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Humming the Blues
ISBN: 978-0934971-92-8
By Cass Dalglish
Review by: Moira Richards


Translation is a hoary old controversial old subject. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows how many things are just not sayable, in the same way, in two different languages - especially when one comes to culture-laden utterances such as idiom. And too, there are the effects of time on even the same language…

It may be possible to "translate" Shakespeare or Chaucer into modern day English but so many old words have lost their original meaning that the exercise usually ends up with more footnote than text. And then somehow, the modern rendition seems to have lost the sounds and rhythms of the original. So has it been translated or diluted or filtered? How much of the original does the reader actually get? Enough maybe, if the translation is of a piece of factual prose, but what if it is a piece of poetry that depends as much on allusion and word-play, rhythm and sounds to render its content? This is some of the challenge that faced Cass Dalglish in the writing of Humming the Blues based on her translation of Nin-me-šar-ra, Enheduanna's Song to Inanna.

Inanna is an uppity god, sometimes referred to as the impetuous wild cow who dared go to hell - and managed to come back from the dead too. She offered in her place, her feckless husband who'd not even noticed she'd been missing for three days, but as Dalglish says in the intro - that's a whole 'nother story.

The poet, prince, priest Enheduanna is the first person, of whom we have record, to lay claim to her written work by attaching her signature to it. She lived more than four thousand years ago. She wrote her poems by pressing a wedge-shaped reed into a wet clay tablet, and she wrote not in words, but in Sumerian cuneiform. Which is what Cass Dalglish undertook to learn / decipher to write this book of poems. The cover art shows just what a daunting task that must have been.

So, Humming the Blues attempts to bring 4360 years-old Sumerian poetry to 21st century readers in English. And, to quote the after-matter of the book:

A single Sumerian sign may have five, ten, twenty or more values, and in literary texts these multivalent signs are set next to other multivalent signs, introducing immense allusive possibility (52).

Dalgish explains how the first line of the first poem / tablet can be translated simply as:

Lady of all the me's resplendent light

She continues with a listing of some twenty associated words that cling to each of the above two phrases. So for the first, "Lady of all the me's" there is totatlity / sister / pure/ ruler … and more. And for the second phrase, "resplendent light" there is day / sun / grand lion / storm / go there … and so on.

Cass Dalglish then constructs a diamond-shaped clump or "word heap" of all those terms so that the physical layerings of the terms can in turn, sort-of reveal other layerings of meaning. Like this:

Tigris sunrise
secret sister
go here measure go there
grand lion sunlight storm shining link
silver ring ruler who appears who is everything
come forth sweet soverign blow white ringlets
strike the day

…which begins now to remind me of the performances of South African praise-singers - those lyric, ecstatic, non-linear and musical renditions of poetry.

Cass sees the aesthetic of jazz music in the Sumerian cuneiform "language" - the repeats and inversions of meaning, the creation of new from the existing and the playfulness with which the units of the medium are used - or not.

Singing the Blues comprises a jazz-style translation of the 49 tablets of Sumerian cuneiform of Enheduanna's impassioned pleas to Inanna for help after she has been raped and banished from her temples, with her people being subjected to the power of a "big man in the sky" usurper. Here to close, the forty-second stanza:

You lap at blood
like a wild dog, you lift your eyes, your gaze is fierce, your eyes change, they roll, they flash, red, yellow, they burn-igi-hush, igi-hush, igi-gun-gun, he-zú, he-zá, he-zu-á. No one knows what rules you obey; you don't pay attention to night, you don't pay attention to cold. You fly here and there, on this path on that path, through water through fire. You stand. You prevail.
He-zú, he-zá, he-zu-á (42)

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