Poem of the Week | June 22, 2010

This week, we present Avery Slater’s “Death in the Middle Kingdom” as Poem of the Week. Slater’s work appears in Slate, Beloit Poetry Journal, North American Review, The Journal, CutBank, Connecticut Review, Chelsea, Yemassee, Clackamas Literary Review, Permafrost, Cold Mountain Review and several others in the United States and the United Kingdom. Twice she has been the recipient of a full scholarship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference; she has also won a first prize for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Cornell University.

Recently I lent someone my copy of Sappho, Anne Carson’s translations in If not, Winter (2002). My copy is secondhand, and the previous owner’s scribble marks of explication are still in the margins, e.g. “lover is gone” or “wishes to be immortal.” My first thought was to apologize for the messy copy, something straightaway replaced by the ironic realization: all the Sappho we have is secondhand. For me, Sappho is poet of the profound unknowability of origins-material, spiritual-from which mysteriously emerge both our encounter with love and the words we piece together that we may sing it.

Death in the Middle Kingdom

They were wrapped in curtains, in left-over clothes.
They were wound in bed sheets, bandaged in linen
as long as an alleyway’s margin and as sheltered
from the earthly sun. They entrusted their stomachs
to the Jackal, and they left their lungs in the care
of Nephthys, her baboon, its symbol for the north.

Their word for “north” was their word for “without sails.”
To float downstream on the Nile, heading north-as
Herodotus noticed-was a simple matter
of a stone and a crate made of tamarisk wood
that was tethered to the bow, floating on just ahead
toward sea’s lower fields, while the stone ruddered aft by
drag, knotted up in a rope.

They were doused with cinnamon, with cassia and myrrh,
and liquor from the cedar. The wetyws’ hands
replaced sunken eyes with beeswax or the petals
of an onion’s paper, prefiguring the husk
of the soul as a soil-weaned bulb.
Finger by finger, they were wrapped in remaindered
scrolls, old letters, any linen left over
from bed-sheets, or poems, or the yardage of a young man’s skirt.

Their sinus bones were broken, and the grey fished loose
from their skulls. They were left with their hearts, all their guts
coaxed out. They were dried and rinsed with natron,
palm wine, and stuffed back to figure with leases,
with old wills and horoscopes, edicts, with obsolete
documents, ledgers, taxes and petitions.

Ox-fat, beeswax: sealing was preserving.
Winding and winding, like the dusk lotus furls
lobe into lobe, first head, then the arms, and
the legs, limbs knotted to the body, then the body in its
own, then the plaster or the resin. Then the tempera-
chalk, soot, copper. Intestines in a jar for
Qebehsenef, the falcon, and the goddess called Serket
familiared by her scorpion. The meanings of her name were
“making throats to tighten” and “making throats to breathe”

from poison, or, for singing; or, as Sappho once described,
from loving her, while seeing her conversing with a man-pale
as grass, tongue breaking. All that’s left of her was found
from the wrappings of a mummy, linen text torn up for use-
hair whitens, knees weaken: for the dance, no longer deer.

As old Aeolic flickered cold, another age remembers us
she promised. Words-just so much moving air, constricted throat.
The parts preserved for later use in jars kept for the afterlife-
stomach, lungs, intestines, liver, left to Isis, facing south.
Their glyph for “south” depicted one boat “traveling by sail,”
against the Nile’s current, winds propelling, from the north,

and when the sails were battered, they were torn in scraps to wrap the
      dead
who journeyed on, their organs neat in jars,
their hearts left in their chests
so Thoth could test its guilty weight
against an ibis feather, judging
those that sunk the scale as food for Ammit’s jaws and quick release
from any new existence.

Wrapped in sailcloth, wound in verse,
their hearts were not devoured if they
could hang as lightly as a feather-paralyzed, mid-gut,
by death’s strange pageant, yet still breathing,
as a pinion does: not air
drawn in, but on what greater breath
surrounds, bound for the final source,

all heart transferred to wing,
all weight to lift.

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