Down in Ancient Sumer
By Cheryl Morgan
I’m probably not the best person in the world to be reviewing poetry, but I do have a strong interest in mythology, and when I heard that Catherynne M. Valente was producing a series of long-form poems based on "descent into the underworld" myths I was going to be first in the queue for review copies. Especially as the first title in the series happened to be The Descent of Inanna. I might not know much about poetry, but I am probably one of the few people in the SF&F community who owns a translation of the original Sumerian poem (Wolkstein & Kramer, for those who are interested).
[Note for the mythologically challenged: Inanna is the Sumerian original from which the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, was derived. She’s sort of a combination of Venus and Diana. The poem tells the story of her journey into the underworld to visit her sister, the death goddess, Ershkigal.]
As poetry goes, translations of Sumerian religious verse don’t stack up to well. I suspect that the original material was designed for chanting rather than to be read, and after translation it looses any rhyme and scansion it might have had. It ends up sounding rather like a literal translation of the libretto for the chorus of an Italian opera. Nevertheless, it still has some punch.
The Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against her the word of wrath.
She uttered against her the cry of guilt.
She struck her.
Inanna was turned to a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hung from a hook on the wall.
Faced with material like this, what Valente has done is try to transform the story into something that retains the spirit of the original but is rather more in tune with modern sensibilities. She keeps much of the repetitive nature of the original, but at the same time she freely uses modern terms and idioms where they add to the text. One of my favorite parts of her adaptation is the section in which Inanna is trying to persuade Neti, gatekeeper of the underworld, to let her in. The original goes like this:
"If you are truly Inanna, Queen of Heaven,
On your way to the East,
Why has your heart led you on the road
From which no traveler returns?"
Valente’s version plays up the level of insult that Neti gives Inanna (which is found in other parts of the original). It adds a lot to the sense of pagan religious concepts, and it drops in a very modern last line.
"If you are Inanna whose-legs-lie-open,
why would you come here
through the muck and mire,
past the dung-beetles’ sentry?
There are no flush-skinned lovers here,
or fields sown with carrots.
Here is only swamp-winds wending,
apples browned to sopping,
and Ereshkigal on her pitch-soaked throne.
This is no place for tourists."
Valente is also very much aware that the dispute between Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Love and War, and her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, is a classic female rivalry. In deference to the Sumerian origins of the tale she allows Inanna to keep her dark hair (in a true American version she would be blonde and Ereshkigal dark). But she also recognizes the Hollywood nature of the confrontation between the sisters.
"I always thought, you know,
out of the two of us,
you were prettiest,"
said the deathshead, pale as sturgeon.
She drew back her hand,
and struck Inanna full-knuckled.
Overall I think Valente has produced a very nice balance between keeping the spirit of the original and making it more approachable to a modern audience. I’m very much looking forward to future poems in the series.
The bad news is that initially the seven poems will only available as limited edition hardcovers at $50 each. They’ll be beautifully produced, but beyond the means of most of us. (And Papaveria were serious about limited – I reviewed the poem from a PDF.) However, late next year, once all seven individual poems have been released, a paperback compilation of all seven poems will be issued. If you want to buy Inanna now, the Papaveria web site is your best bet.