The Excavation

My latest book, Dark Matter: New Poems, is just out. It’s my seventh book of poetry and 23rd book in all, but I confess that I never get over the thrill of a new book—and also confess to feeling that it’s the best work I’ve done so far. Published beautifully by Spinifex Press, it’s available at all bookstores and all online booksellers.

This week I’m doing readings and promotion for the book, so there was no time to write the blog per se. Instead, I’m posting one of the poems from the book—a story poem—in lieu of a prose blog. An earlier version of this poem was published in The Hudson Review literary journal; this below is the later version that appears in Dark Matter.

The Excavation

National Geographic Society announcement, June 2006:
The 1600-year-old mummified remains of a young adult were covered with red pigment and bear tattoos, and her imposing tomb signified high status. It was discovered 400 miles northwest of Lima, Peru, near the summit of the pyramid Huaca Cao Viejo, a sacred site in Moche culture, which flourished well before the rise of the Incas. Among the burial trove–gold, fine textiles, semiprecious stones, weaving materials and needles befitting a woman–lay two ceremonial war clubs and 28 spear throwers, items found never at women’s grave sites but exclusively in tombs of Moche men. Nearby lay the skeleton of another, smaller woman dead from apparent strangulation, a hemp rope still around her neck. It was the rope, via radiocarbon analysis, that dated the burial of both women to approximately C.E. 450.


You are here, I know it. Where?
Come to me. I command you.
If I could see through this fog! I wander
and wait, calling out for you, Little One
of my Choosing, culled from the herd,
where are you? Come! I demand you!

You were mine the moment I saw you,
plucked you from filth to be granted my favor,
raised high by me, brought to the Great House.
How hard you struggled—so small,
but you kicked, spat, hit,
scratched, screamed—and I laughed

while they scrubbed you and wrapped you in silks,
laughed as you gorged on roast pigeon and mangos,
laughed as you cowered and glared at me.
You are near, I feel it. I command you to come
to me. I know you can hear me even through
this thick fog. Useless to fight me, you know it.

I always was different, stronger than all
of my brothers, my father’s true son, though
a woman. I set my mind and my teeth on it,
refusing to be not-man, female, less than human.
I was more than human, I knew it.
When the Others came from the north,

it was I who led the Moche into battle. I
cut down our enemies, laughed at their screams,
killed and killed until none were left.
My arms ached with killing. My enemies, my own
kind, both saw me then with wonder,
a woman of power, freak or demon.

I would be neither, but a god. From that day,
men would fear me, women flee me,
but all would worship me. I wore the condor-
feathered cloak. There was a price.
I was the object of their adoration,
not their love. How can the devout imagine

the unspeakable loneliness of their god?
Then, one day, I was hunting, and there it
was, hiding, squatting in its fetid hut,
a creature of huge eyes and rags. You
would come to love serving the god, though.
You alone loved the me in the god.

You watched when I bedded the man in the ritual,
then killed him once my belly swelled with my daughter,
the next god of war. When I fell, convulsing,
the last sight I saw was you bent above, weeping
for me as I died a hero’s death. Why now are you silent?
You are here, you must be, I left orders for it.

You know I cannot be alone with these weapons that slew
so many—the tools used to prove I was human—more–
I was god. That was the price. You were the gift.


You are here, I fear you will loom up
out of the fog as you did the day you seized me
by my hair in the corner of the hut by the meadow.
I had known seven summers. You took me
at seven summers only. You laughed. My father
groveled in gladness that I would be a slave

to She who was both man and god. There would be food
now, beer, gold, eager husbands for my sisters, an adobe
house, a private mound for when my parents died.
“You will be raised high,” my mother said.
I knew nothing. Only fear and loss. I would need
to forget fear and loss if I wanted to live.

But I wanted to die. Though never enough. So I lived,
the god’s favorite, crouched where you placed me.
At your feet as you sentenced captives to death.
At your table, tasting each dish for poison.
Beside your nightmares each night before battle.
Beneath your bed linen. Between your thighs.

You stank of blood and spices. Your voice softened
at my name. Naked, I smiled and danced for you,
I stripped off your armor. I bathed your scars,
some thick as rope. Once, after you’d slain twenty men
–in a single day, they said–I held the basin
while you vomited. I almost loved you then.

And when you fell I wept. It was so ordinary, like any
woman’s dying, no spear in hand, no war cry in the throat.
But then I joyed in it—I joyed that it was over and each of us
was free. Until that night, when I remembered
that your end would mean my own, to serve you
through the afterworlds, raised high in death.

I ran. I ran, such terror in my mouth I can still
taste it like the poison I had planned to slip you
after tasting your food someday, but never had.
Of course your priests and mourners caught me,
dragged me as they had when I was seven,
shrieking, fighting, to the tomb where you lay

swaddled in gold armor plates, encircled by
your weapons and my weaving. Freedom would be
forgetting fear, but I turned fear to hatred long ago.
I must find new afterworlds to walk alone, as your calls
echo through the space that yawns between us.
I never loved you–though I could have. That last

ensnarement beguiles me still, a slave’s desire
to speak to you, to make you understand. Except
for this: that day inside your tomb they forced
my face toward yours. I saw you stare at death
through inset turquoise eyes. I felt the rope fall, heavy,
on my shoulders, then tighten round my throat.

I sipped one final breath, knowing the last
sight I would ever see would be your face,
beautiful, severe, not seeing me.


Letter home from student interning at the Huaca Cao Viejo dig:

The local Indians are so superstitious! They shake their heads and warn us that when you disturb a tomb, the so called “spirits” rise and wander. They won’t say whose spirits, though. This lady, wow. What do you think? A queen? The wife or daughter of a military chief? Can’t be some mythic Amazon! We might never know. The professor says she might’ve been pregnant, maybe died of something called eclampsia, like convulsions. But he can’t tell till there’s a full lab analysis, which could take years. And the second woman? Might have been a suicide. I think they were lovers and she was in despair over the queen’s death. It’s so romantic! But the professor thinks she was a sacrifice. That would follow the common practice of ancient Andean peoples. They made a ritual offering of a virgin to the spirit of a high-born person during their funeral rites. Glad I wasn’t around then! He also says it’s absurd to imagine that the women were lovers, and extremely unlikely they ever even met, much less knew each other. But the rope! How great is the rope? What a stroke of luck in dating the find!

From Dark Matter:New Poems by Robin Morgan, Copyright Robin Morgan 2018, Spinifex Press, All Rights Reserved.