A Poem By Leigh Stein

by Mark Bibbins, Editor

How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohs

I am afraid that if they build a sarcophagus
exactly to your measurements and then

invite you to a party, the sarcophagus
will be there and you will climb inside

and fit and then they’ll shut the lid
and throw you into the river and you

will drown and what will I do then?
I couldn’t sleep alone after I saw the movie

about the chariots and bloody ostrich hunts,
in which one man kills his brother and the wife

of the dead one has to wander around the desert
until she has picked up every piece of his body

and put them back together with the magic
tricks she knows. He doesn’t live, but

he does get to go to the underworld, and the rest
of the movie is all about her life as a priestess

because when she asked if she could go with
him he said no, but I know that if I put you

back together I would follow you
to the underworld even if you said

you didn’t want me to, even if you said
there were not enough seats in your chariot

or riverboat or rickshaw because when two
people spend as much time together in a small,

enclosed space such as we have in this one,
they will follow each other to future small,

enclosed spaces. This is a pretty long book
inscription, but when you leave I want you

to keep this with you at all times, in case
you need a curse, a lament, a mirage

or incantation. To speak the name of the dead
is to make them live again. I will never forget

when I was just your sister in the acacia
tree of our childhood and at night the chariots

and thrones and arrows and birds and twins
in the stars foretold our future ruin. I’ve heard

it said that he who loves you swallows stones
for you while your enemy waits for you

to birth a son to avenge his father’s death
by causing a tempest to flood the earth.

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, and a new poetry collection, Dispatch from the Future, both from Melville House.

There’s a big ol’ thing of more poems right here, in The Poetry Section’s archives. You may contact the editor at poems@theawl.com.