Post no. 4 from Guest Blogger Marcella Durand

[This is Marcella’s final blog post. Thanks M! Our Guest Blogger feature will go on hiatus for December and return in the New Year.]

Creative readings

I’ve been reading Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and in it came to a moment where art, poetry and concrete world came together. And that is where Howe relates Plutarch’s translation of an inscription (an inscription transcription) on an Egyptian statue of Isis:

“I am all that is and all that was and shall be, and no mortal hath lifted my veil.”

In purely ethereal/poetic reading, this would seem to refer to nature of divinity—that human bound by biological and mortal limitation of eye-sight cannot (or can only) glimpse the infinity of divine spirit-mystery. That is, original generative Mystery. But it was an inscription on a statue, and knowing that, I imagined the original statue. If that statue had been carved with a veil (veil over face), it would indeed be impossible to “lift” it in stone from a face never carved by the artist. Instead, the veil is all that is—and all that was created by the sculptor. Again, mimesis of artist/creator, divine creative force. But in this scenario, poetry would join with art to refer to concrete situation of veil being impossible to lift in the solidity of its own medium. This would then make a very old eco-ekphrastic-poem, in that language referring to art brings that art to “reality,” in the real-ness of its own composition.

Under the glare of actual research, i.e., plugging in search term “Plutarch Isis statue translation,” my creative scenario faded a bit. Some scholar (or many) of course read the requisite sexual angle to “lifting the veil” (some visitors won’t allow their children to walk through the Met’s new Greek galleries, either—maybe those children grow up to be scholars reading “fertility cults” into everything; in any case, they seemed very focused on definitively separating virginity/parthenogenesis and “inscrutability,” i.e. divine mystery). Then there’s more practical argument over the translation of “veil.” I like best the transcription of the original as:

nn kjj wp hr.j

So “nn” would be “I am all that is” and “kjj” be “all that was.” And “.j” would be “veil.” Interesting! Then there’s a discussion around whether “veil” referred to a very specific Athenian garment worn by women. Howe doesn’t include what translation she used in her “Works Quoted,” which I am very grateful for. I prefer to instead take it as Howe’s own, which retains all the power of what I assumed the original to have. This is where the full value of poet writing about poet (or poet writing about artist, art, music, musician, science, scientist) comes in—we get quadruple plus value (i.e., priceless) and a new artwork in place of (along with?) reportage or analysis or argument.