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Living In a World of Symbols

With Adriano Bulla
Part 11

Adriano Bulla
In "I Sat Near a Stream", you talk about reaching out over that 'barrier' which we call death. How is this poem informed by your studies of Egyptian religion?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
This poem on the one hand is about letting go of someone you love, letting go of the physical body of a lover with whom you've shared that most intimate of bonds. It's about the transience of sensual existence and the trappings of the material world. My poem tells us that these things are ours to enjoy for a limited time only, so ultimately, it's the interior, spiritual nature of life that we must hold onto if we wish to continue after the departure of the body. The difficulty of accepting physical death, especially of a loved one, is the heart of "I Sat Near a Stream". It's our nature to cling to the things we cherish, to refuse to set them free or change. Death changes everything. It's an unavoidable change, but a process of evolution.

In the Kemetic or ancient Egyptian religion, death is a temporary state, a phenomenon of transmigration from one state of existence into another. It is transformation, from mortality to immortality. So, "I Sat Near a Stream" is about watching someone you love go through this transformation, not wanting to let go of the physical form you knew them in, but eventually facing their departure and seeing it as a rebirth. The Egyptian religion uses water and rivers as symbols of the primordial flood from which creation emerged at the beginning of time. This emergence represents absolute untainted state of being, before death or imperfection comes into being. It also signifies a rebirth, like the land of Egypt being reborn each year from the Nile inundation. 

I have to admit that this poem ends on what might seem to be a rather morbid note. We have the narrator questioning what will happen after his transformation into the next world, after his death.

Is this going to end in oblivion, or will there be a renewal, a rebirth of consciousness...a fresh start? There is a suicidal question being posited here, because the narrator is telling us he has been sitting near a stream pondering what is going to happen when he drowns himself; how long the process will take and what will happen in the world once he is gone. It's a morbid fascination with one's own death being expressed here, but also a longing to understand what happens to the human condition when it passes away; what happens to people we love once their bodies are taken from us? Does life still go on somehow? Does the world remain the same, or does the death of one person alter the course of life on earth? It's a philosophical poem, for which, of course, there is no absolute answer. It's all very subjective.

Adriano Bulla
"The truth was /What you taught me/ In my bed at night" in "I Could Wring That Sparrow's Neck" sounds both sensual and religious, taking the reader by surprise, puzzling the reader, then, you move into your realization that "One "God" is no use for you... Why is it so?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
This poem is actually about incest. I am an adult survivor of childhood incest. My father began touching me sexually before I entered adolescence, and by the time I was 13 we were engaged in a fully sexual relationship. My father was my first lover. The Truth was/ What you taught me/ in my bed at night; this is the statement of a child acknowledging that what he knows of the adult world, the truth about what happens in the real world, was a thing learned in the bed of incest. I was introduced to the world of adult sexual relationships when I was still a child, and this gave me a window onto the world I

would never have had, could never have had, except through the darkness of that experience. I was shown things that no child should ever be forced to see, and yet that experience showed me the ugly side of human nature, that side of man that tortures and destroys people and things much weaker than himself. What my father did to me was a crime against the soul, but it is unfortunately part of the evil that lives in humankind.

Zeynel CebeciCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The symbolism of the sparrow in this poem is obviously one of freedom; the sparrow is free from any prison or confinement, while I am a prisoner of my own body, of my own home, which seems to be pressing in on me and falling to pieces at the same time. It's a metaphor for victimization, the reality of a person in pain recognizing that their situation is not changeable, at least not in the foreseeable future. Because this is exactly what happened to me when I was a teenager. I was inhabiting a body that became the absolute possession of my father; I couldn't stop what was happening to me, so when I looked out at other kids my age, part of me hated them, was

envious of the freedom I thought they had. I was in a state of imprisonment, and I hated to be reminded of the freedom others had. The birds outside were free/ And how I could wring/ That sparrow's neck. Now you can see the meaning of those words. That's how I felt when I saw how carefree other boys my age seemed. I saw them playing baseball with their fathers, and that's the kind of freedom I wanted. But my father was fucking me, and I was stuck in that body with no means of escape.

 The poem seems to change tone in the middle when I introduce the concept of piety...How pious/ To feel the words of that black book/ Pass clean through me/ Like a sword. This is my strict religious upbringing rearing itself. The "black book" is, of course, the Bible...the book bound in black leather. For all intents and purposes, I was raised in a very conservative, traditional Baptist family, a family in which a literal interpretation of the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God governed every aspect of our lives. Evangelical conservatism was the backbone of my family, and my siblings and I were spoon-fed the Gospel, it seemed, every moment of our lives. There was no escaping it.

So, on the one hand you have my father preaching the Bible to us as the representative of the traditional Christian family man, while on the other, and in private, he sexually victimized his own son.

This kind of hypocrisy made it very easy for me as a young man to break free from the idea of the Christian god and embrace a completely different way of life. The evil that I saw in the Bible, in the Christian idea of Salvation, was that it became a license to behave as you will, then ask for forgiveness later. I was raised in the belief of once saved, always saved. Once a man asked Christ to enter his heart, he was washed clean from sin, and could forever after do as he pleased.

My realization of the hypocrisy, the falseness of the Christian religion as I saw it revealed to me in my father's embodiment of it, is what I am pointing out in the verses I have passed through/ All these ephemeral things..."God", prophets, commandments...and also in the verses One "God", I have no use for you, et cetera. I am here turning away from the things that I see are contrary to the liberation of the human soul; things like doctrine, commandments and prophets, governed by a jealous and angry god who in the end is no more just to his people than my father was to me. There is a direct correlation here between the one god of the Christian religion and my father. Both are tyrants, angry, unjust, an enemy to freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.

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