When I thought I might earn a master’s degree in art history, I wrote this cycle of poems in response to an assignment for a history class on ancient art. It may not resonate in every detail with those who don’t know about ancient Egypt, but it may still be enjoyable as poetry.
Imhotep Speaks (cinquain)
king loved by Ra
to make a City of the Dead
guard thy passage onward
temple stepped to sky
will climb the steps
enter the solar boat
sail across burning sky by day
friend to gods, friend to kings
The Scribe (Spenserian sonnet)
Much-honored scribe of their will, I record
the sacred deeds of gods and kings of all.
In my papyrus miracles are stored
and tallies of the treasures of the hall
where I sit, watching, all writ by my reed.
My eyes miss nothing; my scrolls are the source
of stories to mount up the temple, lead
the eye to power’s glorious, blessed course—
of Amun, Ra, Osiris, Ptah, Thoth, Maat, all give
our god–king’s life and so our souls delight to live.
I am no warrior, nor a laborer,
to risk the battle, brown and sweat in sun;
no sting of whip from cruel overseer.
My king is my brightness; there is none
who does not nod in passing, see my place.
My family lives in comfort and respect,
all cool and linen-clothed and white of face.
My careful hand, so fair, lets me protect
our lives. I dream of scrolls, my ink, my reed; they’re mine,
In rows that rise beyond the reach of death or time.
Amarna: Nefertiti’s Secret (blank verse)
Though Nile refuse to flood and kingdoms fall—
though storm of sand envelop all the tombs—
my record shall say “priestess of Aten,”
and Queen of Akhenaten be my name—
I, Nefertiti, “beautiful of face,”
who whispers prayers at night to my god, Re.
No zealot like a convert. I have seen
my husband Akhenaten serve one god.
His mother, Tiy, once crowned with cobra gold,
now worships Aten in a cap of blue.
This Akhetaten is no match for Thebes,
the grandeur of the Temple of Amun—
I know of columns rising to the sky,
of warriors’ deeds, carved wonder, colored bright.
With other maidens, I learned to fear Re
and love Hathor, to follow woman’s ways.
Who lives with just one god? Who dies with one?
My proud King Amunhotep is no more.
This Akhenaten must not know my heart
is following the old gods, longs for Thebes.
So easy for a wife to disappear—
even a queen and priestess may grow ill.
But my devotion works its magic now:
for on the day we named my noble son,
I showed him to Amun, showed him to Re:
before they took him from me to the priests,
I whispered “Tutankamun” in his ear.
Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt (haiku)
“I am Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt,”
says my Temple
carved in rock.
Born of Amun-Ra,
a god, and Ahmose, the queen,
fragrant in union.
Crowned by King Thutmose.
I brought myrrh trees from far Punt.
I, his majesty.
Cover my breasts with
linen headdress; bull’s tail place
between my soft legs.
Beard my stone face as
Pharaoh—my tomb shall long grace
the Valley of Kings.
Hymn of Supplication (chiasm)
Thy daughter Nefertari sings to Isis:
Welcome me to thy temple, sacred one—
queen of the moon; its crescent adorns thee;
nourisher of Horus, to thee I offer rich perfumes.
Anoint my breasts that I may nourish my children.
let the moon grow full, as I grow full of life,
blessed by the gods as queen of Ramses’ house,
daughter of Isis, queen and mother of many.
Grant my children the love of many children,
blessed by the gods to approach the temple of life.
Let them wax in strength and hope and joy.
Giver of wisdom to thy sons and daughters,
Rich as river’s flood to feed the land,
Adorn me with silence and peace, as the moon sails the night,
ask thy King to welcome me to eternity
as Nefertari, daughter of his beloved Isis.
—Lisa Bolin Hawkins