And—the temporal phenomenon upon which this essay will concentrate—these allusions to “the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible,” have an effect similar to the realization of the nature of “deep time” at the end of the eighteenth century (Gilgamesh, trans. Mitchell, 1). In 1788, the scientist and clergyman John Playfair, grasping the significance of the rock strata pointed out to him off the coast of Scotland by the geologist James Hutton, felt his mind “grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”[7] Hutton himself famously remarked that the rock record showed “no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”[8] Allusions to the figures of literature of the ancient Near East insert into poetry responding to very recent wars in the region a temporal order that is also giddyingly beginningless and endless.

These time-tricks are not new. The temporal effects described here are recognizable from literary works produced between the two world wars, such as Hope Mirrlees’s Paris (1919), T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937). Paul Saint-Amour has brilliantly characterized such works as encyclopedic “counter-epics.”[9] Petitioning ancient, as well as more recent literature, of both East and West, these compendious poems and novels refute the logic of traditional epic which, in Hegel’s analysis, activates “the total conspectus of the whole of the national spirit.”[10] The modernist, encyclopedic counter-epic is “comprehensive” without being coherent, that is, and the works by Mikhail, Al-Sayegh, and Lewis discussed here have something of this shattered aesthetic (Saint-Amour, Tense, 186). But if the modernists pile up “heap[s] of broken images”—eclectic collections of decontextualized and de-temporalized cultural shards—the twenty-first century poets draw on area-specific literary legacies to convey a sense of time outside time.[11] The seemingly infinite durability of the ancient texts they petition is a countervailing temporal order both to the “forever war” of late capitalism and to the serial, synchronic palimpsest of invasions of the region—a palimpsest with which the Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon opens his 2003 essay “Of Bridges and Birds”[12]:

they came to baghdad

945 Buwayhids; 1055 Seljuks; 1258 Mongols led by Hulagu; 1340 Jalayrs; 1393 & 1401 Mongols led by Tamerlane; 1411 Turkoman Black Sheep; 1469 Turkoman White Sheep; 1508 Safavids; 1534 Ottomans under Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent; 1623 Safavids; 1638 Ottomans under Sultan Murad IV; 1917 British; 1941 British again to depose pro-German government; 2003 Anglo-American invasion.

Like Mikhail, Al-Sayegh, and Lewis, Antoon challenges the rhetoric that aestheticizes violence—a Fox News description of the B-52 bombers as “beautiful birds”; Donald Rumsfeld’s reference to “the humanity which went into the making of these weapons”—by turning to timeless elements of Iraqi culture: kahi, a Baghdadi pastry eaten with cream and syrup; cardamom tea sipped in an old café; people singing traditional maqamat together (“Of Bridges”). But even as they look to deep time, none of these writers forget that this is the “painfully present tense” (“Of Bridges”). The bombs are falling now.

Dunya Mikhail

Dunya Mikhail was born in Baghdad, her first languages Aramaic and Arabic; she fled Iraq for the United States in 1996.[13] Censorship, she remarked in an interview with New Directions, was her “main reason” for leaving; though, more positively, the need to disguise what she said led her to accrete “a lot of . . . layers of meanings” in her poetry.  Like the rocks, the layers reach back into antiquity—back to the Thousand and One Nights, back to the Roman pantheon, back to the Bible (Mikhail is from Iraq’s Christian minority)—and back further still to the literature of Mesopotamia, the land “between rivers” (the Tigris and the Euphrates). The poems in her collection The War Works Hard were written between 1984 and 2004 (they refer to the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, as well as the Gulf Wars bracketing the millennium) and translated from the Arabic in 2005. In “Inanna,” written after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the goddess, summoned from antiquity, announces herself imperiously:

            I am Inanna.

And this is my city. (War, 11).

Though traditionally the deity of Uruk, the fabulous polis of Sumer and Babylonia, Inanna seems here to be referring to nearby Baghdad, now roofless and full of people “running / from bombs” (11). Her presence prompts comparison of the ruined city of 2003 with the splendors of ancient Uruk, which the Epic of Gilgamesh invites the reader to explore in his or her imagination:

           climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!

Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!

Were its bricks not fired in an oven?

 Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations? (Gilgamesh, trans. George, 2, repeated 99)

This invitation occurs at both the beginning and the end of the epic, creating the form of what one of its translators, Stephen Mitchell, calls a “spiral,” rather than a circle (Gilgamesh, 62). Uruk is perpetuated—immortalized—not only in the work’s repeating structure but also in its suggestion of the true nature of the hero’s eternal life. Gilgamesh fails to win Uta-napishtim’s secret of everlasting existence by falling asleep when challenged to remain awake and then squanders the chance to be restored to youth by naïvely leaving the magic plant beside the pool to be stolen by the snake. Instead, the means by which he finds undying fame is through his own accounts of his exploits:

He came a far road, was weary, found peace,

and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.

. . .

[See] the tablet-box of cedar,

  [release] its clasp of bronze!

[Lift] the lid of its secret,

  [pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out

the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through. (Gilgamesh, trans. George, 1–2, brackets and italics in original)

In these accounts, the gorgeous city also lives on. Behind bomb-blasted Iraq, Uruk stands: templed, parapeted, inimitable—existing in the deep time of the imagination.

Mikhail laments again over her ruined native city in Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea. This long verse memoir was written during and after the Gulf War of 1991, published in Arabic in 1995 and translated into English in 2009. Trying to fathom both what has happened to Baghdad and how it can be conveyed to those elsewhere, Mikhail asks:

I wonder how the critics who linked

the theory of aesthetics with that of explosions

felt when they saw the bombs fall

over the building of the Iraqi Writers Union

. . .

over Gilgamesh,

who was searching for immortality

among the ruins.[14]

There is nothing hyperreal about the bombs dropped by the US-led coalition on the city, and nothing beautiful either; they have fallen on places of collaborative creativity and on Gilgamesh himself.[15] Deep cultural foundations have been assaulted. In his perpetual “searching for immortality,” Gilgamesh accentuates the temporal aspect of Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea in which Mikhail sees her necessary exile as an indefinite state of being.

The suite of poems comprising Mikhail’s “The Iraqi Nights” opens with Ishtar (the Babylonian version of the Sumerian Inanna) “walking through the souk looking for a gift” for her lover Tammuz.[16] Tammuz (Sumerian Dumuzi) was “punished with annual death and descent to the Netherworld”—another figure of cyclical renewal (Gilgamesh, trans. George, 222). Abducted and taken to the underworld herself, Ishtar finds, in Mikhail’s version, “the magic plant / that Gilgamesh never stopped looking for”—the plant promising restoration to youth that the legendary hero plucked from the depths of the sea and then lost (Iraqi Nights, 8). Imprisoned, Ishtar makes her plans:

I’ll show it to Tammuz when he comes

and we’ll journey, as fast as light,

to all the continents of the world,

and all who smell it will be cured

or freed,

or will know its secret. (8)

“The Iraqi Nights” is, like its Arabian namesake, a longing for indefinitely prolonged existence: beginningless and endless deep time. This vision of eternal life suffuses the more mundane desire, in the seventh and last poem in the suite, for an ongoing existence in Iraq in which, in “every moment / something ordinary / will happen / under the sun” (12). So dreams Ishtar, but in a later poem in the volume, “Your E-mail,” the goddess’s return is only fleeting.  She “comes back to life / to sing a song / for the wrecked cities” but a moment later is “leaving through the gate” (45). It seems that Baghdad/Uruk’s deity, disillusioned by humankind’s continuing violence, is deserting her.

Adnan Al-Sayegh

Adnan Al-Sayegh is mentioned by Mikhail in Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, where she refers to him as “the first one” to designate their 1980s generation of Iraqi poets “the war poets” (Diary, 78). Al-Sayegh’s criticism of the Ba’athist regime led in 1993 to his exile in Jordan and Lebanon. In 1996, he was sentenced to death for writing Uruk’s Anthem; since 2004, he has lived in exile in London. Of the “Iraq that’s gone,” he writes: “half / its history was kohl & song / its other half evil, wrong.”[17] The good and right half of Iraq that is kohl (used in ancient times as an eye and face cosmetic) and song appears intermittently in Uruk’s Anthem, some sections of which, translated into English, are available in Singing for Inanna (2014), a publication jointly produced with Jenny Lewis to accompany the British Museum’s program of workshops and performance Writing Mesopotamia. Uruk’s Anthem flashes sadness and anger by turn: among its chief regrets is that the rich heritage of Mesopotamia has been squandered:

We would have gone on building these lands

as God wanted in his Babylonian dream—

waters and prayers rippling over the steps of its hanging gardens

but they destroyed us. (Lewis and Al-Sayegh, Singing, n.p.)

The layering of the lines constructs an edifice that hangs like the gardens for an instant, only to topple over again. Later comes the same lament:

            Is this Euphrates

nothing but our rippling blood from the age of Sumer?

 ………flowing into the pockets of governments

that flay us with salt and revolutions? (Singing, n.p.)

The ellipses are evocative of those in the clay tablets on which the ancient Mesopotamian epics are inscribed: here is another, infernal, version of deep time in which what never ceases to be repeated is violence and destruction.

Jenny Lewis

The Anglo-Welsh poet Jenny Lewis is Al-Sayegh’s UK collaborator. Lewis’s 2014 collection Taking Mesopotamia includes poems from her earlier work with Al-Sayegh, Now as Then (2013) and Singing for Inanna (2014); the first also contains translations into Arabic by Al-Sayegh. These three volumes, a fourth chapbook, The Flood (2017) (also with translations by Al-Sayegh), and her 2018 Gilgamesh Retold merge into a single creation; repeated poems become part of a common collective. Lewis’s personal connection with Iraq arises through her father, Thomas Charles Lewis, a Second Lieutenant in the fourth Battalion, the South Wales Borderers (now the Royal Welsh), deployed and wounded in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I. “He died of a coronary thrombosis when I was a few months old,” notes Lewis, “and I have been searching for him ever since.”[18] “Anthem for Gilgamesh” makes the point more obliquely with a play on the poet’s first name: “The genie said I am on my way to paradise / to look for my father” (Lewis and Al-Sayegh, Singing, n.p.).

            Commenting on her 2010 verse drama, After Gilgamesh, Lewis remarked that “the crossing over of ancient and modern timeframes” is “a technique that I naturally gravitate toward as a way of exploring big, humanitarian issues.” She is fully aware of the “difficult heritage” of the epic, whose protagonist she describes as “an arrogant, ruthless and violent tyrant who makes life hell for his subjects” (“After Gilgamesh research”). Taking Mesopotamia is also unafraid to confront problematic legacies. Looking for her father, Jenny/the genie hops between the Iraq War of 2003, the First World War, and the deep time of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing imagined moments from the Mesopotamian Campaign with renditions of twenty-first century interviews and translations of episodes from the epic. Water—flood—and eternal life are vehicle and tenor of the metaphorical scheme of the collection, whose title also recalls the state of being between two rivers.[19]

“How Enlil, god of air, sent the Flood to get rid of humans” is the first rendition of an episode from Gilgamesh in Taking Mesopotamia, describing how the god who “hated war” turned “city and desert” into “ocean” (Lewis, Taking, 24). Mesopotamia is submerged:

                                    there were only waves of silence

that went on and on to the edge of the drowned world. (24)

Two pages later comes another flood. “April 1916,” voiced by “Tom” (the poet’s father), recalls “a strange regatta” which occurred when five hundred British and Indian soldiers were obliged to learn to punt over “Floods three feet deep”:

We needed

to find Noah and his ark before we started to go

slowly, one by one and two by two, into the dark. (26)

The Noah story (from Genesis 6.14) also forms the epigraph to a poem three pages later. But this poem, “How the one wise man, Uta-napishtim, survived the Flood,” carries the reader to an ark story some thousand years older than the Hebrew Bible. The initial temporal range—from Genesis to World War I—is rolled out by another third. And transcending even these three millennia, there comes into view one of the only two people to survive Enlil’s flood, the now-immortal Uta-napishtim (the other person is his wife). High on the mountain top, Uta-napishtim sits “carving stories / onto clay tablets” (29). The literary record is what alone endures over time, as Gilgamesh is to learn.

The penultimate poem of Taking Mesopotamia is “Now as Then,” reprised from Lewis and Al-Sayegh’s 2013 collection of the same title. In that volume, the poem is accompanied by a photograph of a stone relief from Nineveh dating from c. 690 BCE, held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.[20] The relief depicts captives being escorted out of Babylon by Assyrian soldiers. Another stone, like Hutton’s geological samples, without beginning or end, the fragment suggests that war’s victims form an infinite stream. Lewis’s poem picks up this sense of infinity, with the repeated word “always” and present participles mirroring the stone’s relentless procession:

And always the scent of cedar and cypress, boxwood and juniper.

Always the mayfly hovering over the water.

Always the mother and child leaving their country for ever. (Taking, 28 and Now as Then, 6)

“Epilogue,” the last poem in Taking Mesopotamia, is just as fluid. It speaks of “the desert’s music / of water, irrigating and cleansing” (the benign opposite of flood) and concludes with “sounds of life trying / to go on as long as water continues to flow” (79). There is no punctuation after “flow,” and on the next page, Al-Sayegh’s Arabic translations of Lewis’s poems begin—or, rather (since Arabic is written from left to right), end; or, rather, join up with the originals. This is another sense of Mesopotamia, or the state of being between rivers—English and Arabic languages, Welsh and Iraqi cultures, different times and different places, “now as then,” flow together in a confluence. Together, these two poets have recreated the spiral aesthetic of Gilgamesh, the formal equivalent of deep time.

Gilgamesh is an epic in which standard linear time is stretched, an epic about the hope of eternal life (or, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s formulation, “the fear of death”), an epic which offers the prospect of immortality through writing.[21] Spiraling over millennia, it imbues the poems of Mikhail, Al-Sayegh and Lewis with a neverbeginning, neverending temporal order: a deep time that is at once an enriching source of inalienable cultural history and a challenging inheritance. In their poetry, reappearances of the epic are suffused with a sense of longing as great as its hero’s desire for eternal fame. “Oh Inanna,” cries Al-Sayegh, “how do we get back to Uruk?” (Singing, n.p.).


I am grateful to Dunya Mikhail, Adnan Al-Sayegh, and Jenny Lewis for permitting me to quote their work in this essay and for their very helpful feedback on an earlier draft.

[1] Dunya Mikhail, The War Works Hard, trans. Elizabeth Winslow (New York: New Directions, 2005), 12. The Sumerian Inanna, “Queen of Heaven,” goddess of sex and war and deity of the city of Uruk, was known as Ishtar to the Babylonians (The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, trans. Andrew George [London: Penguin, 1999], 223).

[2] Jenny Lewis and Adnan Al-Sayegh, Singing for Inanna: Poems in English and Arabic (Cardiff, UK: Mulfran Press, 2014), n.p..

[3] Lewis can be heard singing “Anthem for Gilgamesh” with Al-Sayegh and others here.

[4] The historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk (near modern-day Al-Samawah, Iraq) in 2,800 BCE. The oldest versions of a Gilgamesh poem are in Sumerian and date from between 2,100 and 2,000 BCE. There is an Old Babylonian version from 1,700–1,600 BCE and the “standard” Akkadian version, written by the scholar-priest Sîn-liqe-unninni, dates from 1,200–1,100 BCE (Andrew George, introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, xiii-lii, xv, and Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version [New York: Free Press, 2004], 6).

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life [Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben] (1874), trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1980), 64.

[6] Sharon Macdonald defines “difficult heritage” as “a past that is recognized as meaningful in the present but that is also contested and awkward for public reconciliation with a positive, self-affirming contemporary identity” (Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past [Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009], 1).

[7] John Playfair, “Biographical Account of the late Dr James Hutton,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 5 (1805): 39–99, 73.

[8] James Hutton, “Theory of the Earth; or, An Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe” (Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburg 1, no. 2 [1788]: 209–304, 304.

[9] Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 186.

[10] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 2:1045, quoted in Saint-Amour, Tense Future, 185.

[11] T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922), in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim Mc Cue (London: Faber and Faber, 2015), 55, 1.22.

[12] I am indebted to the anonymous peer reviewer of this piece for the term “forever war.”

[13] See Saadi Simawe, introduction to Mikhail, The War Works Hard, vii-xiii, vii.

[14] Dunya Mikhail, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, trans. Elizabeth Winslow and Dunya Mikhail (New York: New Directions, 2009), 17.

[15] The aesthetic theories Mikhail criticizes are presumably those of Jean Baudrillard, whose The Gulf War Did Not Take Place was published in 1991.

[16] Dunya Mikhail, The Iraqi Nights, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid (New York: New Directions, 2013), 3.

[17] Adnan Al-Sayegh, “Iraq,” in Jenny Lewis and Adnan Al-Sayegh, Now as Then: Mesopotamia—Iraq (Cardiff, UK: Mulfran Press, 2013), 12.

[18] Jenny Lewis, Taking Mesopotamia (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2014), 11. The Royal Welsh regiment was deployed to Iraq in 2007.

[19] The title is a quotation from the 1919 Memoirs and Reflections of Lord Grey of Falloden, British Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1914: “Taking Mesopotamia . . . means spending millions on irrigation” (quoted in Lewis, Taking Mesopotamia, 15).

[20] Ashmolean Museum AN1933.1575.

[21] “Das Epos der Todesfurcht” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefwechsel mit Helene von Nostitz [Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1976], 99), quoted in Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 202.