This poem of more than 400 lines was inspired by The Epic of Gilgamesh, ‘the oldest surviving poem’. We published the first 25 lines of Clay in ARTEMISpoetry, Issue 5. These described a scribe beginning to record the adventures of Gilgamesh as the king seeks to discover how to live honourably. Clay is a meditation which, inter alia, relates aspects of Cluysenaar’s own life and thought to the Gilgamesh story. Many themes are intertwined. The poet reflects on time, creativity, influences, friendship, responsibility towards the environment and the impact of tales we tell our children. The poem appears in full in a 2011 collection, Migrations, published by Cinnamon Press.
Fearing death, Gilgamesh the King
seeks personal power. He rapes
both the brides and the young men.
No doubt such a king existed:
‘Shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold’!
But how shall we read the Shadow
gods had created for him?
Golden Enkidu, naked,
stinking of the wild, erect
seven days in the harlot’s body,
while she does what a woman does
for a man, to help him be human.
Ironic old metaphors!
The student has smoothed his tablet.
He comes to the dream: a rock
drops like a star from the sky.
Gilgamesh struggles to lift it.
His mother, a goddess, interprets:
This rock, it will often save you.
Like a wife, you will love and embrace it.
The men of the kingdom stand by.
‘He will couple with the wife-to-be.’
‘He first… the bridegroom after.’
Unopposed, the king strides forward
to rend the veil. But what’s this?
Enkidu, the rock, the star,
stands in his way, pale with anger.
The king, tall and beautiful,
Enkidu, bigger of bone.
But alike as twins. They wrestle.
The crowd is milling about them.
Door-jams and walls shudder.
Till Gilgamesh kneels, ‘one foot
on the ground’. Each has won the other.
You won me. Your lifelong absence
has drawn me always forward.
The gift more than the loss.
You were my other self.
One I could never be.
In our student days you played Bach,
the Double Violin Concerto –
silence shaped between voices.
Fifty years later your voice
confirmed the unwritten tones
in a printed poem of mine.
Now, you move on before me
into the silence. Your letters
intermittently play their old game
with phrases both odd and right.
But gaps in your thought cause gaps
in your beautiful script. Your hand
may not know my address much longer.
“It is with gratitude that I acknowledge the generosity of Penguin Publishers in allowing me to quote extensively, in Clay, from the 1999 Penguin Classics edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated with an introduction by Andrew George (1999).”
When we caught her we were taken by surprise
– the power of her thrashing tail, almost enough
to break the nets. But what did we expect?
She was wild, nothing could have prepared her for this.
At first she simply sat in her enclosure,
one hand clutching seaweed, the other
pressed against glass. The hand looked recognisably human;
slim, white fingers – aristocratic; nails long and opaque.
Her face, I admit it, disappointed. I had wished for beauty –
stories led me to believe.
The eyes are primitive and search only for a means of escape
or the next meal. She bites into a fish head and I
can almost hear her grunting. Her face is mottled, like the skin of a trout,
her hair thin, colourless, as though
made of a different kind of water,
and I think she might be old.
I am caught by the part of her I had least
expected to find interesting:
her tail, a mass of it in constant motion, eloquent in its gestures,
as though it alone expressed
the soul of the creature, if she had a soul.
One might almost wish the human element
gone, to have nothing but this shining, mother-of-pearl
rainbow in the scales, the skin, and at the end
a fan trailing delicate antique lace. It is so fine.
I see it shivering each time we bring new
water from the sea, as though mustering the wish
and hope for release. It does not know
she will probably die here. Sometimes I imagine it hears me
when I speak, watch how it holds
very still, as though pausing in conversation to allow
for grace of ebb and flow.
This is a poem of some 70 lines focussed on Kseniya S., a 23 year old who creates sand pictures live on Ukrainian TV. As she makes the pictures, the realities of war take shape and amongst these one particular war-crime.
I sculpt the sand like clay. I am, I’ve discovered,
a virtuoso. A couple stroll by,
sit down on a bench – I carve them a bench
under a starry sky.
Sand erupts into stars beneath my fingertips.
Warplanes appear overhead – at first
you might think they are clouds building up
but no, they are planes.
Of course everyone recognizes them immediately.
Sand vibrates in the box on the table.
The planes roar into the foreground and the happy couple
are obliterated, replaced
by howling faces. Tears fall
into the sand, dark stains. Mouths open wide.
In the silence
all I can hear is weeping.
And then a different wailing – that of a baby, just born,
safe, despite the noise and violence.
A sand baby, round, dimpled, grainy
as an old photograph.
The baby cries and brings the mother
quickly, it is the young woman from the park
(they can all see that)
and now she is smiling again
but not for long –
my fingers move faster,
trying to run away, but in vain;
the armed men, the soldiers and militia
are surrounding me, their guns their bayonets
protruding into the picture,
there is blood everywhere,
men doing things to each other and to women
that are indescribable in sand.
we slip between earth and sky
as light slicks along spider silk
from stalk to stalk
hard to distinguish your being
sometimes the thread itself
is the more living thing
I feel the wind’s tug and snatch
the lift of you away
towards shafts of light
straining to hold steady against
swerve and plunge
the tremor of your separateness
travelling from hand
I cannot let you go nor can I
wind you in
kite and flyer
we are playthings of the elements
knowing one day
though we keep it taut between us
the string must break