By the waters of Babylon

Here is an image that has haunted me for years.

Six hundred yards north of the “Tower of Babel” rose a mound called Kasr, on which Nebuchadnezzer built the most imposing of his palaces….Nearby, supported on a succession of superimposed circular collonades, were the famous Hanging Gardens, which the Greeks included among the Seven Wonders of the World. The gallant Nebuchadnezzer had built them for one of his wives, the daughter of Cyaxares, King of the Medes; this princess, unaccustomed to the hot sun and dust of Babylon, pined for the verdure of her native hills. The topmost terrace was covered with rich soil to the depth of many feet, providing space and nourishment not merely for flowers and plants, but for the largest and most deep-rooted trees. Hydraulic engines concealed in the columns and manned by shifts of slaves carried water from the Euphrates to the highest tier of the gardens. Here, seventy-five feet above the ground, in the cool shade of tall trees, and surrounded by exotic shrubs and fragrant flowers, the ladies of the royal harem walked unveiled, secure from the common eye; while, in the plains and streets below, the common man and woman ploughed, wove, built, carried burdens, and reproduced their kind.

Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (Simon and Schuster, 1954 [1935]).

Even allowing for the obvious Orientalist slant here, it’s disturbing to think that any human being, no matter how heartless, could enjoy idling around fountains in full knowledge that slaves were actively toiling right beneath one’s feet, in the dark and in stifling heat, to keep them going. But isn’t it really just hypocritical of me to think that way, as the beneficiary of the equally invisible, equally dehumanizing toil of so many people in sweatshops abroad or in dead-end service industry jobs here at home? Who’s hanging in your garden?

Around the same time that I first thought to inquire about the reality of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I read Psalm 137 clear to its last couplet. This is, it must be said, one of the great poems of the Bible. Here it is in Mitchell Dahood’s translation:

Beside the river in Babylon,
    there we sat;
    loudly we wept,
When we remembered you, O Zion!
Beside the poplars in her midst
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors demanded of us
    words of song,
    and our mockers songs of gladness:
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”
O how could we sing Yahweh’s song
    upon alien soil?
Should I forget you,
    O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to my palate,
    should I remember you not!
If I do not raise you,
    O Jersusalem,
Upon my head in celebration!
Remember Yahweh, O sons of Edom,
    the day of Jerusalem!
You who said, “Strip her, strip her,
    to her foundation!”
O Daughter Babylon, you devastator,
    blest be he who repays you
    the evil you have done us!
Blest be he who seizes and dashes
    your infants against the rock!

The Anchor Bible: Psalms III, Doubleday, 1970

This translation, while not perhaps as memorable as the King James version, and arguably spoiled by over-abundant exclamation marks, does clarify a number of points both minor (that the trees were poplars or aspens, and the instruments were lyres) and major (the parallelism between the rape of a feminized Jerusalem and a longed-for rape of Babylon).

Again, I think it’s well worth analyzing the shock and horror one feels after reading a Psalm that celebrates rape and baby-killing, especially if one’s heart has ever thrilled to other, less graphic calls for righteous warfare. Real war inevitably means that real innocents are slaughtered, and not always inadvertently. Even when the extinction of a people isn’t the explicit aim and soldiers are fairly well disciplined, there will always be those few – and sometimes whole battalions – who will go berserk and kill everything that wears the enemy’s face, in our name.

Three or four years ago I wrote a poem responding to a few of these images from the ancient Middle East. I tried to keep it ambiguous who was actually speaking, whose lament this might be.

Psalm 137

The land no longer ours
grows ever more vertiginous in the telling:
the holy hill steepens with each new song.
Its shadow creeps across fields
& olive groves, penumbra muffling
the clamor of school & clinic,
blotting out the once-busy markets
where we used to embrace like lovers at the end
of each slow dance of commerce.

Layer by layer the volcanic ash of memory
like a veil drawn between us & the present
erases all distinguishing features:
the raised letters on name plates, street signs,
the features carved on tombs & public statues.
Soon it’s impossible to tell whose heroes,
whose dead these stones are for.

And such lava flows of jealousy!
There’s no loss like ours,
no stillness as holy as the absence
of love & laughter. No song
quite like the melismatic wail
of an infant swung around by its ankles,
the frantic ululations of an ambulance,
the screech of an incoming mortar.

The waters of Babylon are profligate;
our tears there made little difference.
The only mountain was a simulacrum of paradise,
spilling with fountains & the seeds
of unknown flowers. But in the land
the Lord showed Abraham, no spring
can overflow without authorization,
& barred from the sea the Jordan hoards its salt.

Surely it was meant for us–
to bathe our wounds . . .

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