Akhenaten by Dorothy Porter, University of Queensland Press, 1992
Reprinted 2008 Pan Macmillan Australia.
$24.95 AUD RRP.
I love Dorothy Porter. I own all of her verse novels except for Wild Surmise (It is only a matter of time, only a matter of time). I was dreadfully sad to hear of her death in 2008. Though I had read and enjoyed The Monkey’s Mask (1994), What a Piece of Work (1999) and El Dorado (2007), somehow her first verse novel had always escaped me. Akhenaten is an ambitious piece of poetic work which explores the life and obsessions of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, ruler from 1378 BC to 1362 BC. Archaeologists have attempted to discover more about this shadowy Pharaoh but have been foiled by attempts to eradicate all traces of his brief reign, but we know enough to uncover a tale of incest, heresy, and a massive cult of personality. Akhenaten is a novel in verse that captures the obsessional, erotic nature of its central figure. It does so in seamless poems that uncover the magic and the madness, the deep seated spirituality and cynical derision that we can surmise characterised Akhenaten.
Dorothy Porter said of Akhenaten, “I first saw him in a museum in Berlin in 1976. I had come to see the bust of his wife, Nefertiti, but it was the smirking, distorted, oddly beautiful face of Akhenaten that put out tentacles to my imagination. A strange confession from a feminist poet.” Akhenaten got under Porter’s skin. Just as Akhenaten tells a story of obsession, so too, Porter’s work is an obsession with the man himself. Porter uses a number of poems to tell of Akhenaten’s obsessive love for Aten, his heretical decisions to oust the rest of the Egyptian pantheon, his love of Nefertiti and for his children. By the end of the novel his obsession has soured everything he touches and everything he has loved leading to incest, distrust and failure as the Hittites advance.
Porter claimed that Akenaten refused to let her go. By the last poem, some of that emotional overspill gets to you;
the workmen of the new king
have arrived with chisels
they have orders
to cut down my city
and cut out my name
but Rameses can’t cut down the Sun
or cut out all the birds
in the dawn sky
who call and call
and teach it to their
Their wings ripple about my ears
in raucous rainbows.
Their eyes are pestering white prisms.
Why does eternal life
make us so ravenous?
Though not as immediately unique as The Monkey’s Mask, or as thematically interesting as What a Piece of Work, like all of Porter’s verse novels, Akhenaten gets better and better with rereads. What a dreadful loss to the literary world that Porter died so young.
Akhenaten: 4/5 inky stars
NB: This review was written as part of the Novels in Verse 2013 Reading Challenge