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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page BW12

One of the very best translations written in our time, of anything, is David Ferry's electric and highly readable rendering of Gilgamesh.

The great ancient narrative, an adventure told as a ritual, is a mixture of the enigmatic and the familiar. In paraphrase: The young warrior-king Gilgamesh conquers all who oppose him. He fights the enemy of his city, Inkidu the wild man, who then becomes Gilgamesh's beloved friend. When Inkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes on a quest to conquer death, a stupendous mission that nearly succeeds.

In Ferry's supercharged lines, Gilgamesh resembles a folk tale and a myth, a savage epic and a sophisticated dazzlement, stylishly elaborate as a Fabergé egg, of the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Gilgamesh's quest is a profound venture into the enigma of death.

Ferry's version demonstrates that Gilgamesh is also a great story, told in eloquent poetry. Until his rendering, this monumental poem was not available in English as a work of art, with all its weird, cinematic immediacy. Here is Ferry's artful treatment of the first section. This passage is like the opening credits, rolling over our first look at the hero who is nearly divine, who challenges death itself, who is terrifying -- yet mortal:

The Story

of him who knew the most of all men know;

who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;

who knew the way things were before the Flood,

the secret things, the mystery; who went

to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,

and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.

He built Uruk. He built the keeping place

of Anu and Ishtar. The outer wall

shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner

wall is beyond the imagining of kings.

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