Strangers’ Poems: Ibis Coffin

By Ben Bernthal, poet

April 4, 2024

Ben Bernthal sitting with a typewriter in front of the Ibis Coffin

Ben Bernthal types a poem inspired by our Ibis coffin, 525–332 BC. Bronze and wood with polychromy, 13 1/8 x 5 1/2 x 16 5/8 in. (33.338 x 13.97 x 42.228 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, M. H. de Young Endowment Fund, 47.12

Ben Bernthal’s Strangers’ Poems is a social art practice that can happen anywhere — from a street corner to a café — and invites conversation beyond small talk. This is the first in a series bringing Strangers’ Poems inside our museums for National Poetry Month. In this poem, Ben responds to our Ibis coffin (525–332 BC) at the Legion of Honor. 

Ibis Coffin, 525–332 BC

The old gods had 
an animal as avatar, 
considered sacred.
—Curator Notes

The old gods have died off.

A congress of ibises
stirs through the shallows
while hunting for snails.

A residue of mythos
ghosts their white wings.
There’s a rinse of hieroglyphics 

as they dip their pen-like beaks
into eternal water’s disappearing ink,
disturbing earth’s first mirror 

with reverberations—

The old gods have died off.

The Nile is a sheet of museum glass.
I stare into the coffin’s 
hollow eye sockets,
its oxidizing bronze.

What hands carried the dead weight
of your treasure
to the hallway where I stand?

Did you sneeze
while squinting at the first light
through the crack in the necropolis?

Which bound you 
Which freed you
from the need to eat.


For more on Ben Bernthal’s work, visit Strangers’ Poems or find him @bbernthal.

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