by Sara Berkeley
When I died, I put on sandals
too delicate to be worn,
for my safe passage over,
for my coming up at dawn
arm in arm
with Helios from the rounded water.
My organs were sealed with resin
in the canopic jars, my airy heart
weighed in the balance against Maat.
How to compare—her truth, her good
against my humble art.
I was seventeen crossing the waterways
into the field of reeds.
I passed Osiris, murdered by Seth,
he lay on a lion, rescued by Isis,
who crowned him King over death.
Then the bronze bands of living got narrower
I turned on my left side,
my eyes in line with the painted eyes
on the tamarisk wood, ivory
under my head, rolled scrolls between my thighs,
begging for sanctuary.
I wondered if it would be flight that would lift me
up and over the beautiful world,
thermals that would hold me there,
but it was love took me, kept me airborne,
love and loss, and it was violent trust
that let me pass.
Now my mother, and hers, and hers,
pale as we emerge from the troubled earth
holding our pomegranate flowers, face Demeter,
cut from the same stone as her daughter.
We are cradling time, veiled, serene,
blue figures over clear water.
Sara Berkeley was born in Dublin and has lived in London and the San Francisco Bay Area since 1989. She has published three slim volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, and Shadowing Hannah (New Island/Dufour), described by The New York Times as a "disturbing yet vibrant first novel." A fourth volume of poetry and second novel are brewing intensely.
I wrote this after a visit to the British Museum in September 1999. I love that museum and always take frantic notes, which later gives me the illusion that I actually know something about ancient civilizations. The Nereid were freestanding statues of girls thought to be daughters of the sea-god Nereus. They guarded a tomb that had limestone dining couches for feasting in the afterlife. Why we don't take our eternal culinary needs into consideration anymore is a mystery to me. The mummy imagery is somewhat liberally interwoven with the Nereids because I'm fascinated by the process. All that wrapping and coating, that care of the dead. But mostly, the poem is about how I imagine death making an outsider of me as I pass, peacefully or in violence, from this life and wander towards whatever awaits me. To resolve this rootlessness, and my uncertainty about a future existence, I found strange comfort in the idea of being reunited with my line of female ancestors, as we face the female gods with equanimity and trust.