Memphis

6 months ago 85

These people, she said
to her husband, will never have peace.
She was levelling her camera
so as not to catch its lens reflected
in the display cabinet. Funerary goods
prised from their contexts, delicate goldwork,
bracelets and rings, canopic jars:
the stock exchange of the afterlife.
And the sarcophagus, a
cracked, pretty, pistachio shell.
And all the grisly details children love:
the isobaric brain hooked through the nose,
the lungs and liver revered and raised
in the hollow of a high priest’s hands.
The boy himself,
whose skull’s incomplete development
stunts his adolescence forever,
is nubile and narrow, wrapped in soiled bandages.
His hips are two peaks snowed with rust,
his throat’s soft tissue’s abraded entirely.
What was he thinking in Memphis?
Crushing every champion Nubian wrestler
into submission on the hot, sterile sand?
Thousand-spinelled pomegranates and mutton?
Mutton spiced with cumin and saffron,
dates big as fists dripping with honey?
There in the cool dark of the Egyptology rooms,
under gentle, conserving spotlights,
the air fizzed like the air before a storm.
The couple
were newly married, I guess, weekending in the city.
Hands in each other’s pockets, aphrodisiac glances.
They might have unravelled their linens
and went about their lineage right there on the parquet
among the skeletons, but who knows. I had plans.
It was getting on through September.
The sky-wide sun was setting among the trees,
the union flag, still half-mast, rippled. Leaves fledged
from their origins crunched on the pavements
along Great and Little Russell Street.
Across town I had dinner with friends
in a tiny dumpling restaurant. Long wooden benches,
the easy and accidental company of strangers.
Spinach-green tofu potstickers; pork and kaffir lime;
pale, precise, many-folded prawn and vegetable dim sum
steaming in baskets, abundant soy.
And the beer, small batch and citrussy, was so good.
It just kept coming, and it was so cold, it was like –
I don’t know what it was like, except pleasure,
and I didn’t want it to end, but everything has to.

Stephen Sexton is the author of two books of poems: If All the World and Love Were Young, 2019, winner of the Felix Dennis prize for best first collection, and Cheryl’s Destinies, 2021. He teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast

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