Suzanna Heyd & Samuel Beckett
Incantations (from the Sumerian)


Suzanne Heyd is a freelance writer and lives in New Haven. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears in recent and forthcoming issues of Third Coast, jubilat, Open City, Sonora Review, New Orleans Review, Gulf Stream, Puerto del Sol, Washington Square, Northwest Review, Nimrod International and elsewhere. Her chapbook Crawl Space was published by Phylum Press in 2007.

Several years before writing these poems, I read an article by John Halloran, author of The Proto-Sumerian Language Invention Process, (, that Sumerian language was based on articulatory symbolism, that “what one did with the mouth to produce the consonantal sounds had to have enough logical similarity to the referenced actions or objects to trigger a mental association. . . Proto-Sumerian mouth-gestures tried to recreate enough features of part of an object or action to enable recalling the whole.” For example, to make the sound of ‘g’ or ‘k’, the back of the tongue is closed against the velum or palate. Of the stops it is the farthest back, so its meanings derive mainly from association with the throat. Such meanings include 'entrance', 'long, narrow', 'to consume', 'to kill', and 'to utter'. The tongue position against the teeth to make he sound of ‘z’ elicited meaning related to 'tooth, teeth' and 'to cut'. The resemblance to a sizzling sound led to the associations 'to cook, roast' and 'meat (animal)'. The closure of the oral cavity on all sides in the making of the consonants ‘d’ and ‘t’ led to associated verbal meanings such as interaction between two parties or between one party and an 'edge' or 'boundary'.

Moved by this deep connection between the origins of language and the body as it was described, and choosing a decidedly unscholarly and purely artistic/poetic approach, I began to experiment with their ‘mouth gestures’ as sonic experiments, using sound as my primary material, in an attempt to “translate” each consonant in the Sumerian lexicon into contemporary English. To do so, I invented a process that resists the habitual use of language as conveyor of concept and abstraction in favor of a more direct, bodily encounter with the world. The quotes and fragments attributed to Enheduanna, the Sumerian poet-priestess whose words, preserved in clay by scribes, are the first written and signed poems in human history. The incantation tablets, in all stages of translation, are my own.