“The History of Poetry” by Robert Thomas

Robert Thomas


Not the astronomer but the accountant
slicing olives for his egg salad sandwich
before resuming his ledger. The first writing
was the kingdom’s accounts: 22,000 sheaves
in the granary, 600 head of spotted cattle,
a queen’s 12 gold combs. The first poem:
whoever wrote it must have suspected
he had the goods on the pharaoh: words
more real than things. The salsal bird
cracks one barley seed with its beak
on the greenest branch of the tamarisk.
A barge with reed baskets full of lettuce
and casks of resin is dragged downriver
by slaves on the bank grasping taut ropes.
The scribe takes it all down with his stylus
and one day notices the jagged gold stripe
on the gills of the azagur, who are owned
by no one, and thinks to write it down,
along with the number of sila of wheat
on the 480 iku of fields he has surveyed.
Soon, that word is written whose exact
meaning is unknown but is translated
as that without which life is not possible,
and the hawsers’ creek notches higher.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005
Tribute to Lawyer Poets


Robert Thomas: “Working as a legal secretary, I spend a lot of time on the Internet, surely the most inspiring tool for poets since Coleridge’s discovery of laudanum. I was fascinated by an article on the completion of the first Sumerian dictionary, a work in progress for 30 years that includes salsal, azagur, and the other ancient words in my poem.” (website)

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