let me tell you
Hastings, East Sussex: Reality Street Editions, 2008
She is like the rest of us; we all have no more than the words that come to us in the play. We go on with these words. We have to.
So the king prefaces let me tell you, an ode to Ophelia, whose limited vocabulary as Shakespeare allots her in Hamlet—481 distinct words—forms the toolkit for Paul Griffiths’s autobiographical exercise. Avid ECM listeners will have caught a glimpse of this language via there is still time, wherein his own recitations of similarly restricted poetry are the moon to cellist Frances-Marie Uitti’s sun and prove that the conceit is not a restriction at all, but rather a microscope’s mirror throwing light on that which might otherwise be left to inference. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius, are the main specimens on her slide, and Shakespeare himself the dye that imparts context.
The story begins with a concession to concessions. Ophelia speaks, and speaks of speaking. Her call to speech is musical: like music, an act in the fullest sense, moving to rhythm of grass and herb.
This is like being one of my own observers, but with no powers over what is observed.
She remembers her birth, but muses upon the art of memory as gift bestown over keep earned. She sees, or rather hears, her father in the cadence of his anticipation, connecting sole to stone as amniotic darkness readies itself to break light around her.
False memory may speak, I find, as well as true. I have to know the difference.
The sounds are immaterial, as true in origin as lies. Father’s feet fade into alliteration, his face alive with death. As it is, we come to realize that it is not her birth after all, but her brother’s—pulled from in to out by the dimples of Achilles. The maid sings of tears and roses, equates tears and roses with glass, and frets them to the consistency of wet paper. The maid sounds herself only through singing. Otherwise,
She would look down at us and say nothing—say nothing but look and look, harsh with love.
The face as medium: it knows of love beyond the bounds of her charge, carries it through the yeast of her other half, percolating through the dough of secret passion until it crackles like a finely browned crust that all but burns eager hands. She is a character of vocal shadows. The young siblings take this challenge as a game, and spin from it a fiber they can only hope will survive the distance she puts between herself and them as she follows her nose to a kitchen beyond the mountain.
The flowers come and go, but leave a trail of their scent. With the mark of a pansy, the pollen and blood of it smeared across the hands, it changes from solid to liquid in the blink of a written eye. The iris materializes on her arm, a curiosity in relief, a sisterly longing temporarily branded.
And there is the sun, and there is the mountain: all where we are is in an ecstasy of expectation.
From this fragile experience, the winds of which linger in curls from a photo tinter’s brush, she knows the value of intimacy within bounds, the buzz of the almost-was. And in fact, beauty is never an indulgence here. It flits in and out of touch, floats in musings on music, and comports itself loosely in the presence of bodies and minds.
Here all is still, still as night. We do not have the joy of music.
Thus the melody of language, inherent as crickets to midnight, also reveals a dream: the wish for something to give up, for the choice to do so. The father looms, bearded but not, lavishing brother and sister with warm breath. In them pools reflect the stories of his travels, and they too tremble and distort those memories with every telling. Words come verily, jumping gaps shallow and deep. It is the battler’s tale, wrapped in water and set adrift, farther to sea than any memory might have been.
Here is an Ophelia whose childhood resembles a stained glass window. Each section is its own color. Some are uniform and almost transparent, others milky and swirled, but they cohere at once-molten boundaries. Anxieties surround the maid who spent so much of her time with the siblings. Her absence is fraught. She is home, lost to the whim of another relationship in an empty life. But the maid returns with something dour, her actions choreographed to royal step. In them are mirrors for the end-aware glance of a sick girl.
But do I long for death and not know it? Is this what my words tell me?
A play within a play, performance at Polonius’s beck and call. Behind its curtain stretches the actor of death, the rise and fall of death. Ophelia questions her remembrance of the stage, but in the asking answers the conundrum that is the root of her. She knows quietude equals harmony.
The after reads into the before. This she admits. Drawing a name from the play and the fortress, she twists a mock fiber of reality from the shavings of fiction and holds to her bosom the flowers that will end her.
We discover her need for flowers, a trip over the mountain by a path startlingly seen. She meets the maid’s daughter, whose animosities are at once vague and clear. This daughter becomes an anti-Ophelia, a mirror-Ophelia, an other-Ophelia in one. She glares and resists, pushes the girl into our capture, from which the only escape is a dip.
It’s cold. My eyes weep.
Those same eyes see profundity incarnate, wrapped in glass and splashed through the atlas of openness that is her heart. A visitation, a spark and a candle, fearful and awed. Her memory unfolds one morpheme at a time, a hand-game shielded by paper pyramids and children’s scrawl. Her memory looks back to the shadows. It pulls the oxcart of the present, heavier with distance and jangling with a litany of bells.
She grows into an awareness that constricts her, even as it opens those eyes beyond where light may reach. Hers is the desire for visions and valences. The unkempt window, cobwebbed and secure, frames it all in quadrants. Music waits like fatality, a game played only once and which leaves a trail of mimics until the temptation to lose overcomes. Strategies are windows of a different sort. They facilitate emotional insight, forming bonds that would never have been without competition.
With music, thank God, you cannot speak.
Behind the façade of affection beats the drum of fate, and Laertes follows his along a divergent path. This, Ophelia would seem to know—if not then, then ever more. She was the one who let go of his hand, that it might transcend the arras of his brokenness. It is written on her skin.
I wish he had been well more of the time, says Ophelia of her father, whose letters adhere to her. She remembers the words as if they were her own (as of course they are). Not only are his eyes weak, but also his denials. Yet she remembers his time in uniform during a time that was not uniform. Since then his speech has become his synecdoche. I do not know what I would do without him.
Her mother: the italicized she. Notorious indifference and depravity of the one who neither listens nor reads, yet has no compunctions in letting the children know what goes on in her chambers. Mother shares these details, imposes them upon daughter, to ensure that power and separation are one and the same. And the suitors don’t stop there. They have eyes for the younger.
She had made it so that I could not believe my own memory.
Sharing is a double-edged blade: one side run with the blood of the unavoidable turn, the other licked clean by bedroom trysts. She must hide these things. Her father cannot know, though his eyes implore. In his absence, mother calls her close and opens the floodgates of illogic. The vessel of that deluge is as quiet as her motive, and sands away the grit of intangible things.
She was a length of hell.
But then she is gone. The sister bids good riddance. The brother inquires.
Hamlet appears pronominally, as nature and nurture wrapped into one. His presence has long since faded, though abstractly it flickers in and out of sense. Ophelia fishes his limpid brain, but comes up short every time. Into her chamber the boy steals and, along with her brother, ganders what he cannot ever have. There is a lack of affection in Hamlet’s past that speaks to the dwindling nature of her own. The cloak of yearning frays at last when Hamlet takes an education. Words hang from his tongue like raindrops at the tips of leaves.
Without music it means nothing. Without music it could make me fear.
Polonius wanders into the background, but ties a string to Ophelia’s finger ere exeunt. In light of this, she hopes the hearts of both men will see her silhouette and marvel. And when the young man swoons as if in the plays he attends, she closes the light around herself and wonders what brought her here.
The play is not still: it becomes something.
She is aware of the theater. Loves the theater, insofar as she knows her lines. And so we jump into a mise-en-abyme…only it’s not, for we have the ending already in grasp. The trio—father and children—takes a comedic bow.
Praying to a God she knows to be absent, she supplicates a mountain away from the kingdom, calculates in her heart the mathematics of foretelling. How can she not doubt the music of life, when all it amounts to is silence?
Now there is no eye on us, and the night goes on without end.
Yet silence can be an act of kindness, of a love so deep it cannot be defined—as when Laertes throws himself into manhood at the arm of a pretty young thing or two. Unlike their mother, he locks his tingling away from the girl, who wonders still about what is over. When she confronts him on it, the answer is morbid, final.
There is a change in the brother. His person shines.
In this erotic turn, speech becomes excitement, contact, and self-realization.
In my heart as in yours there is no doubt:
What reason then, my love, not to come out?
A letter to the curtain, behind which the body thrums. A time when mouths open—not to speak but to sing.
Sun burns away the flesh of pretense, leaving skeletons of passion to rest on the hills. Glass weeps with light.
there is no difference for me.
The difference is love: they make the night as the night makes them. Togetherness blossoms like those pansies by the path, now overgrown beyond recognition. The weeds are quills in the playwright’s hand, flung one after another until the inkwell runs dry. The hand will open, say nothing, and drop. It cracks a door to tragedy.
Last night I made up my mind: I must go.
The young lord has left her to the darkness. Death is no longer the correct term. If only there was remembrance to tell her father and brother what they cannot know, they might respond. Their tears will tell enough.
Ophelia in the castle, hands on knotted ore, seeks the king and in him lays the infant of her choice.
There’ll be no remembrance of you here. It will be as if you had never been. The effect of O.
“O” is all that I am. Through the portal, a ring on a finger left in the forge’s keep. The knob turns at my touch. For as long as the snow powders the earth like the face of another, I will linger here, a trace and a scent. If crowds should gather and resurrect me a million times, only to throw me and my vocabulary into the abyss of plot development, so be it. I have said my piece, and the piece has said me.
If there is anything to be found in these images, it is a version of ourselves. The pathos of life is clearest when the means are limited. They express changes in light. The text begins to take on an anatomy: shoulders, hearts, tongues, and arms all fit together in changing combinations. Quotidian essentials like food and children’s games become a linguistic game to best capture the essence of nonexistent fare. Words become names, and names objects. The color green is at once generative, sinful, and divine.
To be sure, these parameters are fascinating but in the end imply something greater than the sum, if not also the subtraction, of their parts. Just as we can forever impose shapes on the water vapor we call “cloud,” also infinite is the potential of the graph we call “letter.”
By the time we have read this Ophelia, she has already read us.
(Paul Griffiths is a music writer, novelist, poet, and librettist whose liner notes can often be found gracing ECM New Series booklets. To read excerpts from let me tell you, click here.)