I enjoyed Jenny Lewis’s Fathom very much. When I organized a multi-poet reading in Jericho last year I was delighted that Lewis agreed to take part, and her performance of Gilgamesh’s lament will stay with me for a long time. In person I found her charming, humble, smart and funny, so I have to admit to being predisposed to like her latest collection, Taking Mesopotamia, before I’d opened it.
In the event, “like” doesn’t begin to do these poems justice.
Taking Mesopotamia is easily the best collection of poetry I’ve read so far this year. A complex, humane, painful, intelligent book that works on many levels at once. Structurally it interweaves the story of Lewis’s father (who served in the Mesopotamia campaign – in what is now Iraq – from 1916-1917) with modern voices from Iraq, extracts from a First World War training manual, fragments from the Epic of Gilgamesh and other individual poems touching on the region, war and loss.
Within this there are different threads and patterns: a sequence of paired 10-line loose pentameter poems offsets episodes from Lewis’s father’s time in Mesopotamia with the experiences of modern Iraqis and Western soldiers, each pair tied to a calendar month and sharing some kind of thematic link; the book starts and ends with water, and water flows throughout; lines from the poem “Mother” recur with minor alterations in the later poem “Wound Shock”; etc. The overall effect is less a comparison between different time periods than a sense of multiple timescales coexisting at once, a structural equivalent to the geological strata Lewis’s Welsh ancestors worked in the poem “Mine”:
dense seams littered
with dinosaur footprints carried on the flood
from deltas as far away as Umm-Quasir and Basra
to Blaenclydach, where my grandmother, belly taut as a sail,
gasped as her waters
broke and the child in her womb started his journey.
The book’s continual juxtaposition of different time periods (mythic as well as historical) brings the past into sharper focus but also distances and contextualizes the present. By the end of the book it feels as though Lewis is doing with time what the earliest cubist paintings did with space, folding multiple perspectives and chronologies and flattening them side by side. Instead of thinking “gosh, look at the similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh / Welsh mining / contemporary Iraq / the First World War” we find ourselves sensing that each is somehow present in all of the others – not in the abstract mystical sense of Eliot’s Four Quartets but in a visceral / neurological way that tells us a lot about how we actually experience and relate to the past.
(It’s impossible to get this across in a review: you just have to get hold of a copy and read the thing.)
The writing itself is beautiful. Lewis has always had an enviable talent for getting the tone of a poem just right. This allows her to move from both-barrels irony
If you want some advice, don’t cling to the company
of untidy soldiers or soldiers of doubtful character;
if you do, you cannot expect officers or anyone else
to have a high opinion of you
to the heart-stopping lyricism of “Mother”:
At Kut-al-Amara you were back-lit,
the moon pointed you out against the ridge –
when Turkish gunners stopped your spade
you fell slowly, shedding iridescence
each night in my dreams I fail to catch you –
your bones the fragile quills of rescued fledglings
you placed by the stove for warmth
to moments of pure chiselled beauty:
The gidim xul and maskim xul, ghosts
that ambush from the silt of dreams
each night cause Enkidu to rise unsmiling
in a desert of stone moons[.]
(That nearly-awkward trip from the unstressed “ing” of “unsmiling” to the two unstressed syllables at the beginning of the next line is a perfect rhythmical set-up for the chilling spondee of “stone moons” – something that shouldn’t work but does, brilliantly.)
The middle of the book reproduces photographs that Lewis’s father took during the war; at the end are translations of eleven of the poems into Arabic (which somehow adds to the book’s palimpsest/folded-time effect even for someone like me who can’t read a word of them). On the fourth and fifth reading Taking Mesopotamia is still giving up new secrets and treasures; I’m convinced it’s one of those books that will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Taking Mesopotamia, Jenny Lewis, Carcanet, 2014
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