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Image by Caroline Forbes

Monologue in the Valley of the Kings

Anthony Thwaite


Monologue in the Valley of the Kings

Anthony Thwaite


Poem introduction

People occasionally ask me "which is your favourite poem?", or "which do you think is your best poem?", or "if there was only one poem of yours that was going to survive, which would you like it to be?". And I quite often, rather riskily, name 'Monologue in the Valley of the Kings'. I think I can remember how it came about, more or less; I was working in Libya in the mid-1960s, and went with the family on holiday, it must have been the winter of 1966, to Egypt, and went to both the Valley of the Kings in upper Egypt and to the Archaeological Musem in Cairo, and that seemed to start something off, but then it was back in England in 1967 and going to the mummies in the British Museum that gave me a lot of it. It took a long time to write! Initially, it wasn't a poem about Pharaohs and whatnot at all, it was something about the secret self, but it was all going wrong, but suddenly all this Egyptian stuff started coming into it. It is, in fact, meant to be spoken in the voice of some hitherto undiscovered Pharaoh lying there deep in this Valley of the Kings in his tomb, and he's talking to an archaeologist in the present day, up on the surface, who is looking for him.

Monologue in the Valley of the Kings

Monologue in the Valley of the Kings

I have hidden something in the inner chamber
And sealed the lid of the sarcophagus
And levered a granite boulder against the door
And the debris has covered it so perfectly
That though you walk over it daily you never suspect.

Every day you sweat down that shaft, seeing on the walls
The paintings that convince you I am at home, living there.
But that is a blind alley, a false entrance
Flanked by a room with a few bits of junk
Nicely displayed, conventionally chosen.
The throne is quaint but commonplace, the jewels inferior,
The decorated panels not of the best period,
Though enough is there to satisfy curators.

But the inner chamber enshrines the true essence.
Do not be disappointed when I tell you
You will never find it: the authentic phoenix in gold,
The muslin soaked in herbs from recipes
No one remembers, the intricate ornaments,
And above all the copious literatures inscribed
On ivory and papyrus, the distilled wisdom
Of priests, physicians, poets and gods,
Ensuring my immortality. Though even if you found them
You would look in vain for the key, since all are in cipher
And the key is in my skull.

The key is in my skull. If you found your way
Into this chamber, you would find this last:
My skull. But first you would have to search the others,
My kinsfolk neatly parcelled, twenty-seven of them
Disintegrating in their various ways.
A woman from whose face the spices have pushed away
The delicate flaking skin: a man whose body
Seems dipped in clotted black tar, his head detached:
A hand broken through the cerements, protesting:
Mouths in rigid grins or soundless screams -
A catalogue of declensions.

How, then, do I survive? Gagged in my winding cloths,
The four brown roses withered on my chest
Leaving a purple stain, how am I different
In transcending these little circumstances?
Supposing that with uncustomary skill
You penetrated the chamber, granite, seals,
Dragged out the treasure gloatingly, distinguished
My twenty-seven sorry relatives,
Labelled them, swept and measured everything
Except this one sarcophagus, leaving that
Until the very end: supposing then
You lifted me out carefully under the arc-lamps
Noting the gold fingernails, the unearthly smell
Of preservation - would you not tremble
At the thought of who this might be? So you would steady
Your hands a moment, like a man taking aim, and lift
The mask.
But this hypothesis is absurd. I have told you already
You will never find it. Daily you walk about
Over the rubble, peer down the long shaft
That leads nowhere, make your notations, add
Another appendix to your laborious work.
When you die, decently cremated, made proper
By the Registrar of Births and Deaths, given by The Times
Your two-inch obituary, I shall perhaps
Have a chance to talk with you. Until then, I hear
Your footsteps over my head as I lie and think
Of what I have hidden here, perfect and safe.


from Selected Poems (Enitharmon, 1997), copyright © Anthony Thwaite 1997, used by permission of the author

Recordings

Anthony Thwaite Reading from his Poems

1Monologue in the Valley of the Kings

2By the Sluice

3A Girdle Round the Earth

4For Louis MacNeice

5Called For

6At Marychurch

7Shock

8Imagine a City

9The Return

10Cockroach Story

11Together, Apart

12Sigma

13Potter

14Memoir

15Snakes

16Philip Larkin in New Orleans

17Elegiac Stanzas

18In 1936

19My Father's Poems

20Archaeology

21Watching

22Worst Words

23The Message

24A Crack of Air

25Doing Business

27Tune

27How to Behave

28Epiphany

29Movements

30Simple Poem

Books by Anthony Thwaite