Textbook Leftovers

My love is one and only

Posted on: February 19, 2011

I’ve read a great deal of love poetry. A huge percentage of the Western canon of poetry is focused on love. I’m female and I spent half my adolescence thinking about luvvv. This is not a subject that I am unfamiliar with. And I have to say that these selections of love poetry from Ancient Egypt might be the best I have ever read.

There is something refreshing about the language of all these poems. They are so simple and straightforward and honest – even more amazing because of the complexity of some of the themes. Sexuality has been a taboo subject for so long in the West that it is astounding to read such unabashed treatment of attraction and sensuality.

The first poem, known as “My love is one and only, without peer,” is fairly standard fare. The male speaker sings the praises of his beloved. He describes her admiringly from her head down: eyebrows, eyes, lips, neck. At the neck he moves away from her objective beauty and begins to tell us just how great a lover she really is. Her breasts and hair and arms lead to her fingers, “which touch like a brush of lotus.” After that spine-tingling comparison, he moves down her back, past her waist, and straight to “god’s plenty below,” which is so explicitly erotic that nobody within a hundred miles could miss it. This poet’s lover is so hawt that every schoolboy gets whiplash when she walks by. And as a final compliment to his lady fair: “He who could hold that body tight would know at last perfection of delight.”

“I wish I were her Nubian girl” is actually pretty disturbing. Basically, this short poem is about the poet wanting to be the slave of his beloved (when the slavery isn’t the worst part, you know it’s bad). At first, the poet talks about wanting to be her confidante and best friend. Maybe that’s romantic: a man wanting to know what his woman thinks and feels. He goes on to talk about wanting to be there when she undresses for the night, which gives a bit of a voyeurism vibe to me, but okay. It’s the last lines that seal the creepy, for me:
“O she’ll give pleasure! in future
no grown man will deny it!
But tonight, to me, this chaste girl
bares unthinking the delicate blush
of a most secret landscape,
her woman’s body.”
There isn’t a thing I can say to rescue this poem, because it definitely sounds like a grown man with physical desires for a young girl. (It might as well be signed by Pedobear.)

We leave those disturbing waters for “Love, how I’d love to slip down to the pond,” our first female-voiced poem of the collection. (Did I mention how much I love that both men and women have a voice in their sexuality here?) This poem has a beautiful progression, but a very different one from the first poem. Our heroine suggests a quick dip in the pond, partly to show off her new swimsuit. She coaxes her lover into the water, flirting expertly. Then, she brings out the big guns. She dives down and “come[s] up for you dripping.” She catches a small red fish in her hands and well…
“Look at my fish, love,
how it lies in my hand,
how my fingers caress it,
slip down its sides…”
And with very little ado, she seals the deal – “A gift, love. No words. Come closer and look, it’s all me.” I think this one may be my favorite of the collection because the poet is so unashamed. She knows what she wants. She’s not controlled by her man or his desires, and even enjoys playing with him. She’s strong and free and beautiful. She is feminine without surrendering her strength – the pinnacle of what feminism should be.

“Why, just now, must you question your heart?” is only 8 lines long, and even though I have read it many times over, I’m not entirely sure how to interpret it. I fear that the translator’s choice of punctuation has garbled the meaning and I can’t quite get where it’s leading, but I’m taking a stab at it (and I could be completely wrong). I believe that this poem is written from the point of view of a friend of a couple which is having marital difficulties, or maybe cold feet before a wedding. This friend counsels his friends to disentangle themselves from confusing discussions and realize what they have. Stop bickering and overthinking and hold each other close. While I wouldn’t generalize this advice (if it’s even an accurate reading), I am intrigued and touched to find even this perspective of relationships included in the collection.

A woman takes up the pen again to bring us “I was simply off to see Nefrus my friend.” This poem shows an apt sense of humor and a clever use of language. In brief, a young girl is out, going to visit a friend, when she sees “Mehy.” If this were written in the present day, Mehy would be the star quarterback, and our poetess would be any typical teenage girl. She squees to herself about the sight of him “hot on his horses,” and rushes to hide because god forbid that he see her. (Girls, you all remember this feeling, don’t deny it.) “If he sees that I see him, I know he will know how my heart flutters (Oh, Mehy!)” Clearly, teenage girls haven’t changed a bit in millenia. But, give her credit. She loses her mind over him for a moment, and then comes back to her senses. Apparently Mehy has a reputation of “kiss and tell” or maybe even “love ’em and leave ’em” – and so the poet restrains herself. The way that this story is told is so intense and evocative, I could almost smell the halls of my junior high school while reading it. Having such a connection across such a number of years… simply amazing.

This next one is simply hilarious. A (presumably male) poet reaches a conclusion: “I think I’ll go home and lie very still.” He plans to go lie in bed and pretend to be dying. And everyone will wonder what is wrong and the doctors will be stumped. But (there is always a but) – “she knows perfectly well what ails me.”
I laughed out loud, and I bet you did too.

“Love of you is mixed deeply in my vitals” has deeply sensual subtext, and beautiful imagery to match. The poet (I think female) speaks as though from the pillow, just after making love. Her love is mixed “like water stirred into flour for bread” (inseparable, and with the potential for growth and nourishment – what an ingenious metaphor for love). She speaks of the eagerness one has to be with a lover. Separation, she says, “is like being too far from the light,” like a long dark winter without the sun. Indeed, sister, it is.

I can honestly say that these poems have refreshed my view of romance and sensuality. Both collections of Egyptian poetry challenged my view of their society, and I am deeply glad that I began this project, if only for these few stanzas.

Next time? Strap yourself in, we are heading for some excerpts from the Old Testament!

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2 Responses to "My love is one and only"

Nice. This is my first encounter with Egyptian poetry of any kind! Thank you so much for sharing.

Thank you so much! I really enjoyed reading these poems and writing this entry, and I’m very glad that you liked it. It was my first experience with Egyptian poetry as well, and my life has been the poorer for the lack of them. These were magnificent. 😀

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