Sumer Hil


Only in certain lights is it possible to see that the spire of the church of St Andrews carries a cladding of clay tablets upon which there is cuneiform writing. I myself have seen it only twice: once after a night on the town, when I was sitting out on my tiny deck drinking a last cold beer before bed, the violent sun rising behind me struck the steeple with its rays and revealed those outlandish and enigmatic markings. I could not really believe what my eyes told me they had seen, and dismissed the apparition as an hallucination consequent upon the long drinking session. That is, until the other night. Once again I had been out, once again I had been drinking, but not to the extent of the previous occasion. In fact, if I had not had, in quick succession, two glasses of absinthe - the real kind, with wormwood in it - just before I left my hosts, I would have said I was more or less sober. The absinthe afflicted me with a strange clarity. Things seen and heard came as if from far away, yet seemed very close. I started to talk and suddenly the whole room was listening. I read a passage from Kenneth Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight and the entire book, which I used to own, came to mind. I said goodbye to everyone and went to return home: as I drove across town, it was green lights all the way. The phone was ringing as I came in and my friend D and I were overtaken by hilarity. It was while I was talking to him that I strayed out onto the deck and saw again, in the violence of the indigo twilight, those equivocal markings. D is, as they used to say, a gentleman and a scholar; he also lives nearby and as soon as I said: they're back! and explained to him what I meant, he decided to come over and bring his camera. He saw them too, he photographed them; and now he has shown his photographs to some Fellow he knows in the Bureau of Lost Languages at Sydney University. This is how I can tell you something of what those tiles mean.


D used a telephoto lens, just as I had, on that other occasion, looked at the steeple through powerful binoculars; still, the writing wasn't clear. The most the Fellow could say was that they appeared to be from a version of the Descent into the House of Dust, but whether it was the famous account of Inanna's going down or another, perhaps Enkidu's when he went to retrieve the bat and ball his master Bilgames had lost into a crack in the earth, he could not say. Therefore I have had recourse to ancient documents for this redaction: Kur is above Apsu, the abyssal waters. Those who take that path can never come back. The clawed hand of the demon Humut-tabal drags the reluctant down the Road of No Return and opens the door to the House of Dust. Scorpion men, tall as the sky, guard the way into Ganzir, the seven-gated palace. Here sheep grow no wool, here the inside bolt is covered with dust, because it is never used, because that door never opens again. Belet-seri marks off your name in the Book of the Dead. At each Gate you lose something: hat, coat, belt, shirt, stick, wristwatch, shoes so you arrive naked and bent in the room where the dead sit at long tables eating clay for bread and drinking muddy water instead of beer. They see no light, they dwell in darkness. They are clothed like birds, with feathers, and their wings are bound about them. Everything else is dust. Here is the domain of Ereshkigal and her silent consort Nergal. She tears out her hair like leeks, her face is livid like a cut tamarisk, her lips are dark as the rim of a kuninu-vessel. She has to weep for young men who have abandoned their sweethearts. She has to weep for girls wrenched from their lover's laps. For the infant child, expelled before its time, she has to weep. For her son Ninazu, she weeps eternally. When her sister Inanna came down here Ereshkigal sent out against her sixty diseases: Disease of the eyes to her eyes; Disease of the arms to her arms; Disease of the feet to her feet; Disease of the heart to her heart; Disease of the head to her head ... if you can get past Ereshkigal you may meet the Judge of the Dead. If you have made offerings he may remember you. If you have gifts he will accept them. If your children continue to make offerings you may eat and drink; but you will never cease to hear the sobbing of Ereshkigal as she lies down in the dust of the floor, ripping her long nails down her alabaster breasts, tearing her hair out like leeks.


Although our City is only a few hundred years old, it has encoded into its built environment many survivals from antiquity, some as explicit as the Egyptian Needle on the borders of Hyde Park at the end of Bathhurst Street, or the Camperdown Velodrome made after the pattern of the Coliseum; others, such as this I am writing about now, are so deeply encrypted in the texture of things they resist discovery over many years and, even when scryed, continue suggestive, as if their seeming presence were an illusion, as if they are only to be revealed to the delusional. Well, I am used to that, I am always only half in, or half out, of the world, its true face is often shown to me as illusive, its elusiveness often turns to show a true face. Of more concern to me now is an anomaly that I have become preternaturally aware of since viewing D's photographs and hearing what the Fellow at the Bureau of Lost Languages had to say about the script: for as long as I have been here I have wondered about the upper reaches of Hawthorne Canal, where it disappears in a black O under the Railway Bridge, Longport Street and the Mungo Scott Flour Mill. What is beyond that looming darkness, some strange passage to a netherworld? I do not imagine it is an entrance into Kur and why, anyway, would I want to go there? No, what I am remembering is that other occult our City is built across, the dreaming place that never was extinguished, never expunged, never quite forgotten. Sometimes in the evening, when a currawong sits on a television aerial before the lavender sky and carols across the rooftops I almost glimpse a survival of it. Or in the very early dawn when that unknown bird cries out its eerie hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop ... This lost land is really nothing to me, or at least no more than that dread place figured across the tiles of the steeple. But, equally, since there is no doubt that I will at last, at no cost but that of living, enter the House of Dust or equivalent, why should I not, while I am still living, attempt entry into this other country once called, with what authority I do not know, Alcheringa? It may take me some time to do it, it may take years, but one day I think I will climb down into the graffiti haunted canal and take the way south, under the remains of the old iron whipple truss bridge, under Longport Street, under the Flour Mill and climb up through that dark O towards the source.

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