…academics can tie themselves in some fascinating knots and, it is even rumoured, disappear up their own theories.
Here’s some more commentary on poems I’ve already posted:
The fruit slipped ripe into the hand
The hunting hard, but always good,
The trees made shade to sleep within
That was the Eden we once knew
They say. Then a hard awkward seed, hard won
Out of a rasping husk whispered to Eve:
I am a million. You’ll be rich
Your children’s children will be many.
She took the seed and planted it.
The trees were felled, the game was killed
The seed told truth, but the new life
Was sweating hard, and then the rains
That always held back, always came
Did not come. Eden’s loss
Could not have been through a grass seed,
And so it was a snake instead.
I’ve long had a theory (which may well be wrong) that the myth of the Garden of Eden, which apparently has similar versions in other traditions than the Jewish, reflects the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian lifestyle. This first happened, it seems, in present-day Turkey, not at all far from Israel. Hunter-gatherers existed in very small numbers, but their diet was varied, their tasks and life quite varied too, and in places where food was abundant they had plenty of spare time. Agriculture allowed much bigger and more settled communities to develop, which tended to be more hierarchical and to have a quite limited diet, with a huge amount of time taken up by repetetive tasks such as grinding corn. Moreover, some of the easiest places to farm were vulnerable to over-farming and becoming unsuitable for crops quite quickly, and loss of tree cover to make space for fields and villages may well have contributed to reduction of rainfall. Of course, agriculture was the future and necessary for cililisation, but it will have seemed a hard transition to many and might well be reflected negatively in myth.
In this poem, Eve is the first farmer. She sees the potential of the edible grass-seed. The result is the desertification of the Garden of Eden. The farmers cannot face the truth of what they’ve done, so create a myth of the evil snake leading Eve astray.
In the eternal city
The pavements stretch forever
Covered, smooth, safe
Here and there the off-white
Changes to mid-grey
Or the palest of yellows
The planning is now wiser
The people aren’t dwarfed
Turned into clumsy figures
Unruly shape and smell
Now they fit in
Piazzas or plazas
Though someone cries in them
Underneath the pavements
Suppressed creek and stream
And the bones of sea-monsters
Turning, not quite dead,
Swim into dream.
I suppose this poem is about urban landscapes and town planning, and behind that, our wish to control and belief that we control when we don’t, as well as maybe the fragile victory of the rational, conscious mind over the unconscious and the spiritual. The “eternal city” is not Heaven, but an idea of urban landscapes lasting forever. It’s well-planned, to do it justice, and ought to be comfortable. Dangers have been eliminated (reflected by the soft colour tones). “Piazzas or plazas” – same word in Italian or Spanish, meaning a town square) have been planned in to encourage people to mix and have fun. But people are left unsatisfied. One who cries may not be comforted. Suppressed undercurrents survive unrecognised, things we thought we’d done away with – and they can emerge.