The First Poet in Recorded History: Guest Post by Marsha de la O

The First Poet in Recorded History: Guest Post by Marsha de la O

The First Poet in Recorded History: Guest Post by Marsha de la O

Photo of Martha de la OThis guest post was written by Marsha de la O, author of Every Ravening Thing from the Spring 2019 Pitt Poetry Series collection. de la O is the author of Antidote for Night, winner of the 2015 Isabella Gardner Award, and Black Hope, winner of the New Issues Press Poetry Prize and winner of an Editor’s Choice, Small Press Book Award. Other awards include the Morton Marcus Poetry Award and the da Poetry Award. She lives in Ventura, California, with her husband, poet and editor Phil Taggart. Together, they produce poetry readings and events in Ventura County and edit the literary journal Spillway. Every Ravening Thing is on sale now.

I’ve always been drawn to haunted spirits, especially female ones. Years ago, I ran across an unforgettable poem by Judy Grahn on the goddess Inanna, called, “Descent to the Butch of the Realm.”  Sometime after that, I attended a stunning short opera by Veronika Krausas, The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth, and it occurred to me that the myth of the descent of Inanna to the underworld would provide a wonderful dramatic basis for an opera. I began working on a libretto and researching Sumerian literature.

I found that it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that tablets and fragments from Ancient Sumer were pieced together into coherent mythic texts. The goddess Inanna was worshipped about four thousand years ago in ancient Sumer.  Enheduanna, one of her priestesses in the city-state of Uruk, is the first poet in recorded historythe first person to sign her name to a poem. She was a real person who we know existed because of evidence in multiple historical records.  At one point in her life, the city of Uruk fell to an invader, and Enheduanna was beaten, raped, and forced into exile.  From this place of loss, Enheduanna wrote Nin-me-sar-ra, her hymn to Inanna, full of images of lightning, invoking the goddess in her guise as storm.

Every Ravening Thing book coverLast year at a poetry reading I attended, open readers were asked to add one interesting fact next to their name.  I wrote down that I was once struck by lightning.  The bolt actually struck a jacaranda tree whose branches touched my red tiled roof, and some of the electrical energy was transferred from the tree into the roof, where it dispersed through the walls of the cottage.  I was leaning against one of the walls and the charge entered me through the nape of my neck, traveled through my spine and across my shoulders, down through my arms into my hands and fingers. My fingers formed a box canyon, and when lightning reached the tips, it bounced back, a small roiling charge. All this happened at the speed of light, yet there was an instant when I felt the backward flowing charge meet the ongoing force, and the waves arising from this confluence were just like the ocean.

After the reading was over, a woman came to me and asked if I’d ever encountered lightning glass.  I didn’t know what that was.  This woman had grown up in the Mojave in an area that geographically created a lightning field, a magnet for strikes. She and her sister liked to hunt for places where lightning had slammed into the ground. They would dig there, because a few inches down, they might find a crystalline layer where silica fused into glass: lightning glass. 

You could say my poem for Enheduanna is a kind of lightning glass—a fusion of my own history; the dying, resurrected, overthrown goddess; and the story of human civilization where women’s voices have been scattered, fragmented, and silenced—all three fused into one by the power of lightning, the power of a woman lifting her voice, inscribing her name.

—Marsha de la O


For the Poet Enheduanna of Uruk 

2350 B.C

She considers the shape of an idea. That lightning resembles a feather. The poet presses her wedge-shaped reed into soft red clay. A shaft and slender barbs, this reed plucked from the banks of the Tigris and cut into a stylus. Tigris Sunrise is one of her names. Her name as color and motion. Her liquid name. Cloudscapes release their charge with a strike. A shaft and feathering. Lightning and feather. Same symbol for both, line and cross-hatching, small flag in strong wind. Her name as light. A corona forms around the central shaft. A tree reaches upward to call lightning down. A night enfeathered with storm, darkness split with branching light. When Uruk fell, her temple destroyed, Lugalanne the conqueror, defiled her.  Always she remembers the little pouch his fish-lips made as they parted and came together before he smiled.  She considers the word’s weight. A narrow gorge. A ruined heart. Lightning is not ethereal. Even a feathery corona smashes against a roof like a load of sunbaked clay. He keeps her alive, but why? That people might witness her debasement, his trophy. He keeps her alive. She considers lightning and feathers. The charge enters at the nape of her neck and flows downward like water. Her limbs start up in a concord of fire and water and her hand picks up the stylus, this chance to sing back the world—this is how an exile returns to the city. The poet presses her wedge-shaped reed into soft red clay.     She inscribes her name. Nin-me-sar-ra.         

©2019, Marsha de la O. All rights reserved.