from Babylonians as Americans as Babylonians

Jared Pearce

The Named Infant

Iasirum, let’s take him, let’s make the law
take him if she won’t, little Ned.
                                                         Have we not paid
the ten silver shekels to you, the two mana
wool? How dare you name him
Ili-awilim—you may have suffered,
you might have prayed,
but he’s ours, little Ned, we paid
as the legal contract held, and you delivered—Now
                                                                       hand him over
and we will depart; do you hear? Give
him to me, by Ea’s holy virtue,
                                                        his mother—

Neighbor Kid

Patiju, come closer, here, you know
my dead leg, how my daughters married,
how my sons-in-law refuse
me. You have lived next
door these twenty years, have inherited
your father, my friend’s, land
and I am unable now to feed
               I will give you my orchard,
my fields, this house, and you shall be
my son if you’ll give every month
flour, every year one gur and pi
barley, some wool, perhaps, five
ka oil.
               And should you leave
angry the land and house come back
to me, and if you hold alimony, pay
a third manna silver for rent and
               Now I am naked, an old beggar broken
in the teeth, useless save
for stories for the children—all my thoughts are
laid bare before your young arm: Take me
as your father, for otherwise I lie
among the scorpions tonight.

The High Priest Blesses

Every day, Damuribam, you pass
by looking for work—you who can barely climb
orchards, who cannot yet wield a scythe,
                                                                         you whose father
Urdatum was exiled for leprosy; yet you attempt in his place
to provide for your mother and sisters. Take this, one
gur, four pi, and forty ka barley for the food
of Shamash to be in you and your family, and pay
it back as you can reach the orchard
heights, as you stumble with your dignity.


I will forget
this I will
forget this faster
rub out the skin all
his hands all their
blank whips all serving
trays nightly lays
with a stupid girl her
father and his hands
all nightly rubbing soundly
covers me arms rubs
around eyes I can’t keep
into his rub the rub
faster the trays tip
over the girl this
mark must out must
clean up all
this rubbing out
marked and named
and sold and rubbed
out I’ll rub out all
over this this

The Cause of Justice

Luckily I spied them in the kar;
disguised, naturally.
                            I suppose
they were headed for Erech or Ur
or someplace south, so I yelled
for the cops and brought them to court.

                            No, it’s ridiculous
because now I’ve only got one more
damn tablet saying they owe
me, telling me what I know already—
                                                        but what I wouldn’t
forgive to reach down their gullets,
tear out chunks of their livers and eat
them so slowly.
                            This is the payment
I require now, now I’m blocked
by the very law that’s supposed to protect
from thieves and double traders.

At Humbaba’s Cloister

Drinks! My friends, drinks!
I have just come from the registrar’s—

what’s the celebration? Why do you call
for us as with the lion’s roar? Have you

                  You remember Muhaditum,
the widow? We are today married
and I adopted her three sons. But this
is not all—I gave each an orchard
of mine, they divided the land for
themselves, and I’ve nipped
a wife of silver thighs and three
orchard workers for picking
and pruning and drying—but it gets better:
should my adopted sons revile their Mother
or me the land reverts to me, and all
its produce, and if I revile them, so I’ve worked
the contract, the land comes to me
still. What this adds up to is free
labor, you numbskull! I work
them as sons and fire them
as common men!

                               But is this good,
Anshu, I mean, how did you arrange
for such a contract?

                                   I tell you it’s a glorious
plot, for I can work more land, sell
more dates, and come home
to Muhaditum. They are of age, they
affixed their seals themselves.
So drink, lads, drink! This is all just
the beginning.

Samsu-ilkolnikov: Tenant Farmer

Only two months will that old hag give me
the fields—and only a ninth of a gar at that.
How can I live on onions for such a time?
These rich widow land owners need a pickaxe
driven through their weeping skulls.
But it’s the land after all, and work, and to slap
me with two gar barley on top of the small field
and limited season—her day comes quickly,
and we’ll see the gods swoop to protect her
from a certain night when after a whiff of vile breath
hers stops shortly.

Hire of a Gardener

Cheap, but what do I need besides the two
for food, the three for drink?
Gimilum’s a hard man, but that one shekel
sent to my family in Beth-Shan will ease
their worry, their life—
                                          buy a lot
more than it will here—
                                          and I only need
my own clothes—
                            which will last
a while, so I can send more home;
and I start in a week with one
shekel already in hand, to widen
trees and transplant—
I do at home for half as much—
                                                         This is the land
of opportunity, where a man can make his own
life, and soon we’ll all abound in superfluous
expressions and feasts!

translated from the Sumerian of various Babylonian authors