Adam Tavel

The Light Precipitate of Ashes

           Restoration of the Great Sphinx, 1400 BC

Chiseled flakes of limestone litter down
the desert floor. Their aureolin dust
clings to chap our hundred kerchiefed mouths.
We Tuthmosis men hunch and zombify
each hour that our hammers chink away.
A light precipitate of ashes swirls
from nearby forges where copper rods twirl
and throb vermillion like small bitter suns
until our burnished Aten fades, retreating
behind its veil to greet the pharaohs gone
but now renewed, erect, aligned and throned
again in death to rule among the dead.

Or so we once believed. So long tableaus
by priests proclaimed pharaonic glory was
though most shrivel inside sarcophagi,
in chambers webbed and rank with blackened mold,
and all the rest are plundered by the lot
of conscripted fishermen who give their backs
to thrust another tomb against the sky
block by aching block. Relieved of faith
we mutter hymns beneath the foreman’s lash
and let our torchlight violate the calm
our fathers’ tunnels hollowed out to hide
the sanctity of kings whose jars we strip

and secret out in sacks to sell at port.
But for the beast that crumbles now from winds
that whip across the Giza plain in gusts
we sweat two seasons out in blanching tents
to wake and wall its wizened arms with bricks
Tuthmosis deems will keep its paws intact
another thousand years. His chariot
rockets through the parted knees of dunes
and in a cloud of dust his arms conduct
our failures back to form. Our ochre drips
from buckets hoisted up to flesh the face.
The pummeled ash encircles both its eyes.

At dusk I pace its spine to taste the breeze
and dry the bandages that mummify
my blistered fingertips. I sigh at puss
that soaks and yellows through in little globs.
Some nights I dream my father’s hands alive,
untethering our raft to venture out
across the shimmered scales the moonlit Nile
once made before I lost the sway the tide
rocked into my bones. There, the perch line
sliced the grizzled slabs his palms became
and wincing I would lean beside to learn
how blood will tug to keep the gasp it hooks.

Adam Tavel won the Permafrost Book Prize for Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming) and the chapbook Red Flag Up