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Featured Poem II • July 2013

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Cuneiform Toast

 

Sonya Taaffe

 

To the god of the backstairs,
the fixer, the cutter of fates
sharp-slit with the morning’s mail,
his deskful of papers
chills and heartache,
headache, brain-fever, last breath,
the seizing storm that fastens on his victims
straightening his glasses, discreet with his handkerchief
from the quick run up the steps to heaven,
minister of the country none return from,
hell’s messenger boy, so I always imagined you.
Remember me to your mother, wife, and daughter,
handing on these words like a cup of Siduri’s beer,
initial the requisitions, file the weekly reports,
tell your mistress to forget my name.

 

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SonyaSonya Taaffe’s short stories and poems have appeared in such venues as Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, Here, We Cross: A Collection of Queer and Genderfluid Poetry from Stone Telling, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy, Last Drink Bird Head, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, and The Best of Not One of Us. Her work can be found in the collections Postcards from the Province of Hyphens and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books) and A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press). She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object.

She describes the origins of “Cuneiform Toast” thusly: “I had wanted to write about Namtar for years. Prior to this poem, the closest I’d gotten was his unnamed appearance in ‘Last Drink Bird Head’ (Last Drink Bird Head, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), where I suspect readers were more likely to confuse him with Death. His name means ‘fate-cutter’; he is characterized in some incantations as a powerful demon of disease, but he’s best known from Sumerian and Akkadian literary sources as Ereškigal’s prime minister (sukkal), in which capacity he spends a lot of time running back and forth between heaven and the underworld—three times in the myth of Nergal and Ereškigal—or arranging his mistress’ affairs in the mortal world, where again she cannot directly intervene. He deals with Ištar when she descends; he is responsible for her death and for her revivification and for whatever else he’s instructed to do; in the story of Atraḫasis, he sends plague against mankind at Enlil’s command. One of his titles in the exorcistic texts is lāsim ilī, ‘runner of the gods,’ which has always conjured for me an image of the flu as a stressed-out bureaucrat. Strikingly, at least from a modern perspective, he has a wife and a daughter, Ḫušbiša and Ḫedimmeku, which isn’t usually the case with chthonic demon-deities. We even know his mother’s name: Mardula’anki. He figures in at least two stories I never finished, which was merciful on all counts, but I kept feeling there was something that should be done for him.

“The poem itself came into my head the minute I saw the listing for Elise Matthesen’s ‘Cuneiform Toast.’ Looking at the earrings themselves a minute later, I realized she must have meant toast as in the crunchy stuff most people use for conveying butter, but by then it was too late.”

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