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Gilgamesh

Poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa, Concept & Dramaturgy by Chad Gracia. (c) 2006. Wesleyan University Press. Pg. 94, ISBN - 13: 978-0-8195-6824-3


Perhaps all legend and myth is the story of throwing everything off but ourselves, to find what is truly there. I believe this is at the heart of all literary statuary that attempts to manifest spirit. We learn that we are both spirits with animal bodies, and bodies with spirit. So, we have Gilgamesh.

This is a new adaptation of ancient literature. Gilgamesh is a masterpiece written thousands of years before Homer's Iliad.The original text was inscribed in cuneiform more than 3000 years ago, and lost for most of that time, found in the ruins of Nineveh. The epic was deciphered by scholars and is now presented as a work for stage by Pulitzer Prize poet Komunyakaa, and dramatist Chad Gracia. The story is of the King of Uruk and his personal transformation. He encounters a monster, finds a companion, struggles with his power, his mission, his manhood, his anger, and grief.

This is the only book I traveled with on vacation so I could read slowly. The poet is a great favorite of mine, and verse drama is the most difficult of all genres -- because it is half man, half beast. All legend can refer to this state of being, but translating it to public performance is filled with danger. This is why I admire the courage of this work. Frankly there are few verse dramas that work onstage, including the best of T.S. Eliot's. Poetry cannot really be spoken and believed as dialogue. So we wait for the tableaux with stage action to come to life. Or we close our eyes and listen to the dream. Audiences do not like listening to poetry when they want to get on with the story. Poets in the audience want language and are bothered by action that is not psychologically propelled. Verse drama is often an historical anachronism, resulting in literary anarchy.

In the present publication of Gilgamesh, we pay honor to the fact that it exists at all. And, it is a beautiful book, especially if we measure what exists of this ancient fable.

Presented here, we have not only a verse drama about Gilgamesh but the meaning of Gilgamesh. It could not have happened without a poet at the helm. It is poetic and dramatic but not often at the same time. The chorus cannot afford one extra word spoken, and sometimes there is either too much language or too little, because - in moments where characters speak - we lose focus - unless the stress is perfect. Poetic scope is good for drama, but theater requires an immediate response, and poetry is something we want to live with and savor. Lines written for an audience must work for the moment; and, dramatic poetry - historical and mythologized - has to deliver characters with wishes and dreams that we hear. It is a world where the emotions are the reality. The theme of Gilgamesh of Uruk, part God, part Man, struggles with power and privilege but has only the same human heart we all have to carry the burden.

There are scenes and moments that are arresting in this work. It is doubtful that it can be received as more than recitation spoken by individuals in high rhetoric, choreographed with hope. Dramatic poetry is dramatic literature. It can remain on the shelf, or be taught to students; it can be revered for uplifting our reality. It does what prose cannot do; yet, most often, the practical rendering will not add to the canon of literature for stage, since the opportunities for drama must be choreographed to the opportunities for verse. I wish that we could have it both ways but I'm left with the fact that this is material to read with pleasure rather than watch for spectacle

Rita Dove's " The Darker Face of the Earth," about slavery in the south, faced the same problems on stage but she managed to soften the play. Dove had the advantage of a history not so remote. "J B " by Archibald MacLeish managed to overcome obstacles by moving the biblical to present day. There are degrees of success we can point to on stage. But this rendering of Gilgamesh is a book to be read because there are passages of poetry to be cherished. When I think of Komunyakaa's poem "Outside the Blue Nile," with its dialogue, we have an example of drama in verse.

Gilgamesh of Uruk was in search of immortality, it is said. Maybe the charting of the course, by poet and dramatist, is the only search there is.


Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. Her latest play "Quilting the Sun" premieres at Centre Stage, S.C., 2007. Her public radio series is The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress Grace's poetry commentaries on "innuendoes" MiPoradio: http://www.miporadio.net/GRACE_CAVALIERI/index.html

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