Poetry at Sangam




At dusk I ache with the labor
of memorizing the glyphs
but my master is strict
and wakes me at midnight
shouting and pointing -

not at the world but a sign,
the jab of the stylus
that says raddle moon,
the splay of the nib
that warns flood,
the little backward fleck
that means: Sothis
reflected in the rising Nile.

At dawn I study the rebus,
a pun set in stone:
two cocked-ear chisel marks
say rabbit, four
stand for eternal life.

It is a child’s game,
tricky to learn,
impossible to leave.

I will be buried with the text
that describes my heart
delicately excerpted from my chest
and weighed in a a brass pan
against the feather MAAT.

And I shall be made whole
because it already happened
in words – as the shadow supposes
the high pensive hawk…

The eyes of the ibis
indicate the direction
in which I must read
unless God entered the margin -
then I follow Him
though I may learn
I was never born.

Pharaoh himself
never bothered with this art,
content with omnipotence.

But I have discovered
my own power, mortality –
I tremble, my hand slips,
the river appears:

child, cross it,
emerge in daylight.


(First appeared in The Yale Review.)