Nebamun's Tomb

Salt watches the saw cut a picture from his wall.

       The exquisite feathers fall from the lesser birds,

             tears of silt and straw from a hieroglyphic eye.

The Old Man sleeps in Great Russell Street and an image

       flashes. He is nowhere, somewhere on the West Bank

             or in the Underground. At Boughton House or buried

in a quarry near Corsham. The conservator

     lets the dancing girls go by, the wildfowl fly,

             balancing so carefully.


                                  enough to last you

for eternity

                 a thousand loaves

                                           a thousand portions of flesh

a thousand different ornaments


of clothing



                                        the saw stops

its noise

                    and silence begins where that slot

ends above an owl who stares his meaning

full-face at us and goes on crying

across the food offerings, the desert pigments,

red and yellow ochre, frits of a ghostly blue


As in those dreams where you meet

equally with strangers and the dead you loved

that always seem to be set on a train

when they come to me, but here

follow the red lines of the tomb wall

to where the male guests are seated

like commuters from the after-life

eating a wafer, holding a handkerchief,

one with a wig, some shaven-headed,

their lotus-flowers tssk-a-tssk-ing

there are things you keep quiet about:

the double-flute in the mouth of the girl

who looks straight at you, the entwined

haematite of the pair behind her,

the clap that has turned into a prayer.


What lay in the mud between the lute on her breast

and the rack of nine pink stoppered wine jars?

A serving man unrendered as he reached for a drink?

So some scholars think, examining a muddy elbow.

But others are sure it is the last of the women, playing

an unknown instrument, one that is redolent of

wheat and barley, date fibre, reeds, rushes,

halfa, papyrus, tamarisk, fig or flax

together with some bones and fragmented flower-heads.


Hard to imagine such a moment, naked girls

offering wine to both the men and to their wives,

part nightclub, part Academy Award Ceremony

where everyone has a fixed look on their face

until the prize is announced and there she goes

weeping into the lotus mic her thanks

to Henry for putting up the money, to Giovanni

for his skilful cutting and above all to...

but nobody is listening now, suppressing

their screams, they reach for the mandrake fruit.


Some in baskets heaped as if they were stanza-forms,

others massed into a flock of fifty syllables,

crammed like carvings on the Rosetta Stone,

the geese are here to be inspected.

The master sits in silence.

They too keep their beaks firmly shut.

Farmers can only prostrate themselves.

It is a scribe who finds something to say

as he opens a scroll before Nebamun

and begins to recite his poem: 'The Inspection

of the Birds at the Turning of the Year'.


Get a move on! he shouts

as the cows pass by. It's like

watching paint dry. And don't

talk, talking is what he hates!


A fragment - why did this survive? - shows the barley

unharvested and upright with an old man bent over it

speaking to his own hand. As if an entire existence

had decomposed around him, yet he is fixed on this

augury in the lines of his palm. Over his shoulder

the grey mud-plaster encroaches like the North Sea towards

the cliffs at Dunwich. And above his earth-colour

a hieroglyphic armageddon hails on to his bald patch's

frizzy halo. Across the field from him the chariots

are ready to rumble off to war once the master returns,

who has leapt down to inspect the yields and convert them

into armaments. He has left his horse in the clutch

of a slave who can barely restrain its dark grey

from bolting out of the picture, having seen what's next.


i bring you a hare

which i hold by the ears

it stares indignantly yet

knows it has the final

word not only its fine

coat of yellow and white

with red speckling stripes

and black bristles not only

its pink inner ears

and perfect whiskers but that

the hare in hieroglyphics

means to exist


Let the empire spin

at the centre of this lunging

after birds that are so plentiful

nobody dreams of a time

when there is conservation. They fly

away into nothingness

to the swish of nets and stones

and guns and passages collapsing.

The fish too - mullet

and a fat puffer so pleased

with its poisonous self to be

on this white peninsula - sink.

A single butterfly is heading

for the hunter's toes and soon

African Queen, as it is known,

or Plain Tiger, will pass

into amnesia. Though there are

other humans, though there is

a goose that stretches optimistically

from the prow as the raised arm

swings against wagtail and wheatear

and shrike, it is the cat

carries the day, devouring

her soliloquy with a mouthful

of wing, her gold leaf eye

on the future, who will strike.


There is a garden in the next world

where all the birds and fish and plants

that we have exterminated are being kept -

I think it is this seedbank that I visit

occasionally when I am sleeping and wake

to feel as if some part of me has gone out

and spent the night travelling, as Egyptians

used to believe and so would leave a false

door out of their tombs. Within that garden

which I imagine to be like the one at Kew

where my parents lived and where I was born

and taken through the penny turnstile

and in which there is no perspective, fish and ducks

lying sideways against the surface of the pool,

trees unfolded flat from its edges, yet where all

comes into a true angle because the light

is the light that was in Egypt when we were there,

the fragmentation of the tomb will hardly matter.

This will be enough, just as a speck of DNA

can reconstruct the scene, the life, I am hoping

that in this garden there is somewhere that I can learn

to plant and grow things as I never let myself

be taught by my father or to pave a proper path

as I watched my mother do. There will be fruits there -

I can see them in this last surviving scene, the dates,

the figs, the ghastly dom. But also grapes. And some papyrus

for writing on too, if in that garden writing is allowed.