November 1st, 2010


The first poems of a new sequence

Book of the Dead

Game pieces on a board taught her the rules,
that she would really have to learn to read
and memorise the symbols that would lead
her to the Western Lands. All sorts of fools

might put their trust in someone else's spells,
bought with their names filled in, not understood
and they would end up drowning in their blood
or burned with fire. The Lord Anubis tells

those who are good from those who try to trick
the scales. There's one sits near him who devours
and as he bites the seconds seem like hours
of torture, fever, headache, being sick.

She prayed, and wrote, and drew to find the art
to make Death's feather balance with her heart.

She planned it all, had the best spices bought
and laid aside; on linen wrote down prayers
to wrap her in. She set all her affairs
in order, had her serving girls all taught

which priest to bring to open up her eyes
and mouth with virgin tools, which priest to cut
her organs neatly out, and gently put
them in gold jars, each of a different size,

heart, liver and the pieces of her brain.
The drying, and the bandages, and mask
of gold and lapis. Each maid had a task
and started on it when she felt the pain

of dying and snapped orders. Her last breath
words of control, of their lives and her death.

She lay dead in her tomb. After a while
she thought to rise, and leave her corpse behind,
dried, cold, perfected. She had hoped to find
little clay servants round her. She said 'I'll

go seek them out' then realized they were dust
around her coffin, but did not despair,
walked through the tomb wall into crisp cold air
under no sky. She felt both fear and trust

fear of the lands she'd walk, desert and marsh,
where crocodiles and lions lay in wait.
Her prayers and spells would turn away their hate,
Lead to Anubis' court, both fair and harsh.

She trusted that his judgement of her deeds
would bless her, lead her to the Land of Reeds.

I went to the preview of the new exhibition at the British Museum today...

Another Book of the Dead poem

He knew himself condemned to dust and rot,
to wander in a desert without end
with worm-gnawed eyes no poultices would mend
to fall and lie forgotten. This is what

he then decided. He would smash and steal
eternity from them, would break their tombs,
would loot the jewels from their painted rooms,
would cut the masks from them. Would make them feel

the hot wind of his hatred at their back.
Just as they found their haven, they would see
Anubis shake his sad dog's head. No plea
would save them, ever. He'd ensure they'd lack

a body's anchor for their wounded soul.
Beetles and weevils slowly eat them whole.

Another one

The delta but no sea, streams, rivulets
the river flowing somewhere out of sight.
Small birds to catch or sing. Bright stars at night.
Warm but not burning sun. She soon forgets

her life in joy. Chasing red flowers that blow
upon light winds. Salt olives and sweet dates.
Tiny salt fish arranged on silver plates
to come across when hungry. And to go

with soothing rustling through the endless reeds.
And not to hear her bones and wrappings ground
in mortars, when apothecaries found
the medicine that every patient needs

that stinks and does no harm, nor hear a crowd
discuss her withered naked corpse aloud.


The scribe's wife, the chief singer, had him killed,
an agent of the police, who had refused
to take a bribe. And so the singer used
a man she knew, who in a tavern filled

a small cloth tube with sand, then smashed his head
when he came in to drink their millet beer.
She poisoned her assassin without fear,
a sort of justice, but lay in her bed

worried she might be damned. Next day she spent
the gold she'd saved on bribes and pay on scrolls
painted with gods and prayers and spells for souls
the best that she could buy. And then she went

to sleep. She'd have when it was time to die.
the best eternity her gold could buy