Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dragonfly (pages 4-5)

The third poem in the book addresses fatherhood and (im)mortality in what is — I hope — a unique fashion. Here goes:

Tutankhamun, September 1979

The moon's pale crescent has beached like a stone boat
into these skeletal knobby trees
ranked and filed in front of
the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park.
Almost midnight, this crowd

is queueing up for the exhibit: royal scarabs
of blue glass, constellations of semi-precious stones,
the burial mask of solid gold.
My son Marty's eyes shine
like brass buttons in creosote light.

In ten years, he'll remember this
as the afternoon I told him, "Take a nap,"
almost as if he were two years old
again, the small brain buzzing like a hornet's nest,
fighting off sleep.

But our afternoon strategy
has worked and we file this night
wide-eyed past the concrete gatekeeper Sphinxes,
who look genuine for once
in their counterfeit decades.

Inside are miles of beaten-gold inlay on chests
of aromatic wood from Thebes, cedar shawabty figurines,
ankh mirrors, the scorpion goddess
Selket's slender gilded statue,
a faience blue and crimson boat of acacia wood,

a stone ibex with real horns, ivory lions,
Horus falcons, serpent gods, a leopard's head
with quartz eyes, lapis lazuli beetles, and ebony jaguars.
The sheer volume of panoply and pomp
is too much for Marty, and I hoist

Page 4

his seven-year-old frame
upon my shoulders. His head, heavy
with hieroglyphs and alabaster carvings,
rests upon my head. And now, the pièce de résistance:
Tutankhamun's nemes headdress.

The mask's profile sharp as a ship's prow,
a recurved Pharaoh's scimitar slicing through millenia.
I front the boy-king's face,
his pearlescent eyes level
with mine. Between us

my milky reflection shimmers
in plexiglass, my features
superimposed on his, and for a minute
our faces meld. On Tutankhamun's forehead rise
the vulture and cobra of the two Egypts

just where Marty's hands are clasped.
Around the brass moon
of his face, the indigo stripes of his headdress
flower like a pyramid.
Around my own face is

another headdress: the body
of my sleeping son draped over my shoulders,
his forehead striped by sweaty hair
melding with my own.
And across the Nile-wide abyss

of centuries — amid the drone of humanity
bustling like grave robbers in this fake
Egyptian hall — through plexiglass,
something passes between us: a whisper
of how it feels, even for an instant, to be immortal.

Page 5

Ever since grade school, I have been fascinated by Egyptology. When I was in college, for example, I researched in great detail for an art history class the evolution of the Horus falcon figure from representational sculptures of the bird itself to the iconic falcon-headed man (see picture at left) that symbolized the Egyptian sky god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, and bestower of divinity on the Pharaohs. What an Egypto-crypto-nerd I was! (And still am, thank you.)

So, anyway, when the traveling King Tut exhibit came to San Francisco in the late 70s (with the famous golden death mask, no less), you damn right I was there. And I wanted to pass on my love for all things Egyptological to Marty. However, our tickets to the exhibit were scheduled for midnight (the museum was setting up the tours of Tut's treasures 24/7), and I was worried eight-year-old Marty wouldn't be able to stay awake for the entire tour. So, as the poem's narrative says, I had him take an afternoon nap earlier that day; that worked for a short while, but the rooms and rooms of gold and blue faience and lapis lazuli and ebony and filigree tired Marty out, poor kid, and I ended up carrying him on my shoulders, asleep, for much of our audience with the great boy-king, the magnificent and ultimate golden boy for the ages.

In terms of poetic craft, one can't help but notice the wildly varying line lengths here: more a visual free-verse device than a metric or syllabic one. I do sense the influence, in the occasional dramatic line break, of Sharon Olds (as I mentioned in my last blog post), but for the most part there is quite a lot more control in my lineation here than in the previous poem in the book, "Gallery of the Mind." I just now double-checked my Master of Fine Arts thesis, and it doesn't contain this poem, so I must have written it after I finished my MFA in 1989. Probably 1990 or 1991 then.

Something craft-wise that jumps out at me now is the poem's diction. My obsession for phrasings you don't get to say out loud often and which are like hard bits of ever-lovin' candy in your mouth: skeletal, queueing up, creosote, gatekeeper, faience, ibex, lapis lazuli, panoply, scimitar, pearlescent. And of course those lovely Egyptologist words and phrases: shawabty, ankh, nemes, "the scorpion goddess Selket" (pictured above) and "the vulture and cobra of the two Egypts" (shown above on the brow of Tut's death mask). Ain't it all just grand?

As I was recently searching the Net for images to accompany the poem, I found a couple that deserve special attention. The first, on the left below, is a black and white shot of a face-to-face moment between Tut and a young woman that astonishingly parallels the feeling of my poem's ending but from a woman's point of view. Clearly such feelings have been shared by other people viewing Tut's golden face.

The second image interestingly highlights Tut's glass enclosure, his fishbowl that both protects and imprisons. Looking back at my poem, I notice the word "plexiglass" appears twice, so that I was evidently (though probably subconsciously) also honing in on that barrier. And it is that barrier that allows for the superimposition device at the end, right?

In these two images and in the poem there is a fascinating focus on what separates us from Tut, the glass wall that paradoxically as well as poignantly emphasizes our shared humanity with him. I suppose we all have our figurative gold masks and invisible cages.


Note: The image on the left is from the blog Queen Mediocretia of Suburbia (28 Sep 2006). The image on the right is from Royal Exhibitions, which could put on a King Tut show in your very own mall. I do want to make sure to recommend "Queen Mediocretia," which I discovered only because of this King Tut photo; this blog is one of the best I've encountered lately in the blogosphere: tremendously entertaining and witty, never dull. Check it out, especially The Great Hall of TMI, though only if you are 18 or older! Fun.



the queen said...

Re: your links, there, at the end? That Queen Mediocretia chick is a slutty whore.

- Not the Queen

Vince Gotera said...

Ah, Queen Mediocretia. Know thyself. Thanks for sharing. --Vince

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Wow, that was really interesting. I've felt so close to the Egyptian culture since I was little and that's why I enjoyed it so much. Thank you. Keep up the great job you're doing here. Congratulations and blessings.

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