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The following poem is an approximation of an ancient narrative genre known as Babylonian wisdom literature. Partly story, part didactic, faithful to the rhythms of language and mnemonics, wisdom literature, as far as I can tell, did not trouble itself with distinctions between fiction and history. A story was true because it resonated—that is to say, represented truly the hearts and minds of its speaker and listeners.

I envision the people of Sumer, who lived roughly 4000 years ago, as perceiving no separation between church and state, belief and fact. Sacredness lay at the core of everything and rippled outward with diminishing degrees of awareness. Anyone could find and live within his own center, and it was that freedom that contributed to millenia of near immeasurable plenty, hinted at in passages of Genesis.

The narrator of “Border Crossing” is a female temple attendant, fulfilling her shift at the city gates. Being less than thrilled with one’s job is nothing new. Contents of the following may not sit well with the excessively somber.


Merchant of hearts, I bid
you welcome. Gates to this
fair city close to none, the
temple walls bright glitter for
the jackal and the jurist, as for
trader and the slave. I am
compelled by grace of Queen
Inanna to anoint you with the
unguents contained between
these alabaster limbs, to feather
out the tangles of your wearied
thoughts with kisses, and betray
no sense between the sweetened
words I must by holy ordinance
deliver, of having known the
vicious nature of your touch.
Sister-peers in Nineveh have
paid the price for recognition
with their noses lopped, ears
for hearing gossip tossed into
the Tigris for the crocodiles.
You are, therefore—on this, I’ll
swear—as alien to me as if
you’d landed with the Annunaki
on that mythic ship they say
delivered Shumash.

But do let this, I pray,
be clear. If you believe
yourself entitled as some
do while in the wilderness
to creep into our woods
of cedar after dark and fell
a single tree, ten thousand
trunks will rise and have
no care for what or where
they might impale.

Climb the spiral
staircase of our most
beloved ziggurat without
Inanna’s sanction, and
you’ll learn the sharpened
melodies of lightning as
she courses through
your bloodstream on
her route to sea.

But if you should, with
circumspect humility
consent to tread this holy
ground disarmed, unshod,
all calcified conceptions
laid to rest, delights as none
you’ve known or dreamed,
abundance to the tenth
degree, with pleasures
and successes guaranteed
await with open arms
and undivided hearts.

Welcome, blessed
traveler, to Bab-El.


© Elaine Stirling, 2013