Issue 23: Selena Wisnom

Cuneiform Tablet

When our lands

when the heavens

when mountain peaks

a thousand years of secret knowledge

signs with sharp rays   

lion-faced births, 

the data to decipher  

and the terrestrial terrors [. . .]

[When the scr]ibe 

[when the mas]ter

[when the king] 

all meticulous to claim 

from the mouths of scholars,

When the scribe

when the sch[ool bo]y 

the multiv[alence of ea]ch sign

of volatile g[ods who] stir us up

riddling semantics x x [. . .]

[. . .] dreams of ravens

[approx. 4 lines lost]

x x much-enduring words

fired in the kiln

so now these characters 

seem almost [. . . ]

They shrink under [. . .]  

I cannot mimic 

which scorched the edge of every wedge

[it is those shadows

but piece together

an incantation  

were not yet named,

bore other names,

were built from clay,

were already pressed on clay,

recording the sky,

anomalous cries,

ominous nights


had just been trained,

wrote his name,

had stamped his name,

their copies descend from the sages,

stars checked against sheep livers.

took up his reed,

learned to read,

contained the code to read the mind

and speak with their orbits,

[. . .] lizards

and w[aking wealth]


of war-torched blazes, buried

from before the flood


my lamp light.

the sun of Babylon

and cast shadows into the crevices

that were read]

all my tracings, 

to raise the dead.

Note: principles of Akkadian poetry have been used. Each line contains three or four feet arranged over two columns. The break marks the caesura. Feet are not strictly ‘metrical’ in our sense, but comprise either a single meaningful word or certain combinations of words - nouns and adjectives, verbs and objects, etc.

True Story

In my night I saw a dream,

I saw myself around a fire,

a fire whose light slashed into skin

of known faces uttering cryptic gossip,

curious whispers, unordinary speech.

I do not know what I am saying.

Hushed just above the insect music

rumours murmur like the heart.

They say he has received a message,

the one whom I would least expect -

the brash man whose arrogance dozes

like a bull waiting to wake and rage -

this is the god’s recipient!

I turn away uncomprehending

to look at the sky wild with visible stars

when suddenly seized by the moon’s gaze

I am full of the god, full of voice,

vibrating like a singing glass but silent,

moon-seized, like lightning-struck,

this voice an aura that exceeds me,

in awe, open-mouthed as words pour down

and fill me like an overflowing vessel:

“The archer’s blood will drown the moon before he wakes”

and I am released – the fire has not changed

but chatters the same with its low tongues

against my asyntactic thoughts.

Already I know I will forget,

and none will want to know.

I am released again to a sleeping world

where the moon is a mirror of cratered hills,

a Sarajevo Rose on every road,

reminders of tides which rose and left

their debris on receding, bullet-holes like rock-erosions,

unbroken shells protecting life inside.

It is always and never too late.

Like missiles thoughts besiege me at my window

as I wish on a shooting Serbian star.

Note: a Sarajevo Rose is the scar left by a missile hitting a pavement. They are often painted in red.

The diviner

I dig within

to excavate its signs:

fleshy malformations,

There’s meaning hiding

a hole is death,

a path, a river,

or parasitic

this is how the gods will speak,

The counterpart of highest heaven

the limits of the earth are known –

in all its darkness,

We can bleed the body

the truth is nothing

Sacrifice makes meaning

It takes some force

to open sacred chambers

the body’s walls torn

One graceful slit

to let the light in

And yet the innards

organs not

but in the membranes

and the crucible glistens like the moon

and scars are star-tissue

spun between eclipse-reflected

and I know there is a message

for if a design is drawn

the gods have heard

the body's darkness

fissures and filaments,

excrescences of meat.

in these creases:

a pustule rain,

a gust of wind

track-mark damage –

how I have learned to read,

is not the deepest earth or ocean –

it is the heart

none of us is undeformed.

of its troubles but

clears the mind like violence.

out of slaughter.

to break a carcass,

to the piercing of the sky,

down like sanctuaries.

is all it takes

means to be destroyed.

are picked clean,

obscured by bleeding

I can almost see my face,

is a tear in the sky

and I am a filament

pools of blood,

in this darkness,

in the shape of a cross

the wailing of the land.

Selena Wisnom is an Assyriologist and writer currently based in Oxford. Her play Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria was performed at the Crypt Gallery, Euston, February to March 2019. In 2016 she predicted the election of Donald Trump from sheep entrails using Babylonian divinatory methods.

Copyright © 2019 by Selena Wisnom, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.