Coming in November 2021 from Saddle Road Press.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the mad and superhuman king can only be softened and made wise through traumatic loss of his Beloved, full confrontation with mortality, and finally, absolute humbling.
The root of the word humble does not come from humiliation—it comes from humus, that fertile, dark, nutrient-rich layer of soil comprised of all that has gone before and sustaining all that lives now. But what does grief powerful enough to actually humble truly entail, and how is it that we must each walk Gilgamesh’s quest to the land of Faraway?
In A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, Greg Orr shares a line from Sappho, and writes: “The beloved calls us out into connection with the world, into reciprocal relation with the world. Sappho has a poem, Fragment 16, in which she has a line: ‘what ever one loves most is beautiful.’ …the recognition and acknowledgment of the beloved floods the individual life with meaning. Notice Sappho says ‘whatever’—she doesn’t limit it to being a person, and I think that’s crucial.” The greatest insights into what being human means sometimes come through the most ancient stories and their animal/wild archetypes.
What happens when the Beloved is not human, but instead Enkidu, panther of the wilderness, the wild creature made by the gods to save Gilgamesh from his own corruption? What happens when the Beloved is Humbaba’s forest in a literally burning world? What happens when the Beloved is of a species other than ours, co-evolved with humans for more than 80,000 years to access our love directly—yet constrained to painfully short lifespans? What happens when the loss of humans is not as bad? What happens to the witch when her familiar—her reciprocal relationship with the world—dies?
Gilgamesh Wilderness uses the architecture of the Ancient Near Eastern epic as a doorway into one particular and unique death, as all deaths are unique and particular: through that door—and the mad walk west to kill death itself rather than grieve or die again—a meditation, eulogy, elegy, and humbling emerge in answer to the central question posed by the great epic: how do we go on, hearts open, in the presence of mortality?
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Early readers respond:
“An elegy of the highest order. The narrator’s love and grief recall the most ancient myths while also subverting them. Her canine companion Gilgamesh becomes Enkidu, and she, Enkidu, becomes Gilgamesh. They merge into one being. Orpheus is now a witch whose song resonates across humanity, yet she mourns for the inhuman. She has the faith and wits to wait this time until she reemerges above ground before turning around to face death. Her beloved’s tapetum eyes, his breath in her palm, the wilderness he senses with keen joy, the pain of her world without him, Rilke’s panther, are all reborn in her exquisite words, a dog’s tracks, stepping across these pages.”
- Rebecca Snow, author of Glassmusic
“Again and again, darkness veils their eyes/and the palm of my left hand holds/the beloved’s last breath, a burning city:
In Gilgamesh Wilderness, Jessamyn Smyth invokes a modern epic for readers to witness the earthen, luminous, yet also brittle remains of one soul being shared by two bodies; ‘the infinite beloved’ and the one who has been left behind.
Smyth’s diction spindles from her fingers like an incantation while also anchoring the reader into the corporeal and incarnate stuff of earth. The owls, the wolves, the heft of ice crackling in a stream swollen with winter, and mostly, the embodiment (and disembodiment) of her beloved as they gallop and pinion and stalk and look up and bear witness to the birds in the trees (the way she speaks to her beloved!) as her language reflects their physical cadence together, the movement of both their union and even their being torn asunder.
Further, Smyth’s frequent use of white space on the page speaks as elemental as the text- which often feels like white gulps of air, gulfs of absence and then the profound invisible presence within that dizzy blurred spot in an otherwise normal field of vision; His face my scotoma,/the only constellation.
Gilgamesh Wilderness delightfully and heartbreakingly breaks beyond the formal constraints of prose and poetry and reads like an inconsolable and jubilant poetic form of its own. It is a form that reminds me of Ann Carson’s Autobiography of Red (and I hooted with pleasure when Smyth refers to it later in the text) in both its inventive leaps and kinship with mythic allusions to ages past, yet here in Gilgamesh Wilderness, I can feel more of what’s at stake for the writer, and I can almost almost feel the alchemy of resurrection; the beat of the book’s pulse in my hands, its breath, its head no longer lolling but very much alive.
When I felt the end of the book approaching, I wanted so very much to slow down. I wanted the book to stay, stay in my veins. I knew I would be bereft after I turned the final page, which is likely the pulse sensation of what Smyth was conjuring for her readers in the first place; to be invited to stay inside her skin, to become one soul shared between two bodies and to shush ourselves in order to Come further in. Further up. Listen.
Ultimately Smyth, like Gilgamesh before her, cannot kill death for us or for her infinite beloved, but if we listen close enough, we may hear the salve approximating an answer to that epic question:
how do we go on— heart open—
in the presence of death?
How stupid and ineffectual, love that can’t stop death.
- Jim Churchill-Dicks, author of Wine-Dark Mother and the Trapper’s Son
“…The rib-spreader open truth of Gilgamesh Wilderness. Like I’m reading Smyth say: ‘Listen, the worst has already happened. You already love. You can stop holding against it. Put your heart into my hands, into my voice. Trust me and we will look together.’ … There is only one story, as ancient as it is personal: how to carry a living heart through the glow of this burning world. Through the gates of Gilgamesh Wilderness’s pages a singular voice is waiting for you. Luminous.”
- Claudia Mauro, author of Stealing Fire and Reading the River, publisher at Whit Press
“Jessamyn Smyth’s Gilgamesh Wilderness lives up to its mythic name by leading us on an arresting and dazzling journey. Smyth deftly intertwines stunning prose and poetry, narration and reflection, dreams and waking life. Reading this book reminds me of contemplating a beaver lodge. On the surface, it may appear accidental or collaged, with fragments and poems and stories arranged to seem almost random. But look deeply into a beaver lodge and you’ll find arrangement, engineering, order. This book constructs a similar intentional complexity. Smyth might pull us through subterranean levels of unsparing grief and even submerge us in suffocating darkness, an immersion taking us to the edge of death itself. But she eventually leads us to a surface where the air is full of light and sound and life and even a sense of playful contentment as delightful as a wide tail slapping water. This line is going to stay with me for a while: ‘that pulsing you see in the inside of her wrist, it’s misleading…’ The whole journey of this book is worth every step.”
- John Sheirer, Author of Stumbling Through Adulthood: Linked Stories
“I love this book. Its words take me into my own head and heart and past — all my beloved dogs and woods and snowy bleak winters. I want my students to read it and see how to bring the old stories into their new ones and weave them together into something true and magical that will heal them, and walk with them as they grow. ”
- Nora Streed, Director, Writing Center and ESL Services University of North Carolina School of the Arts
“In a wilderness of bone-deep grief, Jessamyn Smyth builds a word road as she travels. Lighting her way, mysteries as temporal and immediate as a single surprising bloom opening to a full meadow of color and as close to eternal as the distant beckoning Milky Way. A paean to her companion and to deep love transcending species, Gilgamesh Wilderness gathers together startling poems, prose, and fragments of contemplation. Mixing the mythic and the muddy, Smyth’s words invite us to walk with her and her familiar through a geography of the heart, from the Salish Sea to the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River Valley. From wondering how one can go on to going on. This is a stunning collection, polished with elegant, feral energy and insight.”
- Jan Maher, author of Heaven, Indiana and Earth As It Is
“As I read deeper into Gilgamesh Wilderness, I think of all the people who need me to give them a copy…so many people will be moved by this book…”
- Elizabeth Macduffie, publisher of Meat For Tea
“Gilgamesh Wilderness is a keening. Part elegy, part eulogy, it is a brilliantly written lamentation about the loss of the beloved. That the beloved is a dog made these verses resonate all the more for me. Because this dog, like the warrior companion whose death sent the classical Gilgamesh into a spiral of grief, like the service dog whose ghost spirit still lives with me, is no doting lover, but an ally, a familiar, a friend. I struggle to put this into words, because I know (oh, do I know!) that this is not a “woman and dog” story. …I waited for this book, and it was worth the wait. Walk in the wilderness… and remember how fierce love can be.
- Michel Wing, author of Body on the Wall
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Some published work from the collection:
*Have you read The Epic of Gilgamesh? You must. Here’s the Maureen Kovacs translation, which I love best for preserving the stone-tablet caesuras honestly – which makes you fill them yourself.