you are in the diode archives fall 2010



Everything That Draws Breath

Not just the king.
Queens and commoners. The poor
stuffed with sand and buried in the ground.

The Apis bull, when his life on earth has ended,
is salted, wrapped, interred with ceremony

in the underground Serapeum.
His mother, the other mothers of sacred
bulls, have their cemetery.

What did they mummify? (What didn’t

           Jackal, ibis, ichneumon, ram.
Falcon and baboon. Cats in their temple.
Crocodiles in theirs.

Everything that draws breath.
                                             If the animals,
then, of course, the children.

They loved their children, shown naked, plump,
the heavy sidelock like a ponytail,

a finger in the mouth. Even the god-children
have a finger in their mouths.

With breath comes the ka, comes the ba,
twin aspects of the soul, then a name.

Whosoever’s name is uttered, he then lives.

With a name, the chance of afterlife.
The body must be intact, name with it,
so the ba can find it after death.

At least if the undertaker doesn’t cheat,
stuff old bones into the bandages, conceal

them under the painted mask. Petrie
found a sham child, his parents robbed
for eternity of their baby’s soul.

But what of the stillborn, the miscarried?

Twice the King’s Great Wife sat on the bricks.
The first child, opener of the womb,

born with the twisted spine, high shoulder
of Sprengel’s deformity. Born with soft hair.

Then the five-month fetus, who hadn’t yet
grown lashes or brows. Two girls
who never breathed.

Their skin is gray and brittle, their bones
show through. No tools were fine enough
to remove the organs of the smaller one.

No names for the ka and ba
to cling to, but still made into mummies,

as if the wish might give them afterlife.
Their little golden nests of coffins deposited
with their father’s,

                            the generations
of Tutankhamun, who left no heirs. Whose
Great desperate Widow begged the Hittite king

to send her his son so she would not be
made to marry a servant—her, a god’s daughter,

whose own daughters each are labeled
Osiris, meaning only the dead ones.

Note: Egyptian women gave birth sitting upright on a mud-brick
stool. “To sit on the bricks” is the metaphor for childbirth. The title
“Osiris,” when applied to a human being, indicates that the person
is dead.


Hatshepsut Orders Her Portrait
as a Lion-Headed Sphinx

Welcome, my sweet daughter . . . Thou art
the Pharaoh, taking possession of the Two Lands.
                —words ascribed to the god Amun on Hatshepsut’s monuments

You have shown me, sculptor, as Pharaoh,
wearing the king’s kilt, the striped head-cloth,
the false beard all the kings must strap on.

            The carvers showed me once naked
            above the waist and breast-less, dancing before
            the gods at my Sed festival.
                                                      When I was Regent,

                        you sculpted me slim and beautiful,
                        as I was. As I am.
                                                    Today you must begin
to select the proper stone to show me

as a lion. I am a lion. Give me a mane.
As you chisel and shape my image, keep
in mind the enemies I scattered, the rows

of captives cut into my walls.
                                           Keep in mind
                        those walls, my obelisks and columns, my temple
                        like nothing else on earth. You can see it,

cliff-backed, from Karnak across the Nile. This figure will go
there, near the garden of frankincense trees
from Punt, below the colonnade called “the Sublime

of Sublimes.”
                       Remember those things;
know, as you carve my broad feet
(lion-shaped, but give me five toes), you

are serving Amun, the invisible one, who
names me his sweet daughter, his favorite.
            Do you know the story of my birth?

            How Amun came to my mother in the form
            of the king her husband, how he placed
            an ankh beneath her nostrils and she conceived?

I was born in a lioness bed, plated with gold.
No!I was born in a lion’s den.
I am a lion. Remember that as you cut:

I am the Lion Goddess on earth.


Made Up

1. Made Up Her Face

Serious business, maquillage. On her curved
and gilded chair, the comtesse perches, head
raised, features immobile as a mask. The head

of Nefertiti hasn’t yet been unearthed, but her pose
repeats it. The maidservant labors with jars
and brushes, powder whitening her apron and the loose

sacque that protects her mistress’s gown.
Last, a beauty spot applied to call attention
to the catlike chin. Sacred cats, embodiments

of the Eye of Horus, wore earrings, beaded collars
like the noblewomen who deliberated
over their chests of unguents, jars of powdered

malachite, red ocher for lips, kohl to turn their eyes
into Horus-Eyes, as we, aping Liz Taylor
aping Cleopatra, slathered our eyes with liner,

mascara in coal-black. Layers of paint and centuries
make their faces into masks, as masks at other times
are worn to invite possession by the gods.

2. Made Up to Him

Perfected and released, the comtesse surveys
the assembly through jeweled eye-slits
in the mask she holds before her on its wand:

The gentlemen with their animal snouts,
monkey, goat, elephant. She will recognize the one
she seeks, will let him guess at her.

Shoulders or gloves will brush a little
too long, her scent will waft toward him.
Flirtation’s another serious business, craft

of the wink, raised eyebrow, mask serving
a dual purpose with the fan at her wrist. The frescoes
not yet found will show those earlier ladies

wielding fans of palm and ostrich plume, and she
will simper past her own plumage in tête-à-tête.
Candles cast shadows of the masks against

a wall, an ancient undreamed procession,
heads of falcon, jackal, ape, and crocodile.

3. Made Up Of (Composed)

She is belly here, brain somewhere else,
porcelain face discolored, breasts sprawled apart.
(The embalmer-priests deposited liver, lungs,

stomach, and gut in separate alabaster jars. Broken
down to parts for staving off decay.)  Her stratagems

and jewelry spill in a shiny avalanche. Her gown,
collapsed like a silk balloon, still lies beneath
fallen sheets. If she had the strength, she’d rise

and tear seed pearls, satin rosettes from the sleeves.
His scent still rises with hers. His absence
breathes beside her in their tangle of parts and colors.

Her son (their son?) or grandson in another century
will read how Set tore his brother to pieces

and Isis reassembled him for one night of love,
one child begun, Horus, who trades his eye for revenge.
She would find no comfort in the story. The heart

must stay intact for weighing by the judges  
with ibis and jackal heads, but her chambers
are ransacked, no sum to their throbbing parts.

4 . Made Up Her Mind, and More

Not flirtation. No Rosetta Stone, not even the name
of it, to translate this. Coup de foudre: Thunderbolt.

Still tangled in sheets, she makes puns with foutre:
sex as battery, love an assault, heart battering
her ribs. Smitten. Struck. And now, before gathering

her clothes, she’s gathering her resolve for pain
to come. No prospect of that light affaire.
She must make peace with the comte, entomb

herself for a dry afterlife. Or face down disgrace,
give up her comforts of silk and serving maids,
sell her jewels one by one—and find herself

in another tomb, another red desert. Could love
make up for so much loss? She imagines
no happy endlessness, no prayers in perpetuity,

gilded ornaments and carved attendants to make
a life out of death. Why should she expect them,
even in a tale made up out of whole cloth?  


Susan Settlemyre Williams is the author of Ashes in Midair (Many Mountains Moving Press, 2008), and a chapbook, Possession (Finishing Line Press, 2007).  Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, 42opus, Shenandoah,and Sycamore Review.  She is book review editor and associate literary editor of Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts  and lives in Richmond, Virginia.