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SEP TEPY (The First Time)1

by Caitie Barrett
If we assume two things-one, that the best place to start is the beginning, and two, that the Heliopolitan Cosmogony is accurate-then we ought to start with an androgynous figure masturbating. That was how Atum created the universe, and it makes sense, after all; if one's cosmogony relies upon a single creator deity, then what more ready way to do the job? So let's start, then, with the mound of creation, a dark wet pile of earth emerging from the chaos waters. On top of this mound Atum has come into being and he is taking care of what he has to do.

Water Under the Bridge by Melissa Tevere © 2012Water Under the Bridge by Melissa Tevere © 2012

First all the universe is contained inside one being, and then it's splattered all over the place, like the mirror-glass mosaics of Isaiah Zagar. All over South Street, walls explode out at the sun in glittering fragments, and yet stay intact. Covered in reflections of the city and the sky as seen from every angle, the wall is revealed, after all, to contain both the city and the sky.

We're all sitting in fractured, glittering Philadelphia smoking a hookah in Leila's Café, and the smoke (apple mint, the tastiest of the flavors) provides a sort of glue sticking the fragments back together. How soft and curving that smoke is, like the women in the imagination of 19th-century Orientalists! But Sir Richard Burton2 would truly have been unable to contain his urge to create a universe if he had heard the conversation, which focused on Gina and her fiancé's recent decision to become polyamorous. The hookah is certainly polyamorous, anyway, penetrating everyone's mouths with equal abandon (except for mine; I put one of those disposable tips on the nozzle; Orientalist pastimes are no more likely to protect one from colds than is Communion wine). Gina's friend Dave has taken her hand, while her fiancé's brother chats with me. The café owner's daughter, who wears tight jeans and a blue headscarf and has a California accent, seems equal parts happy and dismayed.

Gina doesn't want to change her Facebook status to "Open Relationship" because she hasn't told her sister yet. By the time you're thirty, your Facebook wall becomes a mosaic of friends' babies' faces, small round eager things that blur, at thumbnail size, into soft ash-colored blobs like smoke rings, and then dissolve away again. At a distance these walls that Zagar treated, these sun-sharp multifaceted mirrors, are revealed as the compound eyes they are. The buildings must have always had such eyes, but it was only after Zagar made them visually explicit that we could tell. At what time will these insect-eyed creatures buzz away, up into the air, into the sun from which they came? At what hour will the city fly away from us?

Broken glass both inside and outside the museum: inside, where they broke into the vitrines, and outside, where they burned the cars and beat the protestors in Tahrir Square. The Cyclops eyes of news cameras have, more or less, closed by now. The compound fly-eye of the glass still stares open on the ground, though, constantly assaulted by the substance of the sun (the Greeks thought: we see objects because they constantly emit thin films that physically hit our eyes) and throwing that white sun-stuff back again.

No one does polyamory like gods, except perhaps for Muammar Qaddafi, whose "voluptuous Ukrainian nurse" has gone back to Kiev, while Ajdabiya burns. Even Jesus has his many brides, like Sister James and Sister Anthony at St. Anne's Preschool, who used to read the same story to us every day, about a bat trying to escape from hunters. I don't remember why the hunters wanted the bat anyway (how much meat could be on it?) but it was a very suspenseful story and always made the hour after snack time unnecessarily stressful.

Under Penn by Patrick Snook © 2012Under Penn by Patrick Snook © 2012Almost Easter, now. The river bank is burning with cherry blossoms, and it's almost time to go back to St. Paul's to share that yearly Middle Eastern meal. In Taposiris Magna they're looking for Cleopatra VII's tomb, even though they won't find it there;the ancient sources are quite clear on the location of the Ptolemies' mortuary complex in Alexandria. "Zowie" Hawass, as my parents call him, announced with great enthusiasm the project plans, in a video in which he calls his impending revelation of Cleopatra's burial "the greatest discovery of all time." Entombed at her side they expect to find her Ukrainian nurse, Mark Antony.

Elizabeth Taylor's grave is in Glendale, California, and Richard Burton (the Orientalist) and Richard Burton (Mark Antony) can meet up, if they like, to share a hookah in St. Paul's Café. If you lose your one true love, says the traditional Scottish song, you will surely find another, / Where the wild mountain thyme / grows around the blooming heather. The Egyptian gods are famous, of course, for their numerous forms. Semele asked to see the true form of god; and so she did. It was fire.

And as for Dionysus: he was born in blood, of course. Ah, well, who wasn't? With him it was merely a bit more obvious, torn from his father's raw thigh. I suppose we all feel somewhat out of place in all the substitute wombs we find.

Dionysus the wine god: and don't those Sufi poets praise god constantly by invoking drunkenness? Indeed, the linkage of intoxication and religious ecstasy would appear to be cross-cultural; has there ever been a society that eschewed intoxicants? None that I've found yet, and I've been looking for a while. If it isn't liquor, it's tobacco, or herbal substances, or God knows what. Beloved, Beloved, you surpass all wine.

One could square the circle if Mary were to be the one to destroy the body of her son, to rip it up, the way Agave does. But she doesn't do so-no. Wine in the cup, and that is blood; bread for flesh, like sparagmos. I never drank that wine, not even at my first communion. My mom was afraid that I would catch a cold from the other children, and after all, wasn't she right? I could have done. The mother knew better than the priest; but, after all, that's always true. It was true of Mary, wasn't it? And of Agave, too.

It seems like it must be nice to be a polyamorist. But then again, it also seems rather unpleasant. As for me, my Beloved is mine, and I am my Beloved's. Pass me more of that burning, iron-tasting wine. They say that Californian wines exceed the French; in fact, the Judgment of Paris3 decided it. Does that then make the United States equivalent to Aphrodite? I like it, I like it; everyone's Beloved, why, the sacred whore. I like it, I like it. But all the same, it isn't fully true.

The old country laborer, passing me in Alexandria, grinned and asked, "How much?" I gave him the finger, only afterwards realizing that the gesture might not transfer cross-culturally; perhaps he was thinking, "Only one pound? Wallahi, what a deal!" But what's to be done? Many pretty girls in Cairo wear sparkly veils that only half-hide their hair. Most of my boyfriends prefer to wear a veil of words: each syllable glittering, like mirrored tesserae. Sometimes you see yourself in them, and sometimes you see the whole design. Sometimes you see both at once, but that's a rarity, much to be cherished, like simultaneous orgasm.

The first question I got at my interview for the Cornell professorship was, "How does your work engage with Edward Saïd?" In Luxor I was looking for a birthday present for my dad when I came upon a stuffed goldfish, modeled after the main character in Finding Nemo, which played Arabic pop songs when you pushed its stomach. Of course I bought it; as the man at the souvenir shop said when I tried to bargain down the price, "But it's Nemo!"

Running along the Schuylkill River's mirrored glass in spring, you pass numerous geese with half-grown babies. In a New Kingdom love poem from Papyrus Harris 500, migratory birds appear as images of the soul. A girl goes hunting for birds down by the river, and accidentally catches her own soul. As for me, I don't want to make them angry; when they have young they are notoriously mean. The baby souls ripple the water, swimming carefully in line. Drops of flying water, each a tiny little magnifying glass-when I was a small child I thought I was the first person who had ever noticed the magnifying effect of water drops. Glittering river, mirror water, Zagar's walls dissolved-well, good then, keep on at it, little fuzzy souls.


1Sep Tepy: "the first time" (Hieroglyphic Egyptian). In Egyptian religious texts, sep tepy refers particularly to the moment of the creation of the universe.
2Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890): British explorer, captain in the East India Company, and translator of various Arabic and Sanskrit texts, including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi.
3A wine competition held in Paris in 1976, at which Californian wines swept all categories.

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About The Author


Caitie Barrett is a classical archaeologist and Egyptologist. Her poems have been published in Pressed Wafer Foldems, Can We Have Our Ball Back, Palimpsest, and The Gamut; she was also a finalist in the first annual Bow and Arrow Poetry Contest. She lives in Ithaca, NY and works as an Assistant Professor of Classics at Cornell University.

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