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This review is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Contemporary Epic jenny lewis, Taking Mesopotamia (Carcanet/OxfordPoets) £9.95

Two epigraphs open Jenny Lewis’ Taking Mesopotamia, published this spring by Carcanet/ OxfordPoets. The first is an excerpt from Lord Grey of Falloden’s Memories and Reflections (1919), the second, lines from Tablet III of The Epic of Gilgamesh: ‘As for humans, their days are numbered, / whatever they do is like a puff of wind’. Both passages suggest man’s hubris, the inherent futility of certain undertakings. Weaving personal and military history while paying tribute to the epic tradition, Taking Mesopotamia layers conflicts and losses – the death of the speaker’s father, the devastation of Iraq, once known as Mesopotamia (‘the land between two rivers’), and the lives of those who have travelled there throughout the ages. Part lyric meditation, part work of historical research, Taking Mesopotamia offers the best of both kinds of considerations, reaffirming the intersection of the personal and political.

Central to Lewis’ collection is her research into her father’s part in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I. Tom Lewis’ journals inspired the loose narrative structure of the collection’s poems. Lewis seamlessly integrates facts from past and present military operations into musical, fully imagined poems that transcend the subject of warfare to reflect on cultural heritage and human inheritance. By juxtaposing poems in her father’s voice against those in the voices of contemporary combatants, Lewis actively confronts the dichotomy of past and present, skilfully constructing lyric and thematic echoes. A poem in Tom’s voice dating from 1916 recalls:

                                                        only reeds,
about two foot ...

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