Cuneiform Tablet

When our lands
when the heavens

when mountain peaks
a thousand years of secret knowledge
signs with sharp rays   
lion-faced births, 
the data to decipher  

and the terrestrial terrors [. . .]

[When the scr]ibe 
[when the mas]ter
[when the king] 

all meticulous to claim 

from the mouths of scholars,

When the scribe

when the sch[ool bo]y 

the multiv[alence of ea]ch sign
of volatile g[ods who] stir us up
riddling semantics x x [. . .]
[. . .] dreams of ravens

[approx. 4 lines lost]

x x much-enduring words

fired in the kiln
so now these characters 

seem almost [. . . ]
They shrink under [. . .]  
I cannot mimic 
which scorched the edge of every wedge

[it is those shadows

but piece together

an incantation  
were not yet named,
bore other names,

were built from clay,
were already pressed on clay,
recording the sky,
anomalous cries,
ominous nights
had just been trained,

wrote his name,
had stamped his name,

their copies descend from the sages,
stars checked against sheep livers.
took up his reed,
learned to read,
contained the code to read the mind
and speak with their orbits,
[. . .] lizards
and w[aking wealth]

of war-torched blazes, buried

from before the flood
my lamp light.
the sun of Babylon
and cast shadows into the crevices

that were read]
all my tracings, 
to raise the dead.
Note: principles of Akkadian poetry have been used. Each line contains three or four feet arranged over two columns. The break marks the caesura. Feet are not strictly ‘metrical’ in our sense, but comprise either a single meaningful word or certain combinations of words - nouns and adjectives, verbs and objects, etc.

True Story

In my night I saw a dream,
I saw myself around a fire,
a fire whose light slashed into skin
of known faces uttering cryptic gossip,
curious whispers, unordinary speech.
I do not know what I am saying.
Hushed just above the insect music
rumours murmur like the heart.
They say he has received a message,
the one whom I would least expect -
the brash man whose arrogance dozes
like a bull waiting to wake and rage -
this is the god’s recipient!
I turn away uncomprehending
to look at the sky wild with visible stars
when suddenly seized by the moon’s gaze
I am full of the god, full of voice,
vibrating like a singing glass but silent,
moon-seized, like lightning-struck,
this voice an aura that exceeds me,
in awe, open-mouthed as words pour down
and fill me like an overflowing vessel:

“The archer’s blood will drown the moon before he wakes”

and I am released – the fire has not changed
but chatters the same with its low tongues
against my asyntactic thoughts.
Already I know I will forget,
and none will want to know.
I am released again to a sleeping world
where the moon is a mirror of cratered hills,
a Sarajevo Rose on every road,
reminders of tides which rose and left
their debris on receding, bullet-holes like rock-erosions,
unbroken shells protecting life inside.
It is always and never too late.
Like missiles thoughts besiege me at my window
as I wish on a shooting Serbian star.

Note: a Sarajevo Rose is the scar left by a missile hitting a pavement. They are often painted in red.

The diviner

I dig within
to excavate its signs:

fleshy malformations,

There’s meaning hiding

a hole is death,
a path, a river,
or parasitic
this is how the gods will speak,
The counterpart of highest heaven
the limits of the earth are known –
in all its darkness,
We can bleed the body
the truth is nothing
Sacrifice makes meaning
It takes some force
to open sacred chambers
the body’s walls torn
One graceful slit
to let the light in
And yet the innards
organs not
but in the membranes

and the crucible glistens like the moon
and scars are star-tissue
spun between eclipse-reflected
and I know there is a message
for if a design is drawn
the gods have heard

the body's darkness
fissures and filaments,

excrescences of meat.
these creases:
a pustule rain,
a gust of wind
track-mark damage –
how I have learned to read,

is not the deepest earth or ocean –
it is the heart
none of us is undeformed.
of its troubles but
clears the mind like violence.
out of slaughter.
to break a carcass,
to the piercing of the sky,
down like sanctuaries.
is all it takes
means to be destroyed.
are picked clean,
obscured by bleeding
I can almost see my face,

a tear in the sky
and I am a filament
pools of blood,
in this darkness,
in the shape of a cross
the wailing of the land.

[Selena Wisnom is an Assyriologist and writer currently based in Oxford. Her play Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria was performed at the Crypt Gallery, Euston, Feb-Mar 2019. In 2016 she predicted the election of Donald Trump from sheep entrails using Babylonian divinatory methods.]

Copyright © 2019 by Selena Wisnom, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.