As May draws to a close, RT offers this photograph of a magnificent frieze at Karnak, the temple district of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world, and RT is beginning to suspect that Thebes played a primary role in the evolution of ancient Mediterranean religion.
In part, RT’s interest in Thebes is based on its frequent appearance in Greek myth, in part on the fact that the ancient crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet, looks remarkably like the crown worn by Baal, the chief god of ancient Phoenicia. Though Thebes was not the capital of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt, it was the administrative center of Upper Egypt under the Pharaohs (and is located not far from Nekhen, which was the capital of p-d Upper Egypt.) How did the epochal unification of Egypt (c. 3000 BC) under Narmer (or Menes), king of UE, affect developing religious beliefs?
Unfortunately, RT can say little at the moment about the significance of the scene recorded in the frieze, other than that it is located in the precinct of Amun-Re. A date and translation of the inscription would help greatly; there’s more research ahead for RT.
Photograph: Panorama of a frieze at Karnak. Author/Source: Bialonde. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Many, many years ago, RT read the Iliad (the Lattimore translation, for the record) in college. Something must have occurred during the process that RT was unaware of: he had been bitten by the translation bug. And so, Gilgamesh.
But Homer is another story, and a much more difficult one. The sheer length of the Iliad and the Odyssey, 30,000 lines apiece, would give any translator pause before diving in. There is also the challenging verse the epics are written in: ancient Greek, in 7-beat, dactylic lines. No, we are not talking blank verse here. And finally, there is the Homer translation industry, in business in English since the 16th century. Many a great mind has worked to make these words available to the English speaker.
But even in the finest, most faithful translation, Homer is not for light reading. The plot is complex, the characters legion, the setting unfamiliar. On top of everything else, the topic is difficult. The Iliad deals in rage, battle, death, and the inhuman will of the gods. This is a story about power, and it pulls few punches.
What can a poet do to assist the reader as he or she ventures out onto the plains stretching between the Dardanelles and the fabled city of Troy? RT has ventured to offer a quick, off-the-cuff, translation of the opening verse to give some idea of what might help. A short line, plain diction, and generous use of white space he hopes will invite the reader to essay in full this fruit of bitter knowledge.
Grant me your voice, Goddess,
that I may find strength to sing
the Rage that overwhelmed Achilles,
that cast down the myriads of men,
mighty souls, into the prison of dust,
and left their bodies exposed, rotting
and ripped by dog and carrion bird—
and so fostered the design of Zeus.
Translation: Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.
Stalingrad, July 1942…the streets burn in the run-up to the main engagement of Axis and Soviet forces, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943, resulting in the decisive defeat of the Axis armies. Each side lost a million men in the battle.
After holding a woodland position all night during the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-February 1945), three soldiers of B Company, 101st Engineers, emerge for a rest. The Bulge cost American troops more casualties than any other engagement in World War II.
To the memory of the soldiers who defeated the Axis powers and liberated Europe…and to all American soldiers who fought, suffered, and were killed in combat throughout the nation’s history.
Photos: top: Burning Streets in Stalingrad (July, 1942). German Federal Archive. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported Germany. bottom: Three American Soldiers During the Battle of the Bulge. German Federal Archive. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported Germany.
This post has been a long time in the making. Empires of the Word, a historical survey of the relationship between language, politics, and culture by Nicholas Ostler, is rich but slow reading, more reference work than language thriller.
Make no mistake: this is first-rate scholarship, beautifully written and illustrated, vast in knowledge and replete with examples. Everything is here, from the emergence of mankind’s first written tradition (in Mesopotamia), to the exfoliation of Sanskrit in southeast Asia, to the verbal conquests of European languages in the modern era. Charts, maps, timelines, and writing samples accompany the detailed essays on each language and period. And important questions are addressed: Why is it that military conquest is sufficient to spread a language in some areas but not in others? Why did Latin turn into the Romance languages in Europe but Greek not leave descendant vernaculars behind it in the far-flung regions of Alexander’s conquest? What might be the fate of English, the current global lingua franca?
The difficulty here, inevitably, is the mass of detail that must be presented; and the author’s prose, entertaining certainly, tended to wear on this reader after a while. RT thinks that most people will have trouble reading through EoftW at a single sitting; rather like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, this books demands memory and effort of its audience as they proceed through its lengthy argument. Language and writing are complex phenomena, not easily reduced to rules; and their ubiquity tends to hide inherent difficulties. Everyone speaks, right? How hard can it be?
At this juncture, RT is pretty much convinced that the missing piece in the language puzzle is its internal value to people; we surely rely on it for communication, but its origins may lie further back, in our emerging consciousness. Language creates community not just between individuals, but within each of us as well. Words are messengers traveling both ways, from rational to first mind, and back again. It is this earlier emergence of thought that made exterior communication possible. RT sees he has more reading in front of him as he explores this idea.
Empires of the Word is a keeper, but readers should prepare themselves by setting aside a block of rainy afternoons, attended by pots of mint tea, to travel down its meandering waters. They will see some amazing things and make landings on unexpected and challenging shores.
Anyone who thinks that the U.S. states have lost most of their power or that the U.S. cultural landscape isn’t complicated should peruse the above map. RT continues to be boggled by the progress of gay rights in the U.S., but the most recent overturnings of state law regarding gay marriage has gotten him up at nearly midnight to editorialize on the situation. But after considering this map, RT is beginning to think that more may be going on than several wild-eyed federal judges striking blows in the name of justice.
Michigan’s ruling brings to nine, count ’em, nine, states that have had either their bans on same-sex marriage or their bans on recognition of other-state gay marriage overturned. What is even more astounding is that a near-majority of the U.S. population now supports gay marriage, up from 25 percent in 1996. Polls in Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, and Arizona indicate majority support in those states! These are not locales known for their liberal political stance.
Nineteen U.S. states now recognize gay marriage; the first state to legalize it, Massachusetts, did so ten years ago. And RT recollects the avalanche of state bans on gay marriage that buried much of the country back in the 1990s.
The ten-year anniversary is probably pertinent: Massachusetts has yet to slide off into the ocean. And as is the case with the Affordable Care Act, we are just looking at the first phase of this struggle (and the implicit acceptance of the sexuality spectrum). Polygamy and group marriage are waiting for their day in court. The very foundation of civilization for the last four millennia, patriarchy, is crumbling (and for some, being reaffirmed).
Somewhere, in a hell that may no longer be so dusty, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are smiling.
And what about hash brownies? (RT himself will abstain; his meds have worked pretty well for him all these years).
Map: Legal status of same-sex partnership in the United States; author: Lokal_Profil. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.
RT doesn’t talk much about the four years he spent in Paris as a teenager. It’s kind of like talking about what it’s like being a poet; you know you’re damn lucky to be one and that any mention of it brings out a surreptitious feeling in your interlocutor, “My life isn’t as rich as that!” Unless of course he or she happens to be a poet–and has admitted it to themselves. And the resentment that talking about Paris or poetry stirs up in people who have never had close encounters with either makes it very hard to describe the equivocal position of us makers (or makaris, as the Scots call us): we are in exile from the Great City as we are in exile from the deepest source of ourselves, the beauty in our voices. The sense of beauty is always with us, but it is not easy to actually go back to the places we acquired it and re-experience it directly.
Or maybe this is just a complicated way of saying none of us can go back to our youths.
Anyway, our sleepy poet has had yet another YouTube epiphany, this one just a few minutes ago as he listened to Joni Mitchell‘s “Edith and the Kingpin” from her amazing and difficult 1975 album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. God, this thing is gorgeous!
The song summoned feelings that RT usually leaves where he felt them forty or so years ago, memories of the intense beauty of Paris and the various thunderbolts of panic thrown at him by the muses as they awakened him to the transparency and mystery of the world. RT had a rather dramatic time in the City of Lights, but one that he kept to himself (and for some years after).
Or maybe this is just a roundabout reminder that poetry and Paris aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. What, after all, is wrong with being a commodities trader in Chicago, a teacher in Arizona, or a secretary in Boston? Lives like these are full of possibilities that creative folk in general don’t participate in.
RT knows that in fact his first encounters with poetry took place before his family’s posting in France, but not with the kind of urgency that neatly separates a teenager from the prospects of a normal life. Sorry, but you’re too busy struggling with your inner voice to be bothered with keeping a schedule…
And then there were encounters with the voice and images of Joni Mitchell to remind RT of what transcendent reality might look like. And come to think of it, it was in Paris that RT first acquired an interest in things ancient and Middle Eastern (not least from JM’s album Hejira). RT confesses himself plain puzzled by the relative obscurity that JM has slipped into, but trusts that genius will out and receive its due, even if the process takes a few more decades.
All of this is by way of introduction to one of RT’s recent poetic efforts and a link to Edith and the Kingpin. Here is the poem:
star plunges down the sky:
the impact shrivels a hill,
leaves the glowing nugget
to cool in a dusty, windy
and they come dancing,
singing for the rain, the
bolts that burst upon them:
thorny canes, fierce blossoms.
they cut a blade, free an axe
from the hard starfall,
shape lesser stone for walls
the waters are rising
& they people the cube
with Betelgeuese, Deneb,
Fomalhaut: seal the door.
they will make landfall.
Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree
&, with thanks to JM for the inspiration, here is “Edith and the Kingpin”
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