Valerie O'Brien: On “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty”
Thomas James’ “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty,” written from the perspective of the titular subject, uses imagery of the rebirth of the human body to depict the enduring vitality of the human spirit. In the poem, the speaker expresses a preoccupation with continuity through death, while taking pleasure in the changes her body undergoes through the process of her own mummification. The opening declaration—“My body holds its shape. The genius is intact” (1)—suggests the persisting wholeness of both organic and spiritual forms. Yet, it is followed immediately by anxieties about change, voiced in the lines “Will I return to Thebes? In that lost country / The eucalyptus trees have turned to stone” (2-3) and “Is it still there, that place of mottled shadow, / The scarlet flowers breathing in the darkness?” (6-7). Over the course of the poem, the speaker’s fears are replaced first by an objective delight in her rebirth as an aesthetic object and, subsequently, by a greater confidence in her eventual return to the corporeal. Though the poem suggests a distinctness of body and spirit in death, the final stanza of the poem envisions their reunification through an organic rebirth, rather than merely ingress into a purely spiritual afterlife.
The poem opens with a scientifically objective tone as, untroubled by occasional instances of violent imagery to describe the processes of organ removal and bloodletting, the speaker calmly details her own mummification in a list of steps: “On my left side they made the first incision” (10), “My brain was next” (15), “They slit my toes; a razor gashed my fingertips” (21). This detachment is maintained even in a particularly gruesome instance, when the mummy notes that she “paid no notice” to “a voice sway[ing] over [her],” as “A pointed instrument / Hooked [her brain] through [her] nostrils, strand by strand” (15-17). The ambiguity of the speaker’s perspective in referring to “[a] voice sway[ing] over [her]” suggests the persisting union of material body with spirit, either through the spirit’s location within the body or through the spirit’s identification of the deceased physical body as self. Yet the speaker’s tone of indifference towards the surgical procedures enacted on her body emphasizes the separateness of spirit and body in death: the spirit remains immutable, identifiable as Jemutesonekh, even while the body is dissected and replaced, piece by piece, with foreign objects.
Despite its apparent violence to the body, the medicalized ritual of mummification recreates the mummified woman as a work of art. The process of mummification that the speaker objectively describes suggests a relationship between womb and tomb, as the ritual surrounding her death becomes symbolic of rebirth. Following the removal of her brain, the speaker states, “For weeks my body swam in sweet perfume,” a kind of amniotic fluid from which she is “lifted … into the sun again,” now “scoured,” merely “skin and bone” (18-20). Notably, this in utero experience defines the mummy’s rebirth as an artistic, rather than a natural, process, for she is reborn through aesthetic ritual, rather than the labor of a human mother. Thus, Jemutesonekh’s rebirth through mummification employs medical language for an artistic end. This inextricability of the surgical and the aesthetic is captured in the homonymic double-meaning of “wound” as both physical injury (the surgical incisions, slits, and gashes performed on the body in mummification) and the past tense of “wind,” or the act of twisting (the wrapping and ornamentation of the mummified body). Despite the attention to the surgical processes enacted on the body in mummification, the poem suggests a preference for the aesthetic denotation of “wound”—as it appears in the line “My body wound itself in spools of linen” (35)—privileging the speaker’s experience as a form of aesthetic rebirth over a medicalized ritual of death.
Images of emptying and filling contribute to the aestheticization of the process of mummification and the conception of rebirth through death. First, Jemutesonekh is emptied of her vital organs: her “heart and liver” “washed” “in palm wine,” her “lungs… two dark fruit they stuffed with spices,” her “innards” “smeared” “with a sticky unguent” are “sealed … in a crock of alabaster” (11-14). Hollowed out, like a doll being stuffed and sewed her “empty skull [is packed] with cinnamon” and her bloodless body is “stitched shut” (21, 23). She describes her limbs as “chaste and valuable, / Stuffed with paste of cloves and wild honey” (23-24). Her eyes, also “empty,” are “filled … up” with “little nuggets of obsidian” (25-26). The systematic dismantling of her organic body and the replacement of its individual parts with sumptuous foods (cinnamon, cloves, and wild honey) and precious, durable materials (obsidian, basalt, bronze, and ruby) paradoxically preserves the body by dismantling and remaking it.
The metaphorical language used to describe this process of mummification, of death and rebirth, of emptying and filling captures the transformation of the spirit as well as the body. The poem’s most resonant illustration of this transformation occurs in the description of “[a] basalt scarab wedged between [her] breasts” that “[r]eplaced the tinny music of [her] heart” (27-28). That the speaker describes her organic heart as hollow suggests a deficiency in her human form, remedied by the scarab of volcanic rock that replaces it. The metaphorical language of the “tinny music of [her] heart” spiritualizes this image of filling, distinguishing it from the other references to the replacement of purely physical body parts. Importantly, the scarab, associated with the Egyptian god Khepri, represents “renewal rebirth, and resurrection” as a result of its tendency to “[hatch] eggs from … seemingly unpromising material,” including “the bodies of dead scarabs” (Doyle). Thus, the replacement of the speaker’s heart with a scarab evokes imagery of a spiritual rebirth more profound than the physical transformation she undergoes through mummification.
Though she is taken with her own new beauty and sense of self-importance, this aestheticized permanence is insufficient: though the mummy proudly identifies herself as “a precious object” (36, emphasis mine), a deeper sense of vitality persists. The assertion “I will last forever” serves as a transition in the monologue from a meditation on the immutability of her mummified form, “wound … in spools of linen” and “shut in [her] painted box” (35-36), to an enduringness of the spirit. In this shift, the woman anticipates a return to a more organic form. Her statement “I am not impatient— / My skin will wait to greet its old complexions. / I’ll lie here till the world swims back again” (40-42) suggests a permanence beyond that of her aestheticized, mummified state: these lines articulate the preference for the skin’s “old complexions” over the “luminous” skin, made “frail as the shadow of an emerald” through mummification (41, 32-33). The syntax of both “My skin will wait to greet its old complexions” (41) and “my body wound itself in spools of linen” (35), bestows a sense of agency on the body itself. Whereas the spirit has previously occupied a position of agency in the poem, observing the rituals enacted on the body in mummification, the syntax here emphasizes the action of the body instead. Here, the spirit infuses the corporeal body, reversing the apparent separation of the two in mummification.
In this shift toward the incarnate, living body, the poem ultimately restores the fruitful landscape of the woman’s life, enacting the return the speaker anticipates as the final stanza recalls the imagery of the first. In the last stanza, the speaker imagines a return to her father’s garden, which “will be budding, / White petals breaking open, clusters of night flowers, / The far-off music of a tambourine,” and where “[a] boy,” presumably her lover, “will pace among the passionflowers” (43-46). The language of the final stanza emphasizes the speaker’s organic corporeality: rather than envisioning a paradisiacal afterlife, the speaker confidently imagines a literal return to earth. She imagines her lover pacing, indicating that he has been awaiting her return, with eyes like “two bruised surfaces,” a darkness that evokes the exhaustion and grief of separation (47). She asserts, “I’ll know the mouth of my young groom, I’ll touch / His hands,” emphasizing the significance of embodied contact (48-49). Here, the line break reproduces within the poem the gap between the speaker’s body and her lover’s; the enjambment, enabling contact, engenders a delayed gratification, a shudder of ecstasy that redefines the poem.
Yet, the poem concludes abruptly with the question, “Why do people lie to one another?” (49). The question—namely, the nature of the deceit—is irrevocably ambiguous. However, the tone of this final question exhibits a marked contrast from that of her questions about continuity and return in the first stanza. The greater certainty in the speaker’s voice that death is not an end, realized through the restoration of corporeal form following her mummification, may guide us to one possible interpretation: human life possesses inherent sacredness, particularly over that of the valuable objects employed in the process of the speaker’s mummification. In spite of the vain and solipsistic pleasure she takes in her aestheticized, mummified form, the speaker demonstrates in the final stanza the priority of a more organic and vital immortality, an immortality defined by intimacy with another. The poem’s final images of the mummy’s return to flesh, and to fleshly ties, privilege the sacrality of the vital, embodied spirit, coupled with another, over that of the worshipful ornamentation of the body with precious materials in death. In other words, through the process of mummification the figurative enrichment of the spirit supersedes the literal enrichment of the body.
Doyle, Bernard. “Khepri.” Encyclopedia Mythica. Ed. Micha F. Lindemans. 3 March 1997. MLA
International Bibliography. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.
|Title||Valerie O'Brien: On “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty”||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Valerie O’Brien||Criticism Target||Thomas James|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||26 Jul 2013|
|Publication Status||Original Criticism||Publication||No Data|
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