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Featured Poem II • August 2017

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On the Day When Dumuzi Comes Up

 

Sonya Taaffe

 

for Torger Vedeler

 

I knew a cure once for a beer with lost ingredients, a charm for a lover who died before Sappho was born. The dead come up without hell’s doorbolts breaking, still reliable after three thousand years as cicadas, drought, or grief. Too late in the summer, the sister I never had sets a sweet smoke rising from the dry earth, harsh tears falling into it. The Anunnaki found her jewelry before the archaeologists or the bombs. I dream without sleeping, I read a dry language in a dead season and my bird-faced ghost flutters, breaking its dusty wings against that cage I lately called a heart.

 

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Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found most recently in the collection Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press) and in the anthologies Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, and An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats and once named a Kuiper belt object.

Here’s the story behind her poem, in her own words.

* * *

“On the Day When Dumuzi Comes Up” was written in August of 2016; I was living for a month in a one-bedroom apartment on Massachusetts Avenue on the outskirts of Harvard that reminded me eerily of my grad-school apartment off Elm Street on the outskirts of Yale, and I had just had a very bad weekend. I was not anywhere near the actual festival of Tammuz. That takes place earlier in the summer, shortly after the solstice—Araḫ Dumuzu, the month of Tammuz in the Babylonian calendar, corresponds to Gregorian June/July as in the contemporary Hebrew calendar. August is part of Araḫ Abu, but I still don’t think I could blame that weekend on Tisha B’Av.

The underlying myth of this poem comes from the final lines of Ištar’s Descent to the Underworld, 133–138 in the Neo-Assyrian manuscript from the library of Aššurbanipal in Nineveh (seventh century BCE) that I read in graduate school, living in that other apartment in a life that hasn’t been mine for more than 10 years:

 

ikkil aḫiša tašme tamḫaṣ dBelili šukuttaša ša zumrīša
īnātê ša undallâ pān . . .
aḫi ēdu lā taḫabbilanni
ina ūmê dDumuzi ellanni GI.GÍD uqnî šemer sāmti ittišu ellanni
ittišu ellanni bakkû u bakkātu
ša mītū lilūnimma qutrīn liṣṣinū

 

Belili heard the mourning for her brother, she struck the jewelry of her body,
the eyestones with which she filled . . .
Do not rob me of my only brother!
On the day when Dumuzi comes up, the lapis flute, the carnelian ring
will come up with him,
up with him will come the male and female mourners,
let the dead come up, let them smell the incense.

 

Earlier in the epic (lines 14–20), Ištar had threatened the doorkeeper of the underworld with the world’s first attested zombie apocalypse:

 

atû mê pita bābka
pita bābkama lūruba anāku
šumma lā tapatta bābu lā erruba anāku
amaḫḫaṣ daltum sikkūru ašabbir
amaḫḫaṣ sippuma ušabalakkat dalāti
ušella mītūti ikkalū balṭuti
eli balṭuti ima’idū mītūti

 

Gatekeeper, hey! Open your gate,
open your gate, I would come in.
If you do not open your gate and I do not come in,
I will strike the door, I will break the bolt,
I will strike the doorjamb, I will throw down the doors.
I will raise up the dead, they will eat the living,
the dead will outnumber the living.

 

The poem is dedicated to the friendship of Torger Vedeler, whose fault it is that I can read a 3,000-year-old Semitic language written in cuneiform in the first place. The sex charm and the hangover cure are real texts, too, and I recommend them to everyone.

 

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