dead language

by Ella Standage

“How cuneiforms cut by suffering show
their harsh unyielding texts impressed on cheeks.”

—Requiem, Akhmatova tr. Nancy Anderson

“How, O how could I stay silent, how, O how could I keep quiet?
My friend whom I love has turned to clay.”

—The Epic of Gilgamesh tr. Stephanie Dalley

she can describe this, but not write it down.
to write it down would be like making lace:

history with the gaps already woven in, unravelling
into a voice, a wail, a breath crystallising in the air.
it cannot be written—only whispered.

in the city where every brick is stamped
with the name of a myth, women’s thinning bodies
are cuneiform pressed into the column
of the prison queue. their faces are written
in a language only the dead speak.

in those years, people turned to clay. every story
was a scar, every word was an impact.

in those years she learned that memory is made of holes,
but forgetting is the surface of a frozen lake,

and if it thaws, you’ll drown.
that memory isn’t something you can write down:
it’s sometimes safest as a speechless sound.

Anna Akhmatova could not read cuneiform
but she transcribed what was dictated to her
in a now-vanished manuscript; she saw

the word that causes death’s defeat,
and she could not read it,
but she knew it was there.