In the inky, dismal, and unprofitable research of a recent leave of absence from my life, I happened upon a historical prism of Assurbanipal that I found to be somewhat disquieting. Of an enemy whose remains he had abused in a manner that does not bear repeating here, this most scholarly of Mesopotamian kings professes:
I made him more dead than he was before.
(Prism A Beiträge zum Inschriftenwerk Assurbanipals ed. Borger [Harrassowitz 1996] 241)
Prisms of this sort were often buried in the foundations of government, to be read by gods but not men. Somewhere in the shifting labyrinth of movables stacks I could hear a low dial tone humming without end. In Assurbanipal’s library there is a poem, written on clay, that corrects various commonly held errors regarding the venerable realm of the dead. Contrary to the accounts of Mu Lian, Madame Blavatsky, and Kwasi Benefo, et al., it is not customarily permitted to visit the underworld. No, the underworld visits you.
Notes on the PoemOur Poem of the Week is excerpted from the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Underworld Lit by poet and literary scholar Srikanth Reddy. Resisting categories, Underworld Lit is a genre-bending book of short prose vignettes that weaves troubled dispatches from an untenured academic, class materials from a course on the underworld, a cancer diagnosis, and a makeshift early 20th century French translation of a late imperial Chinese book. In this interview, Reddy offers insightful reflections on the (false) distinctions between poetry and prose. Underworld Lit’s collapse of literary genres isn’t purely formal but a device that blurs the separation between realms and enables the eerie coexistence between the living and the dead. In this opening section of the book, Reddy introduces us to some of the protocols governing the underworld, dispelling “commonly held errors regarding the realm of the dead.” “It is not customarily permitted to visit the underworld.” He writes. “No, the underworld visits you.” Of Underworld Lit, the Judges’ say: “Seldom a poetry book questions its limits in a way as intriguing and inventive as Underworld Lit by Srikanth Reddy. Seriousness and laughter, academic boredom and surreal tour de force, precision and playfulness, the living and the dead move in this book unusually close. A multiverse, a few novels packed in one poetry collection, a delightful and ironic autobiography of a university professor of literature, a book full of disturbingly poetic moments and ironic quizzes, a guided tour to hell. Beautifully balanced and elegantly wild, this prose epic takes us where we truly belong – to the unknown. Reddy – like Dante – knows: If we want to say anything relevant about our world, we have to embark first on a profound tour of the underworld.” Watch Reddy read from Underworld Lit here. Read more about Reddy’s writing process here.